The Grammar of Dialogue

(Original authors unknown, amalgamated from multiple memes and social media posts.)

“This is dialogue,” he said.

She whispered, “This is also dialogue.”

“Here is dialogue that got interrup–”

“This,” she added, “is a bit of dialogue split by a dialogue tag.”

“Here’s a complete sentence,” he said. “And this is a new sentence.”

“Here is some dialogue followed by an action.” She shrugged. “Now it’s a new sentence because the action separates the two parts of speech.”

“This is your daily, friendly reminder to use commas instead of periods during the dialogue of your story,” she said with a smile.

“Unless you’re following the dialogue with an action and not a dialogue tag.” He took a deep breath & sat back down after making the clarifying statement.

“However,” she added, shifting in her seat, “it’s appropriate to use a comma if there’s action in the middle of a sentence.”

“True.” She glanced at the others. “You can also end with a period if you include an action between two separate statements.”

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The Best Writing Advice I Ever Heard: Read 100 Books

In all the writer’s workshops and classes I’ve attended, in all the conversations I’ve had with successful writers, the best piece of writing advice anyone has ever given me, was this:

READ 100 books in whatever genre you wish to write in.

Really… 100.

Only after doing so, did I really understand why the author had said that.

All of the great artists of history have at least one thing in common: They first studied the masters, before becoming masters themselves.

And by “studied,” I do not mean “glanced at” or “looked at for a long time.” I mean “studied” – they examined how the artist used colors, how the brushstrokes were done, how faces were drawn, the “shape” of the central image, the materials used to create the image, etc.

If you want to truly excel at writing, and if you want to be a successful paid author whose work is read and enjoyed by people outside of your own family, your best path is to read and study the masters of your craft.

Do more than merely read them. Analyze and study how the writer created the work. Write down your analyses so you can review and compare them later. To use an analogy from the art world again… Look at the “brushstrokes,” and think analytically about the “overall image.”

Some of the things to look for while reading analytically include:

  • (Sub-)Genre: Which genre or sub-genre is the story? How is this (sub-)genre different from others that are similar to it? What basic genre elements are present? What is the order/pacing of those elements?
  • “The Numbers”: How many pages, chapters (include if there there is any epilogue/prologue), estimated number of words (letters across a page, multiplied times lines of text, divide that by five, multiply this times number of pages of text), illustrations, etc.?

screenshot_20200901-170600_write now44925256527528770..jpg

  • What POV was used? If omniscient, how much omniscience is the reader allowed to experience? If first- or second-person, how does the author show what takes place out of sight of the narrator? Is only one POV used throughout?
  • Characters:
    • How many characters are there (how many major characters, how many minor ones)?
    • How are they distinguished from one another?
    • What are their archetypes?
    • If characters are cultural or literary stereotypes, is it for comedic effect or another reason?
    • How they are described (physically and psychologically) and brought to life (how much detail is given for each of them, what foods they eat, their hobbies, etc)?
    • How are “good” characters made more/less “good” and likable vs. “bad guy” character?
    • How much time is spent describing characters/how much time are they “on screen/on stage” for the reader?
    • What kind of relationships they have with/to other characters?
    • What kind of lifestyles they live, what jobs they have?
    • What pets they have, if any, and how they relate to their pets (also: are the pets used to symbolize the characters’ traits in any way)?
    • Are there any aspects of the writing outside of the characters that are used to symbolize them and/or their character traits (such as a family crest with a snake for an evil character, a necklace with a cross for a religious character, a character who is destined to die pulls an ace of spades from a card deck, a painting on the character’s home of a person famous for being good/evil, etc)?


  • Scenes and Settings: What kind of setting is the story, how it is described, why that setting is better for the story than others might be, number of settings used, etc.
  • Plot:
    • What major plot points happen and when do they happen?
    • What plot devices are used (when, how introduced, what purpose for them…)?
    • When is each character and each plot device introduced in the plot arc?
    • How does each chapter begin & end (tone, is the reader left hanging mid-action, etc.)?
  • Statements/Theme: What is the theme of the story? Does the story make any social or other kinds of statement – i.e., does it have a moral or a lesson taught? (This is not necessary in every kind of story, but some sub-genres do have this as one of the unwritten rules of their stories.)
  • Tone:
    • How does the author create and maintain a mood: suspense, humor, reader interest, mystery, romance, etc?
    • How much sex/violence/mature material is used (if any)?
    • What kind of words & language are used (long/short sentences, little/lots of punctuation, colorful/plain words & terminology, idioms, colloquialisms, etc)?
    • How is comedy & humor used (if at all) in a non-humorous story, romance in a non-romantic story, and so on?
  • Show vs Tell: How does the author show the reader things without saying them straight out? For example, instead of saying “Bob was scared”, the author should say how Bob was trembling, breathing heavily, wide-eyed, etc. Instead of saying “the forest was scary,” the author should show that wind in the trees whispering strangely, branches seeming to grab for people, wolves howling, etc.

More on “Show vs Tell”:

  • What symbolism & foreshadowing, if any, is used? How, where, when? Is it symbolic or obvious?
  • Backstory/Descriptions: Most importantly, how does the author work descriptions and backstory without using obvious exposition and/or leaving the reader feel like they are being lectured at, and/or feeling like the story was rudely interrupted by the other information? Your writing should be smooth and flow comfortably. How do other authors achieve this?

For the first few dozen books, I took notes on everything. But I quickly discovered that it was impossible to analyze for ALL of these aspects at the same time. So I tried focusing on only a few of these criteria at a time. (This made it all the more important to read a full 100 books, as it turned out.) Reading all those books not only taught me to look for one of these criteria at a time, it taught me to see many of them as I read through books now. Reading so many of one genre also taught me that there is a formula for my intended genre, and that there can be SUB-genres within that overall classification, with their own specific requirements and rules.

For example, in most “Cozy Tea Mysteries,” the killer or villain of the book must appear anywhere by the end of the first three chapters, or at least have their name mentioned multiple times by that same point in the story. (Similarly, the killer in many hour-long “whodunit” TV crime shows tends to appear in the first ten minutes of the episode.) Most of the ones I read were told in the First Person POV, and a large number of them had female amateur detectives. The murder(s) tended to take place “off stage,” and gory & uncomfortable details were rarely used. There was almost never any sex scenes or excessive profanity. These criteria were not present every time, but they did tend to happen more often than not.

Some of these ideas were obvious by the time I was done with Book 20, but others didn’t become clear until I had finished Book 99.

So, yes… 100 books is a lot, but there’s a very good reason for the large number.


How to Analyze a Novel

Analyzing Novels and Short Stories

How to Critically Analyze a Book

9 Elements You’ll Find in Every Story

Analyzing Literature

How to Analyze Fiction

iWriterly Channel on YouTube

“Read Like a Writer”

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[Author’s Note: This bit of Cold War-era post-apocalyptic science fiction previously won the Carl H. Carlson Award for Best Short Story.]

The Lady sat at her desk, intent upon the work before her. Outside of her office, the ice-cold winds blew the poisoned dust through the afternoon blackness. Only the building walls stopped the wind from freezing the bare skin of her face. But even inside, she needed to wear a thick coat, hat, and gloves. She had another coat and scar resting on the back of a nearby chair. Whenever she went out, she wore them over the coat and clothes that she already had on. Compared to the outside cold, the office seemed rather warm, but the summertime frost continued to fight its way deeper and deeper into the room. The Lady had thought about having the few windows in her office boarded up to help keep out the cold, since there was nothing to look at outside, anyway — now that what had once been the deepest blackness of night had become the brightest light of mid-day. But the Lady had thought that boarding up the windows would only be a symbol to the people of her city that she was shutting out the harsh realities of life after the Great Death, and she felt that it was her responsibility to stay both symbolically and literally open to raw facts.

She was staring down at a list. Her head was in her hands as she tried to decide who would have to die so that the city could live. She saw the answer to the problem, but she kept averting her eyes from the names of the people she knew — names that would never again be on the list for sacrifices.

The door opened suddenly, and the NatGuard Comm burst into the room. The Lady turned away from her unpleasant duties and forced a cheerful tone as she addressed him, ancient traces of a British accent occasionally pushing through her now Americanized English.

“Hayyuh, Leftent, what’s the matter?”

“Forgive me for disturbing you, Your Ladyship,” he said, “but there are some strange men at the city gate. They’re armed and say they’re in charge of the city.”

“Sounds to me like someone should explain the laws of Nusiddy to ’em.” The Lady stood up and began to put on her outer coat.

“We’ve tried, Ma’m, but they won’t give up their weapons.”

“How many are there?”

“From what the different Posts can see, there’s only ten. They’re armed to the teeth. Every one of ’em has three guns or more.”

“How many killed on our side?” she asked gravely.

“None,” replied the NatGuard Comm. “They haven’t fired a shot.”

“Ten men? They haven’t shot anybody and they wanna take over the city? That’s… that’s… ridiculous!”

“Your Ladyship,” the NatGuard Comm said gravely, “they’re Eastern Soldiers.”

“Ah, crikers!” The Lady said under her breath as she quickly threw herself out the door.

Two NatGuard escorts were waiting for them as they hurried out of the building. The Lady was far ahead of the NatGuard Comm, and he had to run to keep up with her fast walk. As the Lady’s short legs stretched to their limit, her ancient sneakers somehow allowed her to keep her footing on the sheet of ice that people used as a road. The beam from the NatGuard Comm’s huge flashlight jumped back and forth across the blackness in front of them as they hurried past the few buildings between the Lady’s office and the city’s Main Gate.

Ahead of them, spotlights fought to shine through the ebony of noon and onto the men outside the gate. The Lady couldn’t have seen the light very easily had she looked up from the ground, since the blackness quickly smothered any light that tried to escape. Only when the light was almost on top of her did she notice it.

She looked through the Main Gate, which was actually just a small doorway, and she saw the ten men standing directly under the spotlight. Their clothes were so dirty and worn that they could barely be recognized as uniforms at all. The dirt and obvious wear was not limited to the clothes, but it also covered the men themselves. The little bits of their faces that were exposed to the deadly weather blended in with the filthy rags and remnants of uniforms that were rapped around them. Each of them held a rifle or a machine gun, and each of them had more than one extra gun at his side. The guns they carried were quite varied in appearance, and even the Lady, with her limited knowledge of weaponry, could recognize them all as American made. What intrigued the Lady most was that she couldn’t see any ammunition anywhere on them. While she would have expected to see some strapped across their shoulders or around their waists where it could be easily accessed in the case of a gunfight, there was none to see.

She smiled at them through the opening of the doorway. At first, her smile was like one a mother wears when she is very amused by her children, but she quickly changed it to a friendly, diplomatic smile.

“Hayyuh, Gentlemen,” she said. “Welcome to our little piece of civilization. I’m the organizer of this place and these people. This place’s called Nusiddy and I’m the Lady in Charge. C’n I ask who you all are?”

Without hesitating, one of the men took a stop away from the rest and bowed.

“How do you do?” he said, his voice filled with a gentle Slavic accent. “I am called Lieutenant Vladimir Parchenko, and this is Commander Tarkoff.” He motioned to a very rigid man standing just to his right and a bit behind him.

“How d’ you do?” The Lady had to call the words out from deep within her memory before she could get her mouth to say them. She fought to keep her wits about her and continued.

“I dunno if any of the NatGuards ‘ve told you, but the laws of Nusiddy strictly forbid anyone who is not a NatGuard or a Hunter from carrying weapons while inside the city. You can come in, but not with your guns or any other weapons that you may have. That includes bows-and-arrows, knives, and any other kind of blades. In order to enter the city, you have to leave your weapons with the GateGuards. You have my word that anything the GateGuards take will be given back to you in the same condition you turned it over, if you decide to leave the city fer good.”

There was a long awkward silence as the Lady waited for a reply to her speech. After the silence seemed to last too long, the Lady asked slowly, “Did you understand what I just said?”

The Lieutenant smiled kindly. “I understood everything you said. But I think that you are the one that does not understand. We now are the law of this city. I am…” He paused, as if searching for a word. “I am honored to be able to say that this city is now ruled by the people. In the name of the Eastern Republics and their allies, I say to you that..all people now here are free from the capitalist and imperialist forces which have been keeping them…prisoner these many years.”

“If it’s a choice of being ruled by capitalism and imperialism or neo-commie crapola—” one GateGuard began, but the Lady forcefully interrupted him.

“You say that this city is now ruled by the people. I’m afraid you’ll have t’ wait so that you can make that official. Everybody will have t’ be told that you’re freeing them from capitalistic imperialism. Then they can vote on whether or not they want you to free them.”

Parchenko was no longer smiling. “Do not change what I say! I hope you know that we have enough guns to kill you and all of your…NatGuards, too. I do not think that these people can make the right choice, since they have probably been told lies and made to believe them, even after your people began this insanity with your bombs.”

One of the GateGuards drew a rusty Ginsu kitchen knife from its makeshift scabbard on his belt. “We started this? You bombed us first, you black-marketeering bastard!”

He was furious and ready to single-handedly take on all ten men at the door, but the Lady held him back with only her voice.

“No!” she said quietly. “No one really knows who pushed the button first. Besides, there’s been ‘nough fighting.”

She turned her attention back to the Lieutenant. “If you had ‘nough amm’nition, you’d ‘ve done more than just stand outside the door trying t’ look pretty. The way I figger it, you’re either here for food, or you’re tryin’ t’ take us over t’ get revenge. As for your government, I don’t think they sent you. ‘Cause if by some chance there still is some kind of country over there that has some kind of government, I don’t think they’d send out a couple of handfuls of obviously starvin’ men, especially when those men could only scare the enemy and not do any real fightin’. I have t’ admit, I never thought much of your Republics or their allies, but even they have t’ know better than t’ try a stupid stunt like this. Now, I dunno ’bout you felluhs, but the warmest part uh me right now is just as cold as the air outside. You all may have on the kinds of clothes that can keep you warm, but I doubt even the warmest clothes can easily argue with takin’ this discussion inside.”

“That is a good idea, madam.” The Lieutenant motioned to the other soldiers and they started to walk into the city. But the Lady and her NatGuard stood between them and the door, and they had barely taken a few steps when the Lady threw her left hand high up toward the spotlights and held it frozen in midair.

Each soldier was suddenly the target of a dozen NatGuards. A handful of the NatGuards were ones that the soldiers had been able to see, but many more had stayed out of sight and pulled out whatever weapons they had in reply to the Lady’s signal. Some had guns, and others had long knives that served as swords, but most had bows with arrows cocked and ready to fight their way through the frozen winds. A few NatGuards were near the Lady, but more had surrounded the visitors.

Now the Lady smiled broadly. This time, she didn’t seem to try to hide her amusement. The Easterners had played out their hand and lost. Now she was almost certain to win. The soldiers had pulled such an awful and obvious bluff that she was positive they wouldn’t see through her own ruse. She smiled even wider as the soldiers were starting to show their fear. Even their Commander seemed to have been taken completely be surprise.

She kept her gloved hand motionless in the air. “I just have t’ throw my hand back down and my NatGuards will open fire on all uh you. You won’t even have time t’ try an’ fight back. So you’ll all step through this door one at a time and hand over any weapons you have t’ the NatGuards inside. And when I say ‘weapons’, I don’t just mean guns, but knives, thick sticks, and anything else you could use t’ fight. You’ll then be asked t’ take off all your clothes and put on things you’re given. Once you’re inside, if you cooperate, you’ll be treated like welcome visitors and not prisoners.”

“We will freeze if we undress!” one of the soldiers objected, but was interrupted by the Lieutenant.

“And if we do not do as you say we will be killed, eh?”

“Really, Ivan, you are a smart one…for a Blocker.” The Lady pulled her scarf off of her head, so that only her neck was covered. Her eyes were still hidden by a strange pair of goggles that were made of one-way reflective plastic. Her goggles made her appear inhuman, like a walking dead woman or a robot without a soul. Since her eyes could not be seen, each soldier could believe that she was looking directly at him. They all gazed nervously back at her.

“My name is not Ivan,” he replied. “None of these men are named Ivan.”

“A Slav by any other name…” the Lady said. The NatGuard Comm smirked as she continued. “I don’t give a damn. All I know is that it’s too damn cold out here t’ stand around arguing with Blockers. I’m going inside. You’ll do what my people tell you — no matter what. If you’re good little boys, I might even feed you.”

She turned around sharply and left. Her steps were strong and certain and she never glanced back at the soldiers. After the City Door had been closed behind her, the Lady quickly made her way to the top of one of the buildings that served as a watchtower. Every muscle in her face was tight, and her face was suddenly very serious as she watched the soldiers hand over their weapons and enter the bottom of the watchtower one by one. She saw them again as they stepped out the other side, slouched low with their heads hung toward the ground. She never took her eyes away from them until the last of them had been quickly escorted deep into the living darkness within the City’s walls.

After only a few of the soldiers had disappeared into the tower, a nearby NatGuard said, “It’s about time we got ’em! Now we can give ’em back some uh the misery they gave us.”

“How’s ’bout makin’ ’em our slaves?” said another enthusiastically.

“Yeah!” the first one replied, his voice full of bitter anger. “That’s sure what they deserve.”

“How ’bout you, yer Ladyship?” inquired a third. “What you plannin’ on doin’ with ’em?”

The Lady stood silent for a few moments until all the soldiers had left into the darkness, then replied, “I know you’re probably expecting me to cheer, but I don’t feel too much like cheering right now. In fact, I don’t feel much like anything.”

The NatGuards quickly sobered up.

“But what ‘re yuh gonna do t’em?” the third asked.

“What I have t’ do,” she replied, her voice weak and sad.

They all stood silent for a short time. Then, as the wind seemed to blow even stronger and colder, the Lady turned to face them. All hints of sadness and regret were gone. Her body was rigid again, and her hands were once more clasped together behind her back. She stood like a military officer would have stood had the eyes of his men been inspecting his every move. The tilt of her head showed that her gaze was fixed on a spot far above the heads of the three NatGuards. Her lips were pressed tightly together. When she parted them to speak again, the men could all see her lips turn red as blood returned to them once more.

“I’ll do what I have t’ do,” she repeated, this time with more strength in her voice. “And what I have t’ do is make sure that we survive.” She lowered her head. To the men, it seemed as if she were not only looking at them, but straight through them, as well. “Keep a good eye on ’em. They may act dumb, but I’m not willing t’ take any chances that they’re just acting.”

For a while, the goggles had hidden the fact that she had been crying, but as the tears escaped their cover and began to flow down her chin, she quickly walked out of the tower without wiping them away. She kept her head straight back until she was out of the NatGuards’ sight. Then she let herself slump and deeply sobbed. She walked so slowly that she was almost standing still. Her feet seemed to constantly stumble and she felt her way along the wall and into an alley. There, she began to run. The Lady had not gotten far when she doubled over and threw up.

For a long time she just stood there, bent over and holding on to her stomach. Close behind her, near the entrance to the alleyway, a NatGuard appeared. He did nothing to help her or even let her know that he was there; he merely stood silently until a citizen showed up and tried to see what was happening. Menacingly, the NatGuard explained to the hapless bystander that she wouldn’t miss anything important if she left right away. The citizen reluctantly went, but only after the NatGuard told her it was just another citizen with RadDeath.

Finally, when the Lady had stopped heaving and gagging, the NatGuard came closer and stood next to her. He offered her his scarf so she could wipe her mouth, but the Lady refused.

“No thanks,” she said. “I’ve got my own.”

She wiped her mouth with one end of her scarf, and her forehead with the other. When she took off her goggles, the NatGuard politely turned his gaze away from her dark, sunken eyes.

“I’m not sure if it’s the RadDeath or my disgust at what I’m doing that makes me barf,” she said. “If it’s the RadDeath then I’ll welcome it.”

The NatGuard didn’t answer. He couldn’t be sure if she had been talking to him or to herself.

The Lady put her goggles back on. “Come on!” she snapped at him. She walked out of the alley as if nothing had happened.

Silently, the NatGuard followed her.

As she sat at the head of the biggest table in the city, the Lady merely watched the soldiers eat. They looked pitiful, like a bunch of starving dogs with their tales between their legs. They slouched and didn’t look up at anything. If the Blockers hadn’t been wolfing down their food as quickly as they couldn, she might have thought they were all sulking.

The Lady could only push the food on her plate around. Even though it had been more than a full day since she had thrown up, she still felt sick. Parchenko looked up and noticed that she had not eaten anything. He gaped at her.

“Is meat so…so…ordinary here that you can waste it?” he asked with amazement.

“No,” the Lady replied. “If I don’t eat this then it’ll be given t’ somebody else.”

“But…but why do you not eat? Are you not hungry? Byog! If only I could remember what it is like to have a full stomach!”

“My stomach isn’t full. I’ve been sick lately.”

The visitors that were closest to her moved as far away from her as possible. “Chumyah!” said on of the soldiers under his breath.

“What is it?…What did he say?”

“Madam,” Parchenko said coldly. “It is…horrible of you to do this to us. No matter what our people did to your people, it is horrible of you to do this to us.”

“What?” she exclaimed, now thoroughly bewildered.

“Do not think that we are fools. You are trying to give us your plague.”

“There’re no plagues in this city. I’ve done everything in my power t’ make sure uh that. It’s just RadDeath.”

“RadDeath?” Now it was Parchenko’s turn to be puzzled.

“It used to be called ‘radiation sickness,’ but now we just call it RadDeath,” she answered calmly.

Parchenko’s voice was surprisingly soft and kind as he said, “You talk so easily about this RadDeath.”

“Some wise person once said that ‘Death is the fate of us all.’ “

Da,” said Parchenko, “but do you not want to keep living so that you can pass on your knowledge to the children? Do you not want to fight death for the sake of those to come, so that they may have a better life?”

“Lieutenant, I’m sorry t’ hear that you think about future generations.”

“Sorry? Why are you sorry? I do not understand.”

“I guess you don’t know…Ever since the bombs dropped, any children that are born are badly retarded or deformed. Any children that they might possibly have someday are sure t’ be even more horribly deformed than they are and probably won’t live t’ see a first birthday.” She paused, letting it sink in. “So yuh see, Lieutenant, there are no future generations.”

Once more they all sat silently. On the faces of some of the soldiers there was anger, and on others there was pain, but most of the soldiers didn’t seem to care. They sat like this for a long time, until Parchenko once more broke the silence. His voice was cracked, as if he had been crying.

“Why do you feed us, then? Why even…be as kind to us as you have?…Why go on at all?”

The Lady didn’t answer, and just dropped her gaze to her plate.

Pocheh’my?” Parchenko almost screamed with hysteria. “Why?”

“My friend, I have often asked myself that very same question. As for me, I know that there are some people who wanna keep on living, and they need me t’ help them survive.”

“And us?…My friends and I? You think these people need us, too, so that they can live?”

The Lady’s response was almost inaudible. “Yes.”

“So, we must live whether we want to or not?”

Before she replied, the Lady quietly waved to one of the NatGuards standing at the door and held up most of her fingers. “You don’t have t’ live so they can live. You can if you want, but you don’t have to.”

“I do not want to live for them.” Parchenko was openly weeping as he spoke. “I only want to live if there is hope…If there is no hope then I do not want to live… If there is no hope then I do not want to live…If there is…I do not want…I do not…” His voice faded into deep sobs.

“Then you don’t have t’ live.” The Lady spoke quietly and then lifted her head and spoke louder. Her voice was strong again, but occasionally cracked. “Carve him up.”

Before anyone could say anything, a small group of NatGuards rushed through the door and surrounded Parchenko. They grabbed him and carried him out the door. Some of the other soldiers jumped to their feet, but most stayed seated. The eyes of the men who hadn’t gotten up were still chronically empty.

“Carve them up, too,” the Lady ordered. “But keep them alive until we need ’em, then be sure to do ’em like animal meat. Nobody should have t’ think about what they’re eating. I don’t want what happened a couple uh weeks ago t’ happen again.”

Suddenly, she stood up and left the room. The NatGuard Comm started after her, but stopped before he had gotten very far. The sound of the Lady’s dry heaving echoed through the hallway and into the dining room, so he turned back to take charge of the prisoners.

“She is sick in her head like she is sick in her belly!” yelled one of the soldiers while he was being led away. “You are all sick in your heads!”

One of the NatGuards took an old table leg from where it hung on his belt and smacked it across the objector’s head. The soldier went limp and his blonde hair was soon reddened with blood. The NatGuard started dragging him out just as the Lady was coming back into the room.

“Why’d yuh do that?” she asked the NatGuard with the table leg. “He was right.”

A few of the NatGuards stared at her with polite disapproval.

“Besides,” she said, catching herself, “he could’ve been killed and then we’d have t’ carve him up. That’d leave us with too much meat for the next couple of days.”

The NatGuard Comm was about to reply, when a large piece of the wall blew inward, letting the frozen gusts of the evening shoot through the room unhindered.

“Close that up!” the NatGuard Comm had to yell to be heard over the howling of the deadly wind.

The Lady stood silent and stiff, while her once-young face was bombarded with snowflakes that hit like bullets.

As the NatGuards tried to cover up the gaping hole in the wall, the Lady talked unnoticed to herself.

“Leave it open. It’s warmer out there than it is in here.”

But the NatGuards kept working, too busy with survival to hear her.

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

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Marcus and the Wee Folk (A New Fairy Tale)

Many, many years ago, in the Scottish village of Kilkenning, there lived a lad by the name of Markus McAllum who was the village idiot (for in those days they had such people and did not think it unkind to call them that). Markus was a dear sweet lad, and well-loved by everyone in the village — especially his dear old mother, who lived with him in a wee cozy cottage not far from the edge of a forest.

One late Autumn, with the coming of the cold winds, Markus McAllum’s mother asked him to go out and find some logs and kindling for the fire.

“Now Markus,” said his mother with great patience (for she was a good and loving mother), “Ye know well what firewood looks like, ye can carry a good weight, and you’ve good eyes. So, I want you to go out into the edge of the woods and pick up what wood ye c’n find. Pick up some sticks, aye, but also tote home some logs about so big around.” She held up her hands for him to see.

“But mother, what if I canna find a stick?”

“Then Markus, you must break it from the branches of the trees.”

“But mother, what if I canna find a log?”

“Then, Markus, you must cut down a tree that is about as big ‘round, and cut it up.” His mother handed him an axe, and covered the blade of it so that he could not hurt himself.

“But mother, how can I cut it with that cloth on the axe?”

“When you have a need for cutting a tree down, you must take the cloth off the axe. And when you’ve done, put it back on a’gin.”

Marcus Image 3
So Markus McAllum, being the good and loyal son that he was, set off into the edge of the forest. After many hours of searching, he could find no sticks, so he broke a small branch off of a nearby tree. As he plucked the twig from the tree, he pulled down upon the branch, so that when the twig broke off, the tree pulled back.

“Poor tree!” cried Markus, “I’ve harmed ye, poor creature! For though I am simple, tis plain to see twas pain that caused you to pull away!”

With a tear in each eye, Markus broke off a piece of string from his shirt, and ever-so-gently tied the wee twig back onto the branch and kissed it where it was tied.

“There now, poor creature, I hope this makes amends between us.”

And off he went to search upon the ground some more. As he went deeper into the forest, he found more twigs and brackle upon the ground, and put it all neatly into the bag upon his back.

Soon his bag was full of brackle and the sun was getting low in the sky. Now Markus McAllum was not a’feared of missing his step and tripping on a stone in the dark, for his mother had taught him well that the Bible speaks of angels guarding a Christian boy’s steps. But even Markus McAllum knew that it was nay safe to be in the woods in the dark, what with the Wee Folk who came out under the moon to torment poor travelers. He knew he needed to be on his way home, and he had nay found a single log fer the fireplace.

He looked about and found a tall, thin tree that looked quite dead.

“Surely,” thought Markus to himself, “I canna harm a dead thing.”

So, he took the cloth off of the axe and threw the blade into the bottom of the tree. The tree, as trees are wont to do when hit with an axe, shook as he hit it.

“Poor tree!” cried Markus, “I’ve harmed ye, poor creature! For though I am simple, tis plain to see twas pain that caused you to shiver that way!”

With a tear in each eye, Markus tore off a piece of his shirt and ever-so-gently tied it around the piece of the tree where his axe had left a mark. He kissed the tree just above his piece of shirt.

“There now, poor creature, I hope this makes amends between us.”

With head hung low, Markus McAllum headed home. He had found no logs for his mother, and even he knew she would sleep colder because of it.

Now Markus, being a simple fellow, could keep no more than one thought in his head at a time, and so he had quite forgotten to put the cloth back onto his axe blade, as his mother had told him he should. As he walked, the axe fell from his grip and landed on the very wee tip of a field mouse’s tail. The mouse, as mice are wont to do when their tails are cut, squeeked in pain.

“Poor Mousie!” cried Markus, “I’ve harmed ye, poor creature! For though I am simple, tis plain to see twas pain that caused you to squeek that way!”

With a tear in each eye, Markus tore off a tiny piece of his shirt and ever-so-gently tied it around the end of the mouse’s tail.

“There now, poor creature, I hope this makes amends between us.”

Quite suddenly, one of the Wee Folk sprang out from behind a tree and stood right before Markus McAllum.
Marcus Image 5 - fairy

“I have been watching you,” said the Wee Man, “and I have seen your kind and gentle soul as ye have dealt with all those of this wood. What’s your name, lad?”

“My name is Markus McAllum.”

“And why, Markus McAllum, do you carry all those wee twigs upon your back?”

“My mother has told me to gather wood for the fire.”

“And this, you think, will keep her warm?” Before Markus could answer, the Wee Man laughed so hard that he fell over on his back. When he finally stopped laughing, Markus ever-so-gently helped him to his feet. “Go home, Markus McAllum, and do nae worry about wood for yer fire tonight nor any night. I shall get it fer ye.”

Now, even Markus McAllum knew better than to refuse a gift from one of the Wee Folk, and even Markus McAllum knew to be polite at all times. “Thank you so much,” said he and hurried home, where he found a large pile of firewood outside the window of the wee cozy cottage that he shared with his mother.

Into the house he ran. He told his mother about the branch, and the thin tree that shook, and the mousie, and the Wee Man, and the pile of firewood outside their window.

“Markus, dear heart,” said his mother patiently, “that canna be. For I have been sitting here these many hours looking out of that same window, and I have neither heard nor seen a thing.”

“But, mother, ‘tis there! Come see!”

She, being the good and loving mother that she was, went with Markus McAllum to see outside their door. And what was there for her to see but a pile of firewood as tall as the house, piled so that all the side of the wee cozy cottage was nearly covered by it, but the window’s view was quite clear.

That night, they burned one log in their fire, and that log lasted throughout that night and well into the next day. And it was so with every piece of wood they took from that pile from that day forth. Each time the pile was low, it was raised again with the same silence and stealth as it was the first time.

After a time of this, Markus McAllum began to leave out food and drink when the pile was low. “Because,” he said, “the Wee Folk are probably worked quite out of breath after such a thing.”

And each time he leaves it out, the food is ett, and the dishes are neatly placed on the windowsill, cleaned and polished.

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

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“Cheap at the Beginning Makes for Expensive in the End” (A Commentary on Self-Editing Your Manuscript)

“A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client,” Abraham Lincoln once said. In that same vein, it can also be said that “A writer who is his own editor invariably looks foolish as an author.”

Or, to quote another adage, “Cheap at the beginning makes for expensive in the end.”

Three to five cents (USD) per word is a not-uncommon fee for freelance editors. So paying for a professional editor can be expensive, especially for a first-time author. A book that is 75,000 words in length might cost as much as $3,750 for one round of editing, depending on the kind of editing you’re having done (at least two rounds is recommended by some editors).

How Much Does an Editor Cost? What to Expect for Pro Services – Reedsy

When “Inexpensive” Becomes “Overworked and Underpaid” – Nikki Auberkett | Pen & Quill

Costs like this can make the idea of “self-editing” your manuscript or using only editing software very tempting.

But before you toss away the idea of paying for an editor, consider this…

An author of my acquaintance online (I’ll call him “Bob”) was able to self-publish a novel he had long been wanting to see in print. This author claimed he had already been published professionally by a traditional publisher, so he certainly would have dealt with the publishing industry— including editors— before.

All throughout his draft-writing process, he made lots of comments on many social media posts (whenever writers were asking about hiring an editor). “Bob” repeatedly said that editors cost too much, and that writers should try to “self-edit.” He praised the capabilities of editing software. He told countless writers that “self-editing” was not only possible, but just as effective as a professional editor, and perfectly acceptable for self-publishing. “Bob” made himself quite the advocate for this, in spite of the many times when myself and others tried to explain that editors do far more than merely spell-check, and do far more than any app or other computer software could do.

Recently, “Bob” self-published that book. It was a story he had been wanting to write for a long time. He paid money he said he could not really afford, to have 10,000 copies printed up and have the e-book posted online. (I suspect he was vanity published, despite his claims otherwise.)


He went on social media, spending the entire morning promoting his new book online.

Because it was my favorite genre, and I rarely get to read many new authors writing in that genre, I was looking forward to reading it. As soon as I read his announcement about his new book, I downloaded it and began to read.

…And instantly became so very embarrassed for his sake.

While there were almost no spelling errors, it was rife with punctuation issues. The first few pages alone had several sentences that were confusing and poorly worded. His first chapter was basically an “information dump,” without any characters being introduced, and was incredibly uninteresting. Even the paragraph-long synopsis for his dust jacket had numerous errors, and was not engagingly written the way a promotional blurb should be, in order to get people to buy the book. The book was painful to read, and I didn’t even get past the first chapter.

While I was trying to figure out how to tell him that his dream book was… not the best quality work, I went onto his first post where he had announced the release of his new book, less than a few hours before. I saw that a few other people had already politely and gently told him it was not as well written as he thought, and desperately needed a good editor. Some were not very kind about it at all.

“Bob” was floored.


Now that he had some of the problems with his book pointed out to him and could see them more clearly, the reality of his situation was sinking in. “Bob” had invested a lot of his own money, and had 10,000 printed copies of a book that was an embarrassment to any professional author. He would have to either eat the huge loss or continue to humiliate himself online, in hopes of making a few sales.

He chose to delete his promotional posts, stop promoting his book, and slink off into the sunset by leaving social media for awhile. (Apparently, he didn’t believe in doing things by halves.)

This scenario is a too-common occurrence. Writers try to be cheap and apply “do it yourself” mentality to publishing, or just don’t realize the vital and incredibly powerful role editors play in the publishing process. However, this time, this writer’s humiliation was even worse. Remember, this particular writer had gotten on social media on numerous occasions, claiming that “self-editing” is more than sufficient for self-publishers. And now “Bob’s” hubris-driven blunder was out there on the internet for everyone to see.

To make matters even worse, this author who had repeatedly claimed he was publishing his latest book as a professional, now had a book that made him look like a vanity-press-printed amateur.

Don’t get me wrong. “Bob” is a good writer. Overall, his ideas and stories are very good. He has a quick wit and a great sense of humor in his blogs & posts. So it’s quite believable that he has indeed been traditionally published before. But submitting to traditional publishers is very different than self-publishing.

A Submissions Editor at a publishing house expects to see an unpolished work. They expect to have their editorial staff go through every manuscript and make lots of changes, with several rounds of edits, before allowing it anywhere near the printing press. So submitting an unedited (or “self-edited”) manuscript to a traditional publisher is perfectly acceptable.

However, in self-publishing, your initial readers are Joe and Jane Average. They expect (and very rightly so) that every book they download or buy at a store will have been written and perfected, prior to their reading the opening sentence. They expect (again, rightly so) the same quality of writing and professional publishing that they would get from a book published by any of “The Big Five” publishing houses.

Your book is competing in the same marketplace as books that have been through several rounds of editing, beta readers, and marketing professionals. A lot of money was invested in those books, and they are your competition.

So for you, a writer looking at venues for your book, this means that you must ask yourself:

Can you afford to be a professional author while self-publishing, or should you submit your work to traditional publishers?

Because if you can’t afford to pay for a good editor to polish your manuscript, then— to be brutally honest— you either don’t want to be taken seriously as a professional author, or you just don’t belong in self-publishing.

However… This is not to say you don’t belong in print. As I said before, traditional publishing is a great option for the beginning writer with no editorial budget– the best option, in my opinion. The publisher there will pay for the editor to go over your work, market your book for you, and you always receive some kind of payment for the time you spent writing (this is never the situation with self-publishing). The person first reading your manuscript at these places expects grammatical imperfection, and is looking at the overall quality of your story and use of language.

Remember: If a company is promising to do all the editing & printing, while also charging you a lot of money to “publish” your book, they’re probably a “vanity press” and definitely a SCAM. You will pay far less to hire a freelance editor and publish your book for yourself online.

Yes, traditional publishers will probably reject your manuscript at first— and if you wisely and stubbornly keep sending it back out the door, various publishers will probably reject it more than a few times. But if you research which imprint/publisher you are submitting to and how your manuscript fits into their image & product offerings, and if you write a good query letter, then a good writer stands a good chance of being published (and polished) without paying out of your own savings to do so.

…And you will never have a book on the market that makes you look like an amateur hack.

Anne Fisher-Ahlert is a freelance editor who is happy to look over several pages of your manuscript for free, in order to demonstrate how much you need an editor, and with hopes that you will hire her. Anne’s email is .

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

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Harlan Ellison’s First Day of School

Some years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to see the late great Harlan Ellison in person at a convention. He told a simple but delightful story about his first day of school, which perfectly illustrated his love of stories, reading, and learning in general…

Harlan had learned to read long before going to school, and was a voracious reader of anything he could find. His parents did not stifle his love of reading, but instead allowed him to read any book or story for any age.

When it came time for his first day of school, his mother walked him to school. He was very excited. He’d been told school was a place of learning, so he had imagined rooms full of books and books and books, all over the walls, like a huge library.

His was deeply confused and disappointed when he got to his assigned classroom. There were only a few pictures books; mostly there were toys, some desks, and other kids playing on a colorful rug.

Where were all the books of learning?

Bored, and unwilling to socialize with the other kids, he sat down at the teacher’s desk and began to read the adult-level paperback she had set there at some point.

Before too long, the teacher came up to him and tried to get him to join the other kids and sit at his desk.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’m reading.”

(In his household, he had been taught it was always impolite to interrupt someone when they are reading.)

The teacher persisted, and used a firmer tone, telling him he really needed to go sit down.

“Excuse me,” he said again. “I’m READING.”

Well, his poor mother, who had walked him to school, had no sooner walked in the door to her house, when she heard the phone ring.

The school was calling, asking her to come in and speak to the Principal about her son. So she had to walk all the way back.

(I take it from his narrative at the time, that this was not a small distance.)

When she got there, the Principal told her that her son had been repeatedly lying to the teacher.

“Harlan,” his mother asked, “What did you say?”

“I just told her I was reading,” insisted young Harlan.

The Principal chimed in. “Well, that’s the problem, you see. He had a grown-up book and insisted he was reading it.”

“But he CAN read it,” said his mother.

The Principal obviously did not believe it.

His mother took a thick book from the Principal’s desk. “Here, Harlan. Read to the man.”

So Harlan proceeded to read out loud from a thick, adult book, without pause or problem.

That was his first and last day of Kindergarten.

They put him into the First Grade, only because school rules did not allow any higher promotion than one grade level.

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Promoting Your Book on Social Media

Many writers, including those who are on just one social media platform, either ignore opportunities for promotion, or make amateur mistakes in using it. Social media can be a very cost-effective and cheap way to promote your work.

While it helps to have an existing following on social media, it’s not required. You can quickly and easily set up new accounts, or even build old ones to be much better at promoting your work.

Unless you are writing books on the subject of politics, or writing crude comedy, keep accounts non-political, professional-looking, and polite. Have people who do not know you review any of your existing accounts you would like to use to promote your work. Ask them if they think book promo would be too incongruous to the other posts in that account, or get buried in any chatter. Also ask them if they think your profile does not look like that of a professional writer. (Get rid of those “drunk at a party” posts, and pictures of you showing off your abs.)

Your account and profile should reflect the image you would like to see from someone who is writing your books.

If necessary, create a second new account on a platform you are already on, to avoid offending or alienating potential sales, and to keep your public image professional.

Post on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram too. Those are hot promotional platforms now, and you should be on multiple platforms. Decide what the demographics of your target readership is, and use the appropriate platforms. For example, young adults are very active on Instagram, adults prefer Facebook, LinkedIn is good for business professionals & writer’s groups, and Twitter is very popular for political discourse. You should not avoid a platform if its largest audience is not your target demographic (their audiences are not exclusively one demographic or another), but you should be aware of their demographics & consider how to use their strengths to your advantage.

Make an effort to post/tweet/retweet at least once every day or two, in order to build followers. (You don’t have to write an original post every day. You can retweet or share posts from other people. Just be sure to stick to subjects & share things that your target readership would enjoy.) The point is to keep your account active and in other people’s feed, as well as getting the attention of new followers.

Be sure to use a social media management app to monitor who is following/unfollowing you on any platform, but especially on Twitter.

Twitter’s analytics (computer-programmed mathematical formulas that control their platform) requires a balance between followers/following numbers. If your ratio is off by too much, you become unable to follow new people (this phenomenon is known as being in “Twitter Jail”).

Always unfollow accounts that have not followed you back in a long time, or who are only following you in order to build their own numbers. Monitor & check every day or two who has unfollowed you, so you can quickly identify and unfollow such accounts.

Twitter has “Follow Back” parties for some subjects, such as politics or SciFi fandom, connected via hashtags. Learn to use these to build followers quickly, BUT do not use them to gain followers dishonestly. (For example, don’t get followers in a political follow party if you are using your account solely to promote a romance novel.)

Some writer groups on social media (especially on Facebook) have certain days of the week assigned to allow you to self-promote for free. Check group rules, and join as many of those as possible.

Learn to use hashtags (such as #SciFi #Zombies #TeenMystery or #Supernatural ) in Twitter, Facebook, and especially Instagram. Try to relate your posts/tweets to trending/popular hashtags (like #50Shades #StarWars #TalkLikeAPirateDay #MeToo #adulting etc). People browse social media using hashtags, and using them increases your chances of having your posts seen, read, and shared.

Whenever possible, find a way to use an image or gif in your posts/tweets. These tend to get noticed better. It’s okay to use memes or clipart sometimes; don’t use only your book cover all the time.

Try to write/retweet posts that people will want to share. This also increases your visibility and publicity.

This all might seem like a lot of work, but once you get the hang of it, this should all take just a few minutes of each day to promote your work, build an online presence, and build sales.

Just don’t get pulled in to spending valuable writing time, by hanging out on social media instead. It can be very addictive.😉

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Dropping the F-Bomb: A Book Lover’s Memory

When I was a pre-teen, way back in the 1970s, my mom bought me a paperback, that I think was the one pictured, called “Super-Cops: The True Story of the Cops Called Batman and Robin.” We both thought it was about Superheroes.

It turned out to be a tough-guy cop book, about mean-street police partners. They loved using the F-bomb.

After several chapters, I decided I should probably know what that meant, since they used it so often. (Remember, this was the 1970s, and I lived in a small town.) So I walked up to my mom, who was washing dishes at the time, and innocently asked her what it meant.

She was shocked, and asked me what I said. Her tone said I might be in trouble, but I repeated it anyway.

She picked up a bar of soap and shook it at me. She told me that if ever I said that word again, she would use it to wash out my mouth.

(Note to self: Never ask a parent what a word means while they are standing near a bar of soap!)

After I explained I really didn’t know it was a dirty word, she calmed a lot, and asked me where I heard it.

After I told her about the book, she confiscated it. Knowing how she always treated books, I could not picture her ever throwing one away, so I kept looking around the house for it for awhile after (I never found it).

It was a good book. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Submitting Your Work and Dealing with Rejection

Rejection happens… a lot.

It should happen a lot, if you’re doing it right.

If your manuscript hasn’t been rejected by at least a dozen publishers (preferably more), you haven’t tried hard enough yet.


Remember, “Gone With The Wind” was rejected hundreds of times, before it finally found its way to print. Most authors deal with countless rejections.

The successful ones keep trying.

It’s Not About You

Rejection is not a personal slam against you or your work. Sometimes the manuscript is not a good fit for the publisher. Sometimes you did not present yourself as a professional author, but instead seemed careless or rude in your query letter. Other times the publisher just does not have the funds & staff at that time to take on another title for publication.

Rejection happens for a lot of reasons, many of them beyond your control. But there are lots of trade publishers out there, willing– and hungry– to read your submissions, and (yes) pay you to publish your work.


Submission Guidelines

Before you do anything else, be sure to look at the publisher’s “Submission Guidelines.” 

This should tell you:

  • The contact name for the person to whom you should address your query letter
  • What to include and not include in your submission (such as: samples of your work, number of chapters, SASE, etc.)
  • If they are accepting submissions via email, or only through agents, or not accepting from first-time authors, or are open to new authors, or what file format to send any electronic submissions, etc. 
  • The genre(s) that their imprint publishes, and what kind of books/articles they are looking for

If you have any questions, be sure to call and get answers. Editors would much rather have you make a quick call to them, than to spend time going through a manuscript that doesn’t fit their needs and mail out a rejection.

SASE is an abbreviation for a “Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.” You should have sufficient postage already on the envelope for them to return your manuscript to you. Almost every submission that’s mailed via postal service should have an SASE included, unless their Submission Guidelines specify that they do not return manuscripts.

Be sure to look over the list of books they’ve previously published. If your book subject/genre is too different from their usual fare, they will not publish your book.

If they tend to publish mostly Cozy Tea Mysteries and your book is a Mystery Thriller, then there is a good chance they will publish it. But if you submit a Vampire Romance to an Evangelical Christian Theology/Non-Fiction imprint, don’t expect them to make an exception for your book, no matter how good your story is. 

If an imprint publishes a lot of Zombie/Vampire stories, then there’s a very good chance they will accept your Vampire Romance. But if they only publish Historical Mysteries, then they aren’t going to accept your Vampire Romance story.

You can find the publisher’s most updated Submission Guidelines on their website. 

You can also find Submission Guidelines for a lot of publishers in the most recent copy of a Writer’s Market book (link here), where you can browse and find a publisher that fits your book. (If you find a listing in any Writer’s Market, be sure to call to verify that the Submissions Editor is the same as the one listed in the book. Editorial jobs have a lot of turnover, so the name might easily be different than the one in the book.) Some types of publishers have specialty writer’s markets, such as Literary Agents, Christian publishers, artists, etc.

As always, watch out for scammers pretending to be legitimate publishers! Check for their listing in reputable directories like Writer’s Market. Also search the internet with their name and the word “scam” to find out more about them, and to find out if they’re legitimate.

Query Letters

A good query letter sounds professional.

Ask yourself when reading over your query letter, and before sending it out: “Would I hire this writer for a full-time job if this letter showed up on my desk?”

They don’t need to hear about your childhood traumas, or why you became a writer, or how you’ve been writing this book since you were ten years old. Don’t give them a list of your favorite books to read– they don’t care, and it doesn’t sound professional. And don’t tell them how much their company will want to publish your book– they can judge for themselves if your book fits their interests, thank you.

NEVER address it to “Dear Sir or Madam” or anything equally generic. It’s rude. If you didn’t take the time to call or check the Submission Guidelines and find out their name, they know you won’t take the time to read any instructions & edits that they later send you if they accept your book. If you thought checking their name was a waste of your time, then they’ll think reading your submission is a waste of THEIR time. “Buh-bye!”

Also, don’t tell them about books you might have self-published– UNLESS you also have sales for those books. Any schmuck can post a piece of unedited crap to the internet and say they’re “self-published.” Any idiot can pay a Vanity Press to put their words in print. 

They want to hear if you SOLD your work. They want to know if it was any GOOD.

Along the same vein, if you’ve never had an editor look over your self-published book AND have not received overall positive reviews from readers, then avoid even mentioning self-published work– really. You don’t want a Submissions Editor to see your mistakes and poor reviews– or lack of any feedback whatsoever.

Think of it this way, if you had lousy employee reviews from a former boss and/or poor references from that company, you would try to downplay them on your resume– maybe even omit them altogether. But if you got stellar reviews, then you would be sure to mention them to any potential employer.

The same is true for query letters. Avoid bragging about things that would not impress an editor looking to “hire” you.

On the flip side, having a full book under your belt and already completely written, shows a publisher that you are able to finish a book if they accept your “first-few-chapters” submission. It demonstrates that you can complete the task they’re taking you on for. It also tells them that you will have at least some understanding about the publishing process and not make unrealistic demands along the way. 

Balance out the pros and cons of discussing your previous self-publishing experience, and include any information carefully. 

The editor looking at your query is looking to “hire you for a book project.* They want to “hire” a professional who does great work, and not someone whose work will need constant checking and correcting.

They also don’t want to hire someone who refuses to MAKE corrections. Be sure to avoid phrases that make you sound like you “don’t need an editor” (you will) or sound like your book is “perfect as is” (it’s not). No editor wants to work with an author who argues about every comma, and/or who refuses to reword even the most incomprehensible of sentences, simply because that author thinks their work is “perfect” as is. 

Editors don’t expect you to follow every change they mark up without question. But they do expect you to make at least most of their markups without a huge fight over each one. 

So What DO You Put in a Query Letter?

Just give them a HOOK to catch their attention, a SHORT SUMMARY of your book/story/article, and show them a short paragraph description of your writing EXPERIENCE. Then thank the editor for their time and give your contact information. 

Basically, that’s it.

Polish it up and personalize it for the editor and publisher you’re sending it to. Make the editor think that you are talking to them specifically, and not sending out a form letter.

The following links provide some great information about query letters and examples of successful ones. Be sure to look them over before writing your query.

NY Book Editors: “How to Write a Query Letter”

Writer’s Digest: “10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter”

Reedsy: “How to Write a Query Letter” 

It’s Worth Repeating…

Just remember that you will get rejections. Expect them. Plan for them.

I recall one successful full-time author, who told other writers that he sends out at least 10-25 query letters a week for magazine articles & short stories, and expects to only get one or two of those accepted. He also spends time every week working on his latest book, and pitching his previous book. By diversifying and keeping himself on lots of desks at once, he keeps himself gainfully employed.

To be a profitable, full-time author, rejection slips should be a normal part of your business. Just remind yourself that they are not about you. They are about your query & manuscript, and how well your book fits with the company you’re submitting it to.

If you enjoyed this blog, please remember to “Like” it (click on the star below) and to “Like” any social media posts/comments where you saw this link. And don’t forget to “Follow” me here on WordPress, for more helpful and concise writing tips. Your positive feedback helps me to help more people online.

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“A Skeleton in the Closet: A Genealogy Mystery” Chapters 1 & 2


At the sound of something brushing gently against my apartment door, I was terrified.

It was not the kind of fear you get when you’re on a roller coaster, where the blood rushes through your veins and clears out your head.

It was that deep, gnawing, unending fear that kicked me in the stomach and made me dread the phone ringing and picking up the mail. I had long since been screening calls and had told all my friends to talk to the machine. The bill collectors from the credit card companies would never leave messages, and just hung up.

But now I was terrified because I knew what that sound meant.

My landlord had left a message on my answering machine just a few minutes earlier.

I knew.

I knew that the scratching and movement on the other side was an eviction notice being taped on my door.

I knew that I had run out of time, and I knew I had only a few more weeks to come up with a sum of money that no temp job would ever pay.

I knew I couldn’t ask my parents to take me in any longer. They had settled in to their new retirement community, and were so crammed for space that their walk-in closet was now their computer-room-slash-home-office. I had only once in my life used the option of living with my parents, and only now realized how wonderful it had been to have that available to me.

My breath was instinctively held. I released it slowly and quietly, then waited and listened to be sure the hall was empty, and that my landlord had left the stairwell.

Tears started to form in my eyes, and I scolded myself.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no coward. I knew I was one of countless people who had been in this situation before, so I had nothing to really be ashamed of.

But the more my mind told me not to be upset, the more a few tears fell down my cheeks.

As I pulled the notice from the door, I took care to close it behind me as quietly as possible. I still didn’t want to face my landlord right then.

I fell down and dropped onto the couch. There was no real reason to read the notice, but I opened it automatically, and unfolded the crinkled corners. Sobs started out of me, and I dropped the papers to the floor.

I looked at the chair on the other side of the room, at the brand new set of bagpipes sitting in their case. I had ordered them back before my former company’s mass-layoff, and had waited for almost three months before they arrived. Then it had been several more months before I could play them with any skill at all. I had fought to find practice time in my crazy work schedule, and was happy to have found a quiet spot down the road from my old office building where I could run off at lunchtime and play without disturbing anyone.

That, as they say, was then.

Now I looked at them and saw a valuable asset that could be sold to one of the other students in my bagpipe band, and easily pay for more than a month’s rent and groceries.

All that work, all that time, for nothing.

Now, even though I felt like I was on the verge of being voted into the band as a full playing member, I would have to give it all up and wait. Wait until I had another job, wait another year or more until I saved up money to buy another set (which would by then surely cost $1,000 more), and wait until I had learned the band’s new playlist requirements for membership audition (these would certainly have changed by that time, too).

Realistically, if I sold them now, I would probably be giving up bagpiping for several years, maybe forever.

Silently, from behind the tears, my thoughts turned into a prayer.

I know we haven’t talked in a long time God, but if You can do anything, I could really use some help here. I don’t know what to do or what I’m supposed to do. I don’t know what You want me to do. I’ve always thought You must have a plan for me, but I could sure use a hint right now what it is.

I didn’t expect an answer right away. After all, everyone always says that God doesn’t work like that.

Perhaps it was because I was so caught up in the sound of my own crying that I didn’t hear the first few rings of the phone. It must have rung, because the machine was answering.

“Veronica, if you’re there, pick up. It’s me, Daisy.”

Quickly, I wiped the tears from my eyes and grabbed a tissue to wipe my nose. During my last (much shorter) encounter with the unemployment line, Daisy had thrown some freelance work my way, and she never said “pick up” unless it was urgent. Thankfully, while I was working to disguise the sniffling and hoarse voice that would have been a dead giveaway to the tears, Daisy kept talking to my machine.

“I’ve found something for you that could bring some money in. I don’t know how much, but it’s something right now, and I think you’d be perfect for this…“

Finally feeling prepared to pick up the phone, I answered. “Sorry, Daisy. I’m here. It just took me a minute to find the cordless phone.”

As soon as I heard my own voice, I knew that I still sounded nasal and stuffy, and my gravelly voice gave away that I had been crying.

“You okay?” Daisy asked.

“I’m fine. I was just watching a good movie.”

Either Daisy believed the fib, or was too much of a friend to pursue the subject, and let it drop.

“Well, I’ve got this old friend of mine from my DJ days in St. Louis. She’s a nurse now and lives in Montana, and she needs some genealogy and local historical research done. I know you helped me out with that before, so I thought you could make some money doing the same thing for her. I googled it, and professional genealogists make some good money.”

“Daisy, I don’t have the certifications for high pay. I’m just an amateur.”

“She doesn’t care. She was impressed by my description of your work, and wants you. She’s willing to pay pretty well, too – now that she inherited some money from her Grandfather.”

I stood silently for a moment, unsure of things. God doesn’t work this fast, does He?

“You still there?” asked Daisy.

“Oh… yeah. I’m here.”

“Well, it would involve some travel, but you would get reimbursed pretty quickly. I don’t know if your finances are up to it right now, but I figured I had to at least throw it your way. It’s a little weird, but after going to that Star Trek convention with you, I know you’re fairly comfortable with weird.”

“How do you mean, ‘weird’?”

“Well, my friend Rose’s Grandfather passed away a few months ago, and she was going through his things to figure out what to do with them, and found a wooden chest in the closet. Inside the chest was a human skeleton.”

“And in what way does this… very interesting situation lend itself to genealogy?” I asked.

“Well, the police originally thought the skeleton was one of a pair of missing hikers from way back when, but now they’re saying it might be one of Rose’s relatives.”

“So she’s from a rather dysfunctional family, is that it?”

“No. That’s just it – from everything I’ve ever known about her, Rose’s family is kind of like one of those 1950’s Leave it to Beaver types. I can’t imagine her Grandfather living with a dead body in his closet.”

“Well, I have to admit,” I said, “this certainly ranks high on the weirdness scale.”

Daisy gave a mild laugh. “Oh, yeah! Anyway, they need to have more information on her family tree for the DNA identification process. And Rose wants to find out more about her family’s relationship to this missing hikers thing. Even though the police say it’s not possible, Rose is sure it’s related somehow.”

“But the police must have reasons for ruling that out already, mustn’t they?”

“Maybe, but Rose and I aren’t very confident in their work. We both think they’re typical small-town cops who are stumbling around on a case that’s too big for them.”

After a pause, Daisy continued. “So, what do you say? A week or two of paid travel to the lovely wide-open state of Montana, with all expenses paid?”

“We-e-ell…” I walked over to the couch, and picked up the eviction notice. It gave me four weeks to find the money. Uncertainly, I answered, “I’d have to get paid before the first of next month.”

“Done.” Daisy was obviously sure enough of the situation to answer so firmly. I was feeling better about the job.

Later, as I hung up the phone, my confidence slipped away. This was more of a job for a professional private investigator, and I’m just an amateur genealogist. My stomach knotted up. Only my faith that this was God sending something my way, kept me from picking up the phone to call Daisy and back out of the job.

Even though Daisy had told me to call right away, I took a few minutes to compose myself a bit more so could be sure that my voice no longer showed hints of my previous tears. I also had to spend some time online researching how much genealogists get paid.

The amount shocked and inspired me. The professional’s rate was very tempting, especially in light of my finances, but I was determined to be honest and charge the lady an amateur’s rate.

The number Daisy gave me was the hospital where Rose worked. After several minutes of being caught in long-distance voicemail Hell (during which I futilely said “human being please”, and pressed “1” and “2” more times than I could count), I finally got through the corporate communications barrier to speak to a human being. Several more minutes of being kept on hold passed.

Finally, Rose Allendale herself came on the line.

Rose was very nice when I apologized for calling her at work, and insisted on talking about the case in spite of the numerous interruptions obviously caused by people walking up to her desk. Before the conversation ended, I had gotten down most of the available facts.

The “missing hiker thing”, as Daisy had referred to it, involved a missing newlywed couple who had been hiking in a forest preserve in the late 1920s. Just before they had disappeared, Rose’s Grandfather, Emory Allendale, had taken their photograph. At the time, he was working as a nature photographer for the federal government. Later, the hikers’ campsite was discovered with everything intact and no evidence for either of them. Rewards had been offered and search parties sent out, but no trace of either one was ever found.

Recently, Rose’s Grandfather had passed on. He had lived most of his adult life in a small house in Bears Falls, Montana, near where the hikers had gone missing, and a human skeleton had been found hidden in a trunk he owned. The police had told her that the skeleton was a male, based on some of the bones. The newspapers had also said that there appeared to be a gunshot wound in the skull, but not trace of an exit wound for the bullet, and no bullet was found in the skull or in the trunk. Since no one else had been reported missing in that part of the country before, police were theorizing that this was half of the missing hiker pair, and that Emory had shot him. They were busy x-raying, sonar-scanning, dog-sniffing, and digging up much of the ground around Emory’s old home in search of the woman’s remains, in hopes of finding her, too.

Rose, however, didn’t think her Grandfather had killed anyone or that the police would find any other remains. She was convinced that someone had somehow put the trunk there after her Grandfather died. She thought it would have to have been done during the time when she had been going through his possessions, wrapping up heirlooms and donating anything no one else in the family said they wanted.

Rose also said that she remembered hearing her Grandfather once say that he had never fired a gun in his life. It was just a couple of years ago, and she could think of no reason why he would have lied at the time about that. Rose wanted to prove her Grandfather’s innocence, but felt the police were too set on their theory of the events to consider hers, and Rose couldn’t shake the feeling that they were hiding something from her.

Even if it cost her all her savings and even if it wasn’t what she wanted to hear, Rose said, she wanted to know the real truth. She was launching her own investigation, because she had to know if her Grandfather had killed anyone, and not spend the rest of her life wondering if the police had just rushed to conclusions.

Since I had come recommended by a friend, Rose offered to pay whatever the fee was, including any travel expenses that might be incurred. She wanted to have me find out as much information as I could about the missing couple, and also to work with the police and forensics people to verify the man’s identity and to get as much historical information as possible about the case.

When I tried to assure her that travel might not be necessary (most of my Genealogy was done online), Rose was adamant that she preferred me to be nearby during the investigation, and that she was willing to pay for any travel expenses. In spite of my persistent reminders that I was not a detective, she was insistent that Daisy had given me the perfect references.

Since this was possibly a career-making case, and was far better than the miniscule amount on my unemployment check, I agreed to spend a couple of weeks on-site, but insisted that I would need to take at least a day to get myself up to speed on the case and do any preliminary research on the missing couple’s descendants.

I always hate talking money when I freelance, so the next few minutes of discussion felt awkward. Still, she agreed pretty quickly to my fee, and even insisted on paying a higher rate. She was determined enough that I was concerned my protestations would soon become impolite. We agreed to meet up at her home in two more days.

Energized and wanting to get all the facts straight and written down, before I forgot any of my conversation with her, I hopped on the computer and started Googling and typing.

It didn’t take long to learn more about the case. The basic facts were posted in several web-sites that showed up after only a quick “Google” search. Frustratingly, there was a book listed on about the case that had yet to be published, but no publication date was listed; this usually meant that it would not be released for some months yet.

After printing out a few web pages that seemed rather promising at first glance, I did some quick checking on to get myself started on the descendants.

Thankfully, the missing couple had an unusual last name and there would be fewer “hits” to sort through. George and Betty Darmok hadn’t had any children, but George did have had one sister, according to news stories. The police were hoping to use mitochondrial DNA to identify the skeleton. If the sister was still living or had any daughters of her own, the “X” chromosome in the male skeleton could be matched up to the “X” chromosome in the living female relatives, since “X” chromosomes are passed down through the female line.

Because the police were also looking for George Darmok’s relatives, I decided to start by giving the police a call and trying to share information.

I guessed that Rose might have made her disapproval of the police department known and that there might be bitter feelings about the case, but Rose had also said that one of the officers was more open and helpful than the rest, so I decided to call him before leaving for Montana.

“We already have people working on the genealogy, Miss Heldin,” Officer Parker said. “I don’t think I understand what you’re trying to accomplish.”

As inoffensively as I could, I tried to re-state her client’s position. “Rose Allendale is paying me to look into it. She wants to have another pair of eyes looking at the missing man’s family tree and at the original case itself.”

“I can understand that,” said Officer Parker. “It doesn’t hurt to have another investigator looking at the facts, and I certainly don’t mind sharing my information, but I don’t quite understand what a genealogist is doing investigating this.”

“I was referred by a friend of a friend,” I said. “My expertise is in comparatively recent historical research in the United States, especially the eras between the Civil War and the second World War. I’m more than just a record-chaser, I’m also a historian, and I like to put a person’s life into a historical perspective. Besides, I’ve already voiced my own doubts about my duties to my client, but she seems rather set on it.”

Officer Parker laughed lightly. “Well, Rose certainly is a bit quick to jump on things. I don’t mind, though. She has a certain way about her that makes her easily forgiven… Well, Miss Heldin, don’t expect to find any corrupt cops planting evidence or anything. Our department was one of less than a dozen in the entire country to earn a Certification of Integrity.”

“Oh, that’s certainly not why I’m working on this, Officer Parker! I’m only hoping to add another pair of eyes and approach the topic from a different angle. Hopefully, I’ll find something your people don’t. If there’s one thing I’ve found to be true of genealogy, it’s that more people working on the same problem can only help.”

“In police work, sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth, ma’am.” His words were harsh, but his manner was too good-natured for me to take offense. “I simply want you to understand that I am going to share any information with you that I am able to, but I won’t be able to divulge every aspect of the case. Some things have to be kept quiet in order to do better police work. I also want to make it clear that we’re not a library you can keep coming back to. We may be a small town by your Chicago standards, but wedo have other work and I don’t want your investigation to take over our offices.”

“Oh, I certainly understand, Officer, and I certainly don’t want to make a pest of myself at all. If you’ll just help me hook up with whoever is doing your background research, I’ll be glad to get out of your hair.”

“They’re already done with the research on this case and they’ve moved on to another one, but I’ll be glad to fax you copies of what that investigator gave me.”

“Oh…done so soon?” I asked. “I thought that the skeleton was found less than a week ago.”

“Yes, but they apparently didn’t have to look hard for a relative. The story is famous enough that a lot of reporters and authors did that for us long ago.”

“Ah, I see.” I was glad to hear that there was ample literature somewhere on the story and that someone still had copies of some of it. It also meant I would be spending a lot of time researching while en route, however. “Well, I certainly do appreciate your help, Officer Parker. If you’ve got a pen I’ll give you my fax number.”


The tiny town of Bears Falls, where Emory Allendale had lived and died, was nowhere near an airport, so I was left with the choice of driving or taking a train.

Driving was pretty much out of the question. My car was already near the end of its life, and I was sure driving it all the way from my suburban Chicago home to Rose’s home in Montana would be too much, even for my antique Nissan “Rice-Burner.”

Although Rose had made it clear that car rental was an option, I realized that driving would substantially cut down my reading time and ability to work out the basics of the case, so mass-transit seemed to be the preferred choice.

The train was fine by me, anyway, since the new post-9/11 security measures made airline travel too time-consuming and aggravating for my tastes.

Online travel sites quickly determined that the best method of getting there without spending too many hours on a bus or too much money up front, involved taking a train most of the way, then renting a car. There was an Amtrak station within spitting distance of my destination, and I estimated that just the cost of repeatedly filling up the gas tank and spending only one night in a motel would make the train ticket and car rental well worth it.

I tried to avoid enjoying the beautiful scenery that kept popping up outside the window as the train lolled its way through the pleasant Midwestern landscape, and concentrate on my reading and research.

I started with Officer Parker’s files, my notes from my conversation with Rose, and my online search printouts, since they were the quickest and most condensed version of the various facts and didn’t require an internet connection.

On June 17, 1928, a newlywed couple named George and Betty Darmok disappeared. George had been 21 at the time, and Betty 17 years old. The couple had previously told various friends that they wanted to spend a month camping out and hiking in the beautiful preserves and forests of what was now called Kootenai National Park.

Only a few days after they began their hike, they returned back to the Great House that acted as a combination general store, restaurant, and hotel for the many tourists of the day. Most were not as nature-loving as the young couple, and would only stay long enough to see the unusual rock formations near the Great House, but some would brave an overnight or more in the nearby camping area.

The pair stocked up on some supplies, and George was overheard at the cash register insisting that various items other hikers assured them were necessary, would be a waste of money and he refused to buy any of them. While in the Great House, they had their photograph taken by a young Emory Allendale, Rose’s Grandfather, who was there taking photographs of the park. It was the last known verified sighting of the pair, and young Mr. Allendale was able to precisely note the time of day in a later newspaper interview, because he had not yet made his long trek to the creek to develop his film in the water, and the sun was about to go down. Like others who overheard the couple talking, Mr. Allendale was surprised at George’s insistence that they would head out to hike more that evening, in spite of the late hour.

The couple’s absence was first noted the next day, when a Trail Officer came across their campsite not far from the Great House. It was eerie, he claimed, and felt the way a ghost town must feel. Coffee had been set over a fire and the pot was almost burnt dry from being left on too long. Breakfast was still on two plates, half-eaten. Clothing and personal items were set out as if someone would be returning any moment to start their day. As much as he walked around the site and called out, no one answered. He soon realized that shoeprints led to a nearby stream, but did not return back toward the campsite.

The Trail Officer quickly made his way to the Great House and sounded the alarm. Police were called, search teams organized, but not one single clue as to what happened to the couple ever surfaced.

In the years since, a couple of people claimed to be Betty or George, including one lady who was hiking the trail with a tour group. After hearing the story of the missing couple, she calmly stated that she was Betty Darmok, and that she had killed her husband and ran off and assumed a new identity. Although everyone in the tour group agreed that this woman existed and had actually said all this, she disappeared immediately after returning to the Great House and was never identified or heard from again.

At the time the couple disappeared, one newspaper reported that George Darmok had a married sister named Helen Gorn who lived in Utah. Helen was quoted in the papers as saying that her brother had “a bit of an Irish temper” when drunk, and she hoped “he hasn’t gone and done anything stupid.”

Many years after the hikers’ disappearance, Helen’s daughter came forward. Apparently, Helen and her husband Oliver had separated years before, and Oliver had taken their daughter Rebecca with him. Also, he had apparently passed on at some point before his wife’s death. Rebecca then went to court to have George declared legally dead, and be named the recipient of George Darmok’s estate. This estate was not much, and consisted only of some “small furniture” and what was described in one newspaper article as “personal items and family heirlooms of small value.” Copies of marriage and Social Security records filed some years later indicated that Rebecca Gorn was now to be found under the name Rebecca Astenbaum, and that she lived in Libby, Montana, very near Kootenai National Park.

The abundance of newspaper information certainly explained why the police felt so comfortable with their prospective mitochondrial DNA. Still, I felt like I should be more professional about my research. I remembered another Genealogist (it was my mother, actually) saying that a good Genealogist always tries to get at least two reliable sources for every piece of information before believing it to be a fact. While the newspaper articles were good sources, there was only one article in the file about Rebecca, and the other documents about her were all about her adult life. There was no other verification that she was a blood relative of George Darmok, or that Helen Gorn ever had any children. Actually, other than that one newspaper article, there was no other verification in the police files that Helen was even George’s sister.

I was a little irritated. If I did pursue this line of inquiry, Vital Records Departments invariably took at least 10 days on a “rush” job, and those usually cost a lot more to get. Still, if Rose Allendale was willing to pay the extra fee, it might be possible. I felt bad about asking her to pay money for double-checking what would seem to be fairly well-established to most people.

Also, the fact that Helen was quoted in the one article as saying that George had a temper was something Rose would probably want to hear. If nothing else, it gave strength to her theory that her Grandfather didn’t kill the couple, and left open the possibility that the husband had killed the wife, then either killed himself or went into hiding.

According to the recent information on her, Rebecca Astenbaum now owned a newspaper called the “Kootenai Gazette,” which she had purchased with her entire inheritance. That would make her simple enough to find and contact.

I considered the Utah angle. If Helen had really lived in Utah, she might actually have been Mormon. Especially if any of her children were Mormon, someone in her family would have some information on her family tree available online with the Latter Day Saints (or “LDS”) databases.

I was getting a bit irritated at myself for having agreed to leave home to do on-site research so soon after starting on the case. I was sure that I would have a dozen more possibilities I would want to look up online before I got off the train.

And then there were a couple of other details that troubled me. The only official government documents in all of the papers Officer Parker had faxed over were the missing couple’s birth certificates and marriage license. There were no court papers declaring them dead. But most troubling of all was the dates stamped by the various county clerks on all of the official original copies, although barely legible after being copied and faxed, still unquestionably showed them all to have been requested at least three years ago. Other records in the police files also seemed to indicate someone had been looking into this “Cold Case” for some time; from the name on the “Requestor” line of at least three of the different documents, it looked like that someone was named “Enkel.”

Even though this might all be completely innocent, my instincts told me otherwise.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt like there were a lot of areas the police had left unchecked and questions that were still unanswered, and I felt less guilty about having to charge money for my research expenses.

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