Free First-Page Critique (Limited Time Offer)


Image by Lucas Turnbloom


I’ve often talked here about writing: story structure, character development, conflict, action, dialogue, revision, editing—the elements of craft and style. Now I’m going give you a taste of how editorial review works. By giving you the chance to submit the first page of your manuscript for critique here on the blog.

Here’s the deal:

I’m teaming up with my friend Meg Gardiner (Edgar award-winning author) to offer up to five people a first-page critique. Meg is an author and has taught writing courses at the University of California and workshops in the US, England, and Europe. I have also taught fiction writing, at the University of California San Diego Extension program as well as in writing workshops in the US. I’m also a veteran journalist, newspaper editor, experienced freelance editor, and writing coach.

Here’s how it works:

Submit the first page of your manuscript—400 words maximum. Meg and I will choose 1-5 submissions from the first 20 entries submitted. We post the selected entries along with our critiques both here and on Meg’s blog, Lying for a Living.

If you want to participate, email Meg the first page of your manuscript.

Email your first page in the body of the email. That means: don’t send it as an attachment. Put the text in the email.

Send it to:

Subject line: CRITIQUE [Title]

We’ll post critiques of the chosen pages anonymously on our blogs. The writers’ names will not be posted. However, readers will be able to comment on each post, and if the author wants to jump in and identify him or herself, that will be fine.

Who’s in?

Editors: Compliments Are Few. It’s No Life for the Needy


I was complimented today. Why doesn’t matter. It was sort of a toss-off compliment, but heartfelt nonetheless, I believe. What struck me most was the realization that I rarely get compliments. Oh, I get them from my husband; they are frequent and joyfully received. But in life, in general, compliments aren’t generally tossed out like beads at a Fat Tuesday parade. People tend to be circumspect, stingy even, with compliments. I don’t know why. It’s not like you have to pay for them!

Especially as a freelance editor, compliments are few and far between. I accept that repeat work from my clients is the greatest form of compliment. But I realized today that if a person needs regular positive feedback, the life of a freelance editor isn’t for them.

I rarely miss a deadline, and when I do, it’s typically not my fault. (Simple fact. Project managers fall behind, and try as I might, I can’t catch up. But that’s rare…the inability to catch up, not PMs falling behind.  Despite obstacles laid in my path, I power through on weekends and late into the night to meet deadlines.)

Rarely does my extra effort result in acknowledgement, however, other than, “When will the next chapters be ready?” or something of that sort. I certainly never get a bonus at the end of the year, or regular incentives.

More often, I’m informed that rates are going down, due to yet another downturn in the economy, so freelancers (while vital to the publishing industry) will not receive the pay they currently receive. Hey, I accept that. I’ve chosen this career, and I have no illusions. Though vital, freelance editors are a “dime a dozen,” even the great ones.

But, I readily admit, it was nice to get that compliment! I read it and reread it and grin. It’s like an unexpected gift.

Remember that when you work with your editors, writers. Please. Editors are like dentists. We might cause pain, but ultimately, you are better off because of us! Be aware that compliments go a long way in the heart of an editor.


Editing: Joy or Challenge


Editing can be a joy or a challenge. I’ve worked with several unpublished writers with whom my relationship has been nurturing and excellent. They have been willing learners and I’ve seen great improvement in their writing as we worked together.

And then there have been the challenges. Some writers think their writing is so good that no editor is needed, but others know that they should get an editor…they just don’t understand the role of the editor. As I explain immediately, I am part cheerleader and part trail guide. I will cheer them as they write, but I will also guide them on the path to improve their writing.

I’m a writer. I understand writers’ egos. We bleed over our writing. Every word is precious. I get it. And I think that’s what makes me a good editor. I know the pain of word-birth.

Two weeks ago a “writer” contacted me out of the blue. He said he’d been working on his manuscript for many months and wanted to work with a writing mentor. He’d seen my profile on an editing website and thought I had the skills he needed. I offered to read and assess his manuscript, which he assured me his friends had read and loved.

I should have known to walk away at that moment. Still, I cautioned him that an editor reads differently than friends read, and said that he shouldn’t expect simple applause from me. If applause was due, I’d certainly give it, but I was also going to read to find ways to improve the book, if it needed improvement. That’s the purpose of the assessment read. He assured me that he understood.

Well, he wrote decent sentences, but the story and plot needed a great deal of work, and his characters were cookie-cutter, trite and stereotypical. I broke this to him with great diplomacy, but he fought me every inch of the way, arguing about why he had written as he had–and anyway, he’d fashioned his character on Tom Cruise’s interpretation of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, so such characters do exist.

Gently, I tried to explain that I think he had a good idea, but that he needed to delve more deeply into the characters, to develop their motivations and plausibility. It’s nice to have a character from the hero’s past who will show up and clear away bodies, and another who will show up and patch up his wounds, both with no questions asked, but other than being super-useful to the writer, how do these characters figure into the story? (I was much more diplomatic than that in my assessment and the 40 subsequent emails we had.)

Ultimately, he decided he couldn’t work with me. His friends had loved what he’d written, and they didn’t have to ask so many questions about who people were and why they did what they did. And, furthermore, who was I to question his grammar? He’d run the thorny sentences through a grammar checker online and had been assured his grammar was fine.

Heck, I’m just an editor. What do I know?

i_hate_heart_editors_mugs-r1d5b445e31e64db98e01cca4e085618a_x7j1l_8byvr_512After numerous, increasingly argumentative, emails, I was more than willing to call quits on our nascent relationship. He was simply going to be ore trouble than he was worth. I wasn’t ready to debate every point (and had given him my willing permission to accept or decline every assessment comment I’d made). We parted company, with him declaring that he had actually made many of the changes I had suggested, and was thinking about many of the story points I’d highlighted. I said if he needed my help in the future, I was here.

After two weeks, I requested payment for the assessment (which I usually ask for up front, before delivering said assessment). He refused. Said he thought my feedback was crap, and anyway, HE was assessing ME, and decided he didn’t want to work with me. So, he wouldn’t pay.

Excuse me? I’m not sure what planet he lives on, but I hope publishing is different there, because he’s never going to get published here on Earth. Unless he self-publishes, which is his only possibility.

Chalk this one up to “lessons learned.” Stick to my rules, and obey when the little voice in my head shouts, “Run!”

Lowering the Bar in Editing?


It’s the way of the publishing world, I hear. Not only for smaller publishers, but also for venerated ones.

Never mind the rules: if the author is consistent, then follow the author’s lead.

I want to scream.

I have worked so hard through the years to attain a high level of editing knowledge and expertise, in a variety of styles (Chicago, Oxford, MLA, APA, AP, etc.), and now so many of the rules of style are being ignored.

I don’t know why, but we editors are being told to “follow the author’s lead,” even if not strictly correct. I’m currently editing a book written using UK spelling, but U.S. punctuation. What the heck? Why the combination?

I’m not sure if this is a matter of convenience (most publishers don’t have a large in-house editorial staff any more), or lack of knowledge. All I know for certain is that the editors I worked with early in my freelance editing career were task masters who demanded that I know the rules of style inside and out. Today, those editors are being told by their publishers that such adherence isn’t necessary.


This wouldn’t affect me so strongly, I suspect, if I weren’t so aware of how pathetic writing skills have become, particularly in journalism. Only today I came across the line, “A person may have ran through the school slashing or puncturing students with a knife or other sharp object, according to early reports cited by The Associated Press.” 

“May have ran”? Where is this reporter’s editor? And this isn’t an isolated incident. Daily, I read news items with rampant spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors. These aren’t just symptomatic of online journalism, either. I believe that people simply don’t know the rules, and don’t care.


I’ve heard the argument that language is a living entity, and must change with the times. Baloney. Why are the rules now no longer sufficient or important? What has changed in the past few decades, besides less-knowledgeable editors and/or teachers/professors?

What gripes me is the change in long-standing rules: it is apparently okay to start a sentence with “And” now (CMOS says so; see my sentence in the paragraph above), and end any sentence a preposition with. As far as parallel construction and noun/verb agreement, well, and then who care?

My poor friend Meg Gardiner listens to my rants on a daily basis when we IM. She’s long suffering, and regularly advises me to breathe deeply or take a long walk when my blood pressure goes up. I love writing! I admire good writing. There are guidelines for powerful writing that should be followed. (As shown here, the rules from Elmore Leonard):


I’m not just being a fuddy-duddy about this. Yes, I love the rules of the language, and think English is perhaps the perfect language, with its incredible pedigree derived from other languages. But it’s more than that.

As an editor, it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what is right. It was hard enough to decide whether I was wearing my US or UK English hat, but now I have to decide whether I’m wearing my by-the-rules hat or off-the-cuff hat. It’s my job to make the reader’s experience as enjoyable as possible, by making the writing as clear as possible. This is becoming increasingly more difficult.

As Freddie Mercury so famously sang: I think I’m going slightly mad!


Disturbing the Universe


I am, and have long been, a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle (d. 2007). Most people know her as the author of A Wrinkle in Time.


I discovered her through the Time series, and later through the Austin Family series, as a child.


As an adult, I read her numerous books on faith with great interest. She was an Episcopalian, a woman of strong faith and convictions, but a woman who wrote: Do we have the right to impose our own religious beliefs, from no matter which direction they come, on the rest of the world? I don’t think so.

If you haven’t yet read her speech on “Disturbing the Universe,” I highly recommend it. It’s available on Kindle for less than $2, I think. If you have read it, perhaps you won’t mind a refresher on her thoughts about writing.

The stories she cared about, wrote L’Engle, “the stories I read and reread, were usually stories which dared disturb the universe, which asked questions rather than gave answers.


“I turned to story, then as now, looking for truth, for it is in story that we find glimpses of meaning.”

She goes on, “But how apologetic many adults are when they are caught reading a book of fiction! They tend to hide it and tell you about the ‘How-To’ book, which is what they are really reading. Fortunately, nobody ever told me that stories were untrue, or should be outgrown, and then as now they nourished me and kept me willing to ask the unanswerable questions.”

Think about the stories you read when you were younger, either one-reads or those multiple-reads. Why did they enchant you? intrigue you? embrace your imagination? Did they open new thoughts to you, as well as expose you to new worlds?

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few sources of information left that is served up without the silent black noise of a headline, the doomy hullabaloo of a commercial. It is one of the few havens remaining where a [person’s] mind can get both provocation and privacy.”

L’Engle wrote adult fiction as well as children’s fiction, but I think her most powerful fiction was that written for children. For it was there that she opened my mind, and exposed me to new ideas, and allowed me to grow in the safety of her pages.

“I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the reader ask questions. and every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.”

Is disturbing the universe a bad thing? I don’t think it is. Without such disturbances, we become zealots, I think, convinced that we have all the answers and that everyone else should believe as we do. And zealotry is NEVER a good thing. As writers, we must be willing to shake up our own universes if we are to continue to nurture our readers. Entertainment is one of the main goals of fiction, of course, but that entertainment should also offer the opportunity for growth, I think, both for the writer and for the reader.

“Writing fiction is definitely a universe disturber, and for the writer, first of all. My books push me and prod me and make me ask questions I might otherwise avoid. . . . I have a pretty good idea of where the story is going and what I hope it’s going to say. And then, once I get deep into the writing, unexpected things begin to happen, things which make me question, and which sometimes really shake my universe.”

Shake your universe. Grow from your writing, and write with the intention of allowing your readers to grow. Shake their universe: ask the hard questions, and prompt them to ask more.

In Defense of Editors

I’m an academic book editor, a fiction editor, and a writing coach. Most people have only the vaguest idea of what I do. Some suspect that I must be an expert in all fields in order to edit all the academic books I edit. Not exactly. I leave the expertise to the authors, and it’s my job to make sure that their expertise is rendered in a way that can be comprehended by the educated reader.

For my fiction clients, I offer writing expertise in the form of editing, and as a writing coach, where I am part guide and part cheerleader, encouraging them in their endeavors, but also showing them how best to achieve story.

My academic dissertation writers tend to have confused ideas about what I offer. One client sends me her manuscript and protests that her mentor says it isn’t ready for publication. She asks me to fix it. I, of course, decline, stating that since it’s her PhD, she should be the one to write the darn thing!

Another PhD client wants me to take an “ax” to his prose, help him to hone it. That, I am happy to do. But, I’ll highlight the problem areas; I won’t fix them. Again, that’s his job, not mine. Once he has made the edits, I will “fix” the manuscript, but the thoughts and progression of ideas must be his.

Think of it like this. A copy editor cleans up the text, she doesn’t create it. As John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun writes in regard to copy editors:

“Think of a copy editor as a parent trying to clean up a teenager’s room. You open the door and, God above, there are discarded articles of clothing on every surface. You start to dig in and discover dirty plates, some with unconsumed food on them; notes and uncompleted homework assignments; still more malodorous articles of clothing, along with the unspeakable sheets; and, under the bed, dust bunnies the size of tumbleweeds.

“The basic function the copy editor performs, in all circumstances, is cleanup. We regularize the punctuation, correct the misspellings and typos, fix lapses in grammar and usage, untangle knotted syntax, and the like. And in public perception, that’s about it; we are essentially proofreaders, and we can keep our opinions about the prose to ourselves. (Some writers share that perception.)”

But, that’s not all that editors do. Not every copy editor is a glorified proofreader:

“But copy editors who are allowed to edit do more. They are not merely hauling the teenager’s dirty clothes down to the laundry room; they are putting the room to rights.

“Proper copy editing includes examining the focus, dredging the main point up from the tenth paragraph to make it more prominent. Proper copy editing addresses the language: rooting out cliches, substituting an ordinary term for jargon when it would serve the reader better, altering infelicitous wording. Proper copy editing prunes, deleting the irrelevant, tightening the language. Proper copy editing raises serious questions, including the kind that can identify plagiarism, fabrication, and libel.”

In defense of copy editors against writers who say editors have a pathogenic need to spoil the written text, Dick Margulis writes:

“Typically they do what publishers ask them to do. Publishers have style guides, most of which are crotchety and old and full of zombie rules and are sacrosanct because they were written by someone long gone and long forgotten but revered nonetheless. Managing editors are bureaucratic functionaries responsible for moving the project along, not necessarily skilled editors or people knowledgeable about linguistic subtleties, and they require the copyeditors they assign to follow the style guide as written, not quibble about zombie rules. Publishers see copyediting as a low-level mechanical function, and they don’t pay well for it, so there really is not time available for copyeditors to give serious consideration to doing more than they’re being paid to do. However, what they’re paid to do is mark up the manuscript to note everything questionable and let the author and the managing editor make the final call on which changes to make and which to stet. Blame the publisher, not the poor copyeditor.”

To Margulis, I say, “Amen!”

I love my job, but it’s a tough one, especially since my clients include numerous different publishing houses, each with their own set of style guides that supersede the Chicago Manual of Style, the APA, or the Oxford Style Guide, to name the top three I know and use. I edit in US and UK English, which means knowing spelling, phrasing, spelling, and grammar rules of both. Some days, I feel like a multiple-personality editor, unsure of how to spell my own name!

I leave the last words about editors to McIntyre:

“The blunt truth is that most people, and that can include many academics, are not very good writers. Their prose needs the basic cleaning up, but it also needs the clarification, the sharpening and pruning. The sad truth is that many professional writers are not particularly good at it either, and I can speak from the experience of one who has dealt with the prose of hundreds of professional journalists. As my former colleague Rafael Alvarez once said after a stint on the metro desk, ‘Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked.'”

Art Inspires Art


Last night, I watched “Cirque du Soleil, Worlds Apart,” a gorgeous film by James Cameron, in which scenes from the various Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas are blended together in a sparse narrative, culminating in the most entrancing last thirty minutes. It was a feast for the eyes, and yet, was also a challenge to me.

Watching this, and seeing not only the performances, but trying to understand who created the images and choreography, and how they came up with the ideas…well, it all made my life seem so passionless, so hum-drum, so run-of-the-mill. Who thinks of these things? And what is it about them that makes them think outside the box (or inside the cube, as in one scene)?


Even as I watched, I was battling with myself, chastising myself for feeling lesser-than, and challenging myself to reach for more. And then it struck me anew. That’s why it is so important for writers (and other artists) to immerse themselves in “the other.” Crime writers must read more than just crime novels. Watercolor artists must expose themselves to more than watercolors. Rock musicians must listen to more than rock music. Because, it is through exposure to other works of art that our own art can grow, expand, and continue to enchant.


I’m sure that the artistry of Cirque du Soleil has inspired millions of artists around the world: whether physical artists, musicians, dancers, choreographers, writers, painters, what have you. They are so innovative, distorting senses and space and dimensions…challenging the viewer to reach beyond the normal and embrace the new, the unexpected, the sideways.


I believe that it is only by challenging our daily view of life that we can grow: as humans and as artists.

When I was in grad school, and under the influence of something other than mere life, I wrote:

I think everyone in the world is exactly like I am,

And those who are different are just warped versions of the universal type,

Which is me.

Wow, I thought that was deep! What I know today is that we are indeed universal types, but ah, the differences! That is where the vision lies! It is this difference, each person’s unique way of seeing the world, of experiencing the everyday…this is what makes art!

That said, I am still simply amazed by the vision of the choreography and the artistry of the productions of Cirque du Soleil. It is, indeed, worlds apart.