The following interview appeared in the October, 2010, issue of First Draft, the newsletter put out by the Sisters in Crime Guppies Chapter. Special thanks to my interviewer, Ann Charles, and the First Draft editor, Susan Evans, for allowing me to reprint the piece in full here.
THE TEACHER’S EDITION
After-School Sessions with Our Favorite Teachers—by Ann Charles
Hello, everybody. I’ve set out to interview some of my favorite writing teachers and learn more about them as teachers, not just as authors.
Today, I’m staying after class to talk with: Ramona Long
Ramona works as an independent editor, specializing in mystery novels and short stories, and teaches workshops on all aspects of writing. She’s a member of Sisters in Crime, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Delaware Literary Connection, the Hillendale Farm Critique Group and is an honorary member of The Written Remains writing group.
Ramona is a native of south Louisiana and a graduate of LSU. She’s lived in Delaware for nearly 12 years but finds much of her fiction goes back to her wild and wacky roots in Cajun land.
Okay, let’s get down to business.
ANN: From an editor’s point of view, what do you believe is the biggest problem for writers when it comes to creating a sellable manuscript?
RAMONA: First off, my philosophy as an editor is to help writers create readable stories, not sellable ones. I never try to tell a writer what to write. That being said, I will state this: Both readers and publishers want stories that are different and special. I see many manuscripts that are technically perfect, but without the “it” factor that makes it unique. There is nothing overtly wrong with the story, but nothing jumps out from the page and screams, “You MUST read me!”
Uniqueness is hard to define. Sometimes it comes through voice; sometimes it’s a memorable character; sometimes it’s a situation. This is difficult to teach, because it’s esoteric. I’d advise a writer to look at a WIP and ask, What about my story is different from every other story? What different perspective can I, and only I, bring to the table? How can I highlight and promote the “it” of my story?
I will also point out that a strong voice is probably the greatest hook in any story. Create an engaging narrative voice, and you are one foot in the reader’s door.
ANN: What clues show that a manuscript is unpolished and/or amateur?
RAMONA: It’s said over and over again, because it is true, that what often kills a story is backstory. An author’s need to explain the protagonist’s entire life in chapter one reeks of inexperience. Background gives depth and meaning to a story, but it can come in good time. “Move it, don’t lose it” is the way to think about backstory in opening pages. When the urge hits to stop the narrative flow and explain the past, ask yourself if the reader must know this NOW. If not, save it for later, when it doesn’t interrupt action.
Problems with the writing itself include overuse of adverbs; not trusting “said” to do the job in dialogue tags; passive voice; overwriting or repetitive writing. These are common errors that demonstrate a lack of trust in the reader to interpret and/or a writer’s lack of confidence in his ability to convey what he means with a simple, straightforward narrative.
ANN: When asked to edit a novel for a mystery writer, explain your editing process after receiving the novel. Do you read it through once just to get a general feel for the story? Or do you line edit right out of the gate? Do you ask an author what he/she wants from you, or do you deliver a content edit as well as a line edit automatically?
RAMONA: There are different types of edits: line editing, copy editing, developmental (or content) editing. Most of what I do is developmental editing. That means a manuscript comes to me either as a full draft or a work in progress, and I tackle everything that should make the story work. This is the most intensive type of edit—and the most fun (for me) because I get to see the story grow. With line and/or copy edits, the goal is to make a manuscript technically clean and ready for submission.
I do ask for feedback from an author. I want to know their concerns and if they have some goal they’d like to achieve. If there’s a request from an agent or editor, I’d like to know that, too.
With a new client, I usually suggest we start with the first three chapters. I critique it, and we both decide if we will pursue a full project together. Having a novel edited is a big commitment, both financially and emotionally. Seeing what I do with three chapters prepares the writer for the full assault, if you will, of a fully edited manuscript.
My process is this: I read chapter by chapter, reading each chapter twice. First read is for content; in the second read, I insert comments. At the end of each chapter, I note what the chapter did, or did not, accomplish. My comments question story logic, point out what character’s actions tell me, or suggest additions or cuts. With mysteries, I’ll often guess at the killer or motive as I read. I do this because, if I can figure out the plot or whodunit by chapter 5, that’s a problem.
It’s important to note that, the story remains the author’s, not mine. My goal is to help make the story the best that it can be, but the authorial decisions ultimately fall in the writer’s hands. It’s your name on it, so I don’t try to change things to what I like or think should happen; I suggest changes to make YOUR story better.
ANN: Do you work with authors who plan to self publish, publish with a small press, or publish through an e-publisher?
I’m not tied to a publisher or agency, so I can work with anyone. Where a story goes after I have edited it is the author’s decision.
ANN: You now write once a week for a blog called Writers Who Kill. Lately, you posted an article which discussed the classic three act structure. Later, on your own website’s blog, you commented that you believe the three parts of the three act structure–Set-up, Conflict, Resolution–could be applied to the writing process, as well as to drama itself. How can these three parts be applied to the writing process?
RAMONA: For a lot of writers, the dramatic structure mirrors the writing and rewriting process. I often hear authors talk about their writing experience in this way: The beginning pages fly by. It’s great fun, there is little planning, everything falls into place and then around 100 pages, they hit a wall. That’s a reflection of Act I. The author is setting up the story. It’s full of promise and mystery, and no one (often including the author) is quite sure where it is headed.
The 100 page stop happens because, now that the set-up is complete, story logic kicks in. The story can’t just be entertaining; it also has to make sense. This is Act II, the Conflict. Things get more complex. The past and side characters become important. The momentum of the book slows down. This is the meat of the tale, and where authors get bogged down. The writing feels more like work than the free writing feeling of Act I. A lot of “pantser” authors break down and write an outline or note cards after the 100 page rush.
When the final part of the book is approaching, the Climax or Resolution, authors see the light at the end of the writing tunnel. Enthusiasm returns—sometimes too much. It’s easy for an Act III to feel rushed, because authors rush to the finish line. A quick denouement is not as satisfying as one that is paced and thoughtful, so an author has to make sure all the narrative loose ends are resolved.
Each writer has his own process; I like to use the Three Act Structure as a writing analogy because it’s familiar and comfortable. And because it works.
ANN: A short time ago, you taught a workshop at the Pennwriters Conference on the Basics of Mystery Writing with a subtitle of Decisions, Decisions. On your blog, you mentioned that your premise for that workshop is that a crime novel is, basically, a series of bad decisions. Please explain what you mean by this.
RAMONA: Pennwriters was a great conference. The premise of Decisions, Decisions is, as you noted, that a crime novel hinges on bad choices made by the major players in the story. First, the Bad Guy makes the decision to kill, kidnap, rob, maim. The motivation for that decision may seem like a good idea to the BG, be it revenge, desire, greed, or whatever—but the decision is going to be bad for the victim. Hopefully, by the end of the story, the BG will come to regret this decision and get his.
Bad decisions by the victim can be participating in the crime and ending up dead; foolishly or naively getting involved with a dangerous character (the BG); or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometime the only bad decision made by a victim is getting out of bed in the morning.
In a cozy, the protagonist gets involved in murder and mayhem, which is not natural—or a good idea. Who in their right mind goes about solving crimes without training or a paycheck? The sleuth is often driven by the desire to help someone, but to drive the plot forward, this well-meaning choice results in all sorts of nasty complications: physical danger; angry boyfriend/ex-husband/mother/cat; threats from the police for interfering. Nevertheless, the sleuth carries on with this foolish resolve because, if she doesn’t, we don’t have a story.
Finally, the investigating agencies in mysteries need to screw up. If all goes well too soon, the crime would be solved in chapter 2. This is why cops in mystery novels fall in love with suspects, arrest the wrong person, drink too much, misplace evidence, fall for obvious red herrings, and ignore the superior investigatory skills of the amateur sleuth—if the fictional police did their jobs perfectly and efficiently, we’d have no books to read.
ANN: When is the next workshop you are offering and what is the topic and location?
RAMONA: At this time, I don’t have any workshops on my schedule. (Ack! How did that happen?) I do have a public reading on the horizon, and I’d like to pitch a flash fiction class to the local arts alliance. In March of this year, I was the guest speaker at the Pittsburgh SinC Chapter’s weekend retreat. I would love to do another group retreat.
ANN: List three of your favorite writing self-help books—can be craft- or promotion-related. (For example, Chris Roerden’s book, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission; or J.A. Konrath’s free book, A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing.)
RAMONA: Three? Seriously, only three? If you’d see my reference bookcase, you’d understand the difficulty of this! For craft, I like the “Write Great Fiction” series from Writer’s Digest Books, particularly Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell. For looking at story through a writer’s POV, I loved Francine Prose’s personable and thought-provoking Reading Like a Writer. For promotion, I am finding Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer to be helpful in understanding the changing landscape of marketing.
ANN: You have recently started a Facebook page called How Many Pages Did You Write Today? What prompted you to start this page and what is your mission or goal you hope to accomplish?
RAMONA: I started How Many Pages Did You Write Today? because my personal page was overrun by my cousins! I joined Facebook with the intention of networking with other writers. But I’m from south Louisiana and have a bazillion relatives. Many of them found and Friended me. (This is not a complaint. As long as I have cousins, I’ll have story material.) But one of my favorite things about being an editor is working with and encouraging new writers. There is so much about publishing that is hard and discouraging, and writers spend a lot of solo time. I decided to start HMPDYWT to help dispel some of the isolation. I chose to focus on productivity because it’s a common denominator. It doesn’t matter if you write fiction or non-fiction, for adults or juveniles, a word count or page count is something your fellow writers can understand and appreciate. I’d like to see everyone post daily and rejoice in what they’ve accomplished, or ask for support when they’re stuck. If you are reading this, please join!
ANN: You have been awarded a 2009 Individual Artist Fellowship as an Established Professional from the Delaware Division of the Arts in the Literature-Fiction category. What is this? What are the benefits of winning the literary grant award for you and your career? Can you use it in marketing and promoting yourself?
RAMONA: The IAF I received last year was actually my fourth grant; I received one in 2002 from the DDOA, plus grants from the Pennsylvania State Arts Council and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. (How’s that for promoting myself?) The IAF program is meant to highlight and promote the work of artists within a state or region. In Delaware, the award includes cash support at various levels. My 2002 award of $2,000 was as an Emerging Artist; last year, I was acknowledged as an Established Artist in Fiction, and my grant was $6,000. The award included opportunities to give workshops and public readings, be listed on artist registries and participate in art events statewide. In addition to the support for my project—a collection of connected short stories I plan to market to a small literary press—the award is a public validation from an agency whose purpose is to advance art and artists.
I consider a fellowship as a combination of opportunity and obligation. In Delaware, we are required to give a public performance of our work. To fulfill this requirement, I and two other IAF recipients gave a joint reading at a local tavern said to be haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe. After we read from our grant projects, we invited guests to share their work through an open mic session. It was a terrific reading with an eclectic audience: Delaware’s poet laureate attended, high school students and college kids read, area writers and personal friends showed up.
For promotion, the DDOA has set up a website with pages for each IAF recipient. I use this as a reference for clients and when I submit my work, I include the award in my credits. It’s a meaningful addition to my professional resume.
The obligation part means I support the mission of the DDOA and promote the work of other Delaware artists in every way that I can. I attend and post info on readings on my Facebook page and website. I have written blog posts about how to write an effective Artist Statement and grant application. I give testimonials to arts groups about what grants have meant to my career. I encourage artists to apply for grants because the process alone—crafting an artistic statement that defines your personal goals as a writer, developing a professional bio, polishing a submission for the judge—is beneficial and worthwhile.
ANN: In addition to editing writers’ work, you are a writer yourself with some books already published. What would you say has been the most beneficial promotion or marketing tool you have used to build your name recognition to both fellow professionals and readers?
RAMONA: I’m in the unique position of living and writing in a very small state, with an active community of artists. I attend public readings and open mics, and like to participate. I think my recognition factor goes up every time I read in public, and I get invited to read because I obviously enjoy it. The instant response from the audience is both educational and gratifying. If you are ever unsure if a section of writing is becoming dry, read it aloud to an audience. Rapturous attention tells you the pacing is working; squirming and glazed looks tells you to cut!
That being said, for someone who needs to draw in both readers and editing clients, I’m not wholly comfortable with aggressive BSP. For that reason, a website and Facebook are good tools for me, because there is the divide of the screen. I belong to professional organizations and participate in their Yahoo groups. I created a Facebook group. I bring postcards to workshops. I comment on blogs and quid pro quo with guest bloggers.
I think the artist and the promoter are two different personas, but one can’t survive without the other, can they? I’ve learned to expand my comfort zone to reach out to readers and clients, and try not to be obnoxious about it.
Ramona enjoys hearing from readers, writers, and everyone in between. Feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also read more about Ramona on her website: https://ramonadef.wordpress.com/.
Thank you, Ramona, for sharing your time with all of us Guppies; and thanks to all of you Guppies for reading along! If any of you have a particular “teacher” you would like me to interview, please email me with his or her name and any other helpful information.
Until the next after-school session…
2010 Daphne du Maurier Award Winner
Ann Charles is an award-winning author who writes romantic mysteries that are splashed with humor. She recently won the 2010 Daphne du Maurier for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. A member of Sisters in Crime, the Guppies, and Romance Writers of America for many moons, she has a B.A. in English with an emphasis on creative writing from the University of Washington. She is currently toiling away on her next book while her agent works on selling her manuscripts. When she is not dabbling in fiction, she is penning writing-related articles or standing on her workshop soapbox, sharing what she has learned over the years about the craft and self-promotion. Visit her at www.anncharles.com, or read her weekly mom-related antics at www.plotmammas.com.
You can also find her at http://www.1stturningpoint.com, where she and over two dozen other authors, reviewers, and PR consultants have joined together to teach and share (and learn from each other) all sorts of great information about promotion for both unpublished and published authors.
She lives near Seattle with her clever husband, charming children, and one incredibly sassy cat.