How to handle difficult subjects in your writing.

Happy Thanksgiving Canada. Happy Columbus Day America


We’ve been receiving a number of submissions lately that deal with difficult subjects like child abuse and sexual orientation. These subjects can make for a story with depth and meaning – if handled well.


Unfortunately, the subjects are not often handled that well. The top two issues seem common: preaching and jamming on the delicate subject for no story value.


Preaching – no one likes to read a sermon about why they should feel a certain way. Preaching is not just paragraphs of exposition. You are preaching when your characters have a fight and their dialogue is a simple iteration of a stance.


Jamming the subject in means you don’t have a real story reason to have the subject. For example, your story is a mystery and your character doesn’t know he or she is gay. This plot line would be great if the character’s sexual orientation was critical to the solution of the mystery. It’s not useful if you just use the story to tell the reader they should be more compassionate or understanding.


How do you make sure you aren’t putting your soapbox into your story? The most simple approach is to ask yourself ‘is this critical to the story?’. If you can’t easily point to why it is, do one of two things: take it out of your story or change your story so that it does become critical.


Keep trying to bring difficult topics to the page.



What makes a good proofreader

I had this conversation with one of our authors yesterday.


What makes a good proofreader?


They’d had people read their book before submitting and got rave reviews, yet we picked out several issues that made their novel unpublishable as submitted.


So how come we saw what their highly educated, beta-readers missed?


Our author hit the nail on the head when she stated that the ‘eyes of experience’ are different from the ‘eyes looking for casual entertainment’.


Their story, like many we’ve reviewed, is great. It’s fast paced, suspenseful and makes you want to keep turning the pages until the end.


BUT, also like many we’ve reviewed it’s like the writer is so busy ‘writing’ they’ve forgotten the story they’re trying to tell.


I do this too, luckily I have my proofreaders there to keep me in line.


Who makes a good proofreader?


Proofreaders (also can be called beta readers) are people that you trust to tell you the problems with your story. They have to understand you are asking them to find errors not gloss over them.


I have two sets of proofreaders. All of them are writers.


I’ve chosen writers because they have a better handle on the craft of writing that the average reader. Fellow writers also seem to have a better understanding (in general) that I’m not asking for their approval.


I need them to find my errors so the editors, publishers, and readers don’t.


They expect the same from me, it’s not a one sided relationship


Added bonus:


As we critique each others work, we become better writers ourselves. There are common mistakes we all seem to make and it’s so much easier to see them in someone else’s writing.


What do proofreaders actually do?


My first set of proofreaders and I go through each chapter line by line looking for story inconsistencies, bad/passive wording, fact and logic flaws. These guys are out for blood. Their job is to look for anything close to a mistake. They’re brutal.


After I’ve gone through and made the adjustments from my first set of proofreaders. I send my complete manuscript out to a different set of readers. These are folks who have no idea what my story is about. They read it from start to finish, just like someone who has purchased my book. They are also brutal.


The last thing any writer wants is to be told, “I love your book, I wouldn’t change a thing” by their proofreaders. It means they haven’t done their job.


Good luck in your editing.



If you don’t read it can you provide value as a critiquer

When we got our first horror submission I was worried. I didn’t read horror and didn’t have any idea what to say. Also, I don’t read it for a reason – nightmares, baby.

We often get work submitted that doesn’t fall into what either Sue or I read. In addition, both Sue and I belong to critique groups. So I spend a lot of time reviewing and giving advice to people about books I would never read. Before I started doing it, I didn’t think it was possible.

I have found that I can give and accept critiques across genres. Here’s how I take on a review like that.

I start by looking at the premise, is it credibly set up. For horror, is it frightening? Is the ‘evil’ thing bad enough but still believable within the archetype – let’s not talk about sparkly vampires.

If that’s there, then I just start looking for the same things I normally do. Does the story start at the beginning of the action? Is the dialogue and description engaging? Does the author have a strong voice?

As I read, I look for grammar and punctuation issues. Not that I’m an editor in that sense but sometimes it jumps out. And then I try to decide if I would read the book. I have to say a few books I’ve read outside my normal taste have intrigued me enough to dip my toe into the genre.

On the flip side, I listen very carefully to critiques from people who don’t read/write in my genre. I have to know the conventions of my own genre to write a good story, but my critiquer doesn’t. So, I have to sort through the suggestions to find ones I can work with and discard the ones that I can’t because of the rules. One of my critique groups keep telling me ‘I would like to know more about the background of this person’ or ‘why didn’t you tell me about this aspect’. I thank them because I needed the reader to be wondering at that point – it’s a mystery.

I guess the suggestion here is that you don’t need to find someone who writes or reads the same books as you. Feedback is valuable. If you don’t have a critique group, go find one.

Happy writing


Free opinions – are they worth anything?

I think the answer to the question is, yes they are. Sometimes they are just worth gaining an interesting new perspective, and sometimes they are the first step in getting to the next level. What’s the best free opinion? One you agree to hear.

So, we’ve sent out two tweets offering a free first read and opinion for writers out in our followers, and the followers of our followers, and – with luck – the followers of our follower’s followers. Okay that got me wondering if follower is really a word.

So, the first call gave us three great stories. They weren’t perfect but wow, there was talent there. We were able to get back to people really quickly. Today we sent out the second call – okay Sue did the work – and we’re hoping to get  few more submissions before the offer ends.

The benefits are huge for us, and I hope the authors. PaperBox Books benefits from the opportunity to talk to new authors and the author gets a bit of free critique from a publisher. What is cool for me is that I also get a chance to look for the same blemishes and tics in my own work. Something I become better at as I go through critiquing.

If you are thinking about sending in something, please know we’re here to help, not to destroy. We are writers, too. We know how hard it is to hear that something isn’t working, but we also know it sometimes takes a fresh eye to find out what needs work, and what kind of work it needs. And, even better for the fragile writer’s ego – what is working. We give the good and the bad.

Happy writing.


twitter offer successful

Hi, short post this time to let you know that we tweeted out an offer to give an opinion on the first 10 pages of a manuscript. We got three submissions faster than – insert your favorite cliche here – and we were wowed by the work people sent.

To the three people who have now received our comments, well done. All three had us wanting to read more.

Sue and I are going to do this periodically, so follow PaperBox Books on twitter and watch for the invitation.

It’s sunny here – and still a bit windy. But who is going to say no thanks to a nice sunny day.

Happy writing


Indie Publishing or Self Publishing

Hi, there are any number of conversations going on around the blogsphere and the tweet world, and I’m sure off line in that old fashioned medium of voice conversations about this subject. Sue and I have had these conversations off line, too. It comes down to why would an author choose to work with an indie publisher rather than self publish, especially e-books.

We think it comes down to quality and reputation. I have bought some e-books recently, not so much because I wanted entertainment but to research. I’m not going to name names but here are some observations.

First, I bought books from and Smashwords, to ensure I had something from both ends of the spectrum.

What did I see?

  1. Stories that hadn’t started by the time I hit delete on my iTouch. So many of the books I read gave a ton of back story.
  2. Stories that had inconsistent point of view, or a point of view that allowed the author to tell the story, not show it.
  3. Stories with lots of ‘stage direction’ – character stops the car, turns off the ignition, opens the door, crosses the lawn, climbs the stairs, takes out the key, unlocks the door, opens the door, and walks in. (I’m not exaggerating)
  4. Stories with stilted dialogue. The big trigger is to look at the grammar in your dialogue, not even English teachers speak in correct and complete sentences all the time.

When it comes to uploading your book to Smashwords or to Amazon, you can pretty much do it with a click of the mouse. If you only revised with your own opinions, you won’t have seen what needs to be done. If only your mother, or sister, or friend, have read it, you won’t have professional advice on making the book readable and compelling.

An indie publisher will work with you to make the final changes to your manuscript to make it a marketable book. The readers for indie publishers aren’t reading for enjoyment – although that’s a nice bonus – they are reading to see if you have grabbed your reader enough to make they want to read to the end, they are looking for structural issues, and the last thing they will look for is grammar and punctuation.

If you think you need to work with someone who will give you advice on story revising and polishing, check out our submission guidelines at PaperBox Books

Happy writing.


Polishing tips for writers

I’ve learned in the process of getting a manuscript ready for submission that two things are true.

  1. it’s never perfect but you need to get as close as possible
  2. there will be changes when the editor reads your story

Getting close to perfect involves sharing and listening. First, when you have revised it a couple of time, it’s ready for critiquing. There are a number of ways to get a critique. Posting on-line to a writing and reading community. Finding an in-person writing group and inviting 4 or 5 people into a writing circle.

Writing circles generally share specific numbers of pages on a regular schedule. You provide and you get advice on structural issues, character development and description – the bigger items. A critique group can agree to do line editing so it’s important to understand the guidelines of the group. When you get critiques the rule is that you don’t argue – you can decide you don’t agree, but it’s not cool to try to bring people to your point of view – you are there to find things you can’t see in your writing.

Online groups can be useful if you keep in mind that you don’t know who will critique. There are lots of site out there, Sue posted some earlier today. My favorite is Authonomy a Harper Collins site. Your work needs to be at least 10,000 words to make public but once it is, people will give you comments and ask you to give them comments back. What makes this community great is that you get comments from readers and writers. You need to develop a professional attitude here, that’s a good thing, you’ll be a better author for it.

The key to success for critiquing – online or reality – is to participate. You give as much as you expect to get – and more.

Happy writing


Submit your best

This might be the 500,000,000th or more posting on this subject. When submitting your work to an agent or publisher, you want to make the best impression.

That doesn’t mean your book needs to be publishing ready. There are people in the process who will help you take your best work and make it excellent, fabulous, and readworthy.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether the economy is booming or busting, there are always more books written than can possibly fit on a book shelf. That’s why it’s so hard to break into publishing. Well, e-publishing is no different. No matter how easy it is to get your book out there, you need to think of your reader – they want the best stories presented to them in the most professional way possible.

So, when you submit to a publisher or agent you need to start with your best. Your best includes making sure you’ve run the spell, grammar, and style checker on your word processor. It includes making sure your characters come alive and your story has a beginning, middle and end.

How do you get there? I’ve found the best way to get from first draft to publishable work is revise the first draft a couple of times and then get a critique. Critique groups give you two important things.

First, your critique group is made of writers, they know what the process is. They know what structure is, they know when the passion is on the page. A good critique group will challenge you on everything about your story – and they’ll find thing you can’t see. My experience with critique groups has been great – I see my mistakes in other people’s books. After reviewing another writer’s work, I go and look for the same things in my own.

Second, and perhaps more important, a critique group will get you used to critiques. You’ll hear things you don’t agree with and you’ll get great ideas. The feedback from your critique group is not intended to be gospel. You can decide what you want to do with the comments. But, I bet you’ll find that when you don’t agree, it’s not because your writing was so great and the reader didn’t ‘get’ it, it will be because you weren’t clear enough in the first place.

When you’ve worked with a critique group and thoughtfully revised your manuscript, it’s time to check submission requirements. And check them carefully, they aren’t there to create a barrier, they are there to make it easy for the editor/agent to access your work. Keep in mind the person reading your submission is reading multiple works, make it easy for them.

Wow,is the rant over? Yep, only one thing left. When you think you’ve sent in your best work, don’t be surprised if you get back a long list of suggestions. If the person reading your submission has gone to the trouble of giving you feedback, it means they read the work and they care enough to help.

Write well and prosper.


You’ve spent a month writing a book, now what?

I know it’s not December yet, but we’re all running to the finish line. We’re hitting heights of word count that we never thought we could.  So what are we planning for the future of our books?

I know some of us are going to happily shred the work – figuratively or literally. And, some are planning to revise and publish it.

The publishing route isn’t easy. You have to put the manuscript away for long enough to get some distance. You need to look at it with fresh eyes and make some ruthless cuts or build it up until it’s the story you had in your head, not the story that fell on the page.

When you’ve crafted the story, you start on the long journey to publishing. Deciding to find an agent or not. Sending out your submission to multiple publishers. Reading ‘good’ rejections for hints on how to break through to the published side of the world.

When you get the acceptance, the game isn’t over. Now you need to market market market.

In the six months to a year it will take to get your novel ready for publishing, the e-reader world will have grown and the paper publishing industry will have changed.

Remember PaperBox Books when you send your submissions in.

Happy writing,

8 days til the madness ends.