Tag Archives: manuscript

Jun 17

Historical Fiction Writer Ellen Brazer Visits with Mike Angley

MA: I’m joined today by author Ellen Brazer. Before getting published, Ellen did just about everything but write. She was in business. She worked for the State of Israel, and she was involved with the community. She actually did not begin to write seriously until she was in her forties. So tell us, Ellen, with no real writing background, how was it that you came to pen novels?

EB: I was waiting for some medical test results to come back. I was extremely successful in business when I was very young and while waiting for that phone call I asked myself what mountain had I yet to climb. The answer for me was writing a book. I have a dear friend who is a Pulitzer Prize winner. When I wrote my first draft of Hearts of Fire I pressed the Caps Lock key on the computer and wrote the entire first draft in capital letters with almost no punctuation. It was my writing friend who said, there is something here and you must keep going. That first book took me 10 years to write. The manuscript went from under the bed to the closet and then back under the bed again. A doctor friend took it on a ski vacation and he was the one that finally got me to become serious about getting the book published.

MA: I can’t even imagine going more than a full sentence with the Caps Lock Key on! Tell us about what you write.

EB: I write historical fiction. Let me tell you about Clouds Across the Sun. Before the end of WWII, Hitler charged a group of his most trusted and brilliant comrades with a mission—educate your progeny and then elevate them to positions of power throughout the world. Steeped in fact and impeccably researched, Clouds Across the Sun is the story of just one of these children.

From Naples, Florida, New York City, and Washington D.C., to Israel and then the killing grounds of Vilnius, Poland (Lithuania) this story is one of great romance, discovery, redemption, and enlightenment as Jotto Wells unravels the intrigue surrounding a plan to take over the government of the United States.

MA: How did you develop your characters? Was there a great deal of research involved into the lives of people from this era?

EB: I am not sure as writers that we develop our characters. I think they are born to the page and then they develop us. Whenever I have a new character I find myself sitting back and watching their personality emerge. Sometimes I have to rein them in when it feels like they are doing something out of character but most of the time they are in control of me. In Clouds Across the Sun I have more than one protagonist and I was always amazed that they each had their own distinct voice.

MA: More than one protagonist? Tell us about one of them.

EB: I will focus on Jo for this question. She is very independent and self-assured. As the first woman Senator from New York she is intelligent and opinionated. Her greatest weakness is that she falls prey to her family’s influence over her.

MA: Any unique antagonists, other than the obvious?

EB: I think I do bad guys really well and in this book there are some really evil people. When creating an antagonist in the Holocaust time period it is challenging to show all sides of the personality. My antagonist is a Nazi doctor from the Concentration Camps. We see him as a dangerous monster but we also see him as a loving father. The danger is constant when he comes to America after the war with one goal: placing someone under his influence as President of the United States

MA: Do your novels ever fool people into thinking more of the fiction is actual fact?

EB: I write historical fiction that is so based in fact that when people finish my book they tell me that they are chilled and always ask themselves: Could this happen? Is it happening? I talk about IBM, The Red Cross, Hitler and Henry Ford’s close friendship and how the U.S. allowed thousands of known Nazis into the U.S. in exchange for information about our new enemy, Russia.

MA: Interesting…so what’s next?

EB: I am writing an historical novel that takes place in the year 135 of the Common Era. It was a time period when the Jews believed that Shimon Bar Kockba was the Messiah. Following him, they managed to defeat Rome and for a three year period Israel was under the control of the Jews. And So It Was Written is the story of two brothers, one who becomes a famous physician in Rome and the other becomes a commander in the Jewish army. There are some very unique and controversial elements to this book that I am keeping close to the vest so stayed tuned. I am in the process of rewriting and I hope to be finished within the year.

MA: Well thank you, Ellen. I encourage everyone to visit Ellen’s website for more information: http://ellenbrazer.com/Home_Page.html Read More

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May 04

Oh! This is a Tough Subject! “Facing Rejection,” an Article by Mary Deal

Facing Rejection
Mary Deal

No one likes rejection, but rejection is just a word – a word on which too many writers place too much emphasis.

When you understand the process of submissions and rejection, that word will hurt less if at all. You’ll see it as just another step in your progress.

The process includes you wearing your fingertips down to nubs as you get your prose written. Before you send your submission, what you need to know is that many factors become involved in acceptance or rejection. Here are only a few:

1) Did you follow the Guidelines perfectly?

Every publisher has different guidelines because they all have varying publishing formats and processes, from the type of story they accept to the format in which they require you to submit. Do you know how to switch your story from a .doc (in Word) to .rtf (rich text format)?

So you have followed all the guidelines? Next…

2) Did you read a copy of the magazine or some of the publisher’s novels or books to understand the type of stories they accept?

Are you submitting blindly, thinking your plot is so good they will accept it? No matter how good your story, someone else has written a better one.

3) Another factor may be the mood of the person on the receiving end.

You have no control over that, but if your story doesn’t ring bells with a literary agent or editor, no matter how good, you’ll get a rejection. The agent or editor could have recently been slapped with a divorce suit, or suffers from PMS that day. You have no control and human frailties do play a part in the process.

4) Have you submitted your manuscript all over the place, especially when guidelines call for “no simultaneous submissions,” and irritated a bunch of professionals you had hoped to impress?

Agents and editors all know one another. They talk. They tell each other of their negative experiences. Once someone associates your name with a really negative experience – C’est la vie!

5) Did you meet the deadline?

Did you wait till the last possible moment to submit? Most editors will choose favorites from the early entries because they can’t depend on what’s coming in with the slug of last minute arrivals. That’s not to say they won’t change their minds when a late arrival is so good they feel compelled to share it.

People find themselves in a rush when they wait till the last minute to finish their manuscripts. When they do, it’s thrown together haphazardly. An agent or editor can’t be blamed for picking favorites early. I believe all stories get read, but it would be difficult to displace a favorite. Submit early. Show you are ready to do business.

These are just some of the reasons for rejection, both in your control and out. If you know the process and still feel depressed over a rejection, your issues are not with the word “rejection” but, perhaps, you feel you’re being slighted. That just isn’t so.

I keep records of all my submissions, acceptances, and rejections. You should do that from the beginning. I have so many rejections that, knowing the process, rejections bounce off. My response is, “Hmmm… didn’t fit in that agent. I’ll try this new one.” That’s all the thought I give to it. That’s if I followed all the guidelines correctly.

Agents may send rejections, but editors won’t tell you if you followed the guidelines. You’ll just get a standard rejection. Sometimes it’s a form letter on their office memo; other times they may hand write a note on your cover letter and return it. In the case of magazines, you may never hear from them again, maybe not even get a rejection, just… nothing. But times are changing.

One of my biggest lessons of rejection was that I forgot to transfer my manuscript into .rtf format. I sent it in .doc. I knew I’d not hear from that editor again. I submitted the story elsewhere and got it accepted. To this day, I have never heard from the first editor, nor will I send a follow-up email since the story was accepted elsewhere. The first magazine was my first and greatly favored choice. I paid for my mistake.

Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More

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Mar 18

My First Guest Author, John Wills, Returns and Talks About his New Release

MA: Today I am pleased to welcome back not only a veteran guest-blogger, but the first author who appeared as a guest when I launched my blog two years ago. John Wills “guested” with me back in November 2009, and you can go back and read that original interview here: Fellow Writer John Wills is Mike Angley’s First Guest-Blogger! John and I are fellow, former law enforcement officers, and it was through this affiliation (and via a website called PoliceLink) that we met and networked to join the same publishing house a few years ago. John, welcome back! Please tell us about your law enforcement career because I know it has shaped your life and it has informed your writing.

JW: I spent 33 years in law enforcement, including the Chicago Police Department and FBI. That background was a natural springboard for me to write about what I had been doing most of my life. As an FBI agent, much of your time is spent writing things such as affidavits for search and arrest warrants, interviews with witnesses and informants, etc. The problem is that once you’ve created a document it has to go up the line for approval, sometimes all the way to FBI headquarters. By the time it returns to you it hardly resembles your first draft. Once I retired I felt the bonds of oversight were severed and I was free to create whatever I wanted. One caveat . . . if a former agent writes a book, the manuscript must first be approved by the FBI. Why? The Bureau must ensure that no active cases are being written about and no covert techniques or national security issues are compromised.

MA: With such a broad LE background, you must have had a lot of experiences to draw from in crafting your fiction, right?

JW: I had thousands of stories knocking around inside my brain from my time on Chicago PD as well as with the FBI. I began writing professionally as soon as I retired, confining myself to articles on officer survival, firearms, ethics, and training. To date, I’ve had more than 100 articles published on sites such as Officer.com and LawOfficer.com, as well as several print magazines. But those articles were non-fiction; I was interested in telling some stories and giving them a twist that would engage the reader emotionally.

MA: I’ve read your first two books which I thoroughly loved, tell my readers about the series itself.

JW: I created a fictional series, The Chicago Warriors™ Thriller Series, in which two Chicago Police detectives investigate not only the violent crimes they are assigned, but often times the political machine that is part and parcel of Chicago. The books are part of the mystery/thriller genre, but with a twist. Both characters rely on their faith to see them through the challenges that big city police work presents.

MA: Now, you don’t have a single protagonist in your stories, rather, you have two. Tell us about them.

JW: The male protagonist, Pete Shannon, is an amalgamation of several cops and agents I’ve worked with through the years. The female detective, Marilyn Benson, is based on a real FBI agent who I helped train in my years at the FBI Academy. I’ve also continued to mentor her since she is still an active FBI agent. Both characters are very strong, tactically. I’ve ensured they utilize the proper firearms and street survival tactics. I think it’s important to be correct in describing police work of any kind to ensure authenticity and credibility. In terms of their weakness . . . they are both heavily invested in personal relationships, including friendships. This sometimes has a pejorative influence on how they react to certain situations.

MA: And what about antagonists?

JW: Each book in the series has its own unique bad guy, including bad cop(s). That’s how I bring a fresh perspective to each story and create a bad guy that my readers have to flesh out as the story progresses.

MA: I know from your real police work that you were involved in a whole lot of action, so how did that makes its way into your stories?

JW: Yes, I’ve been involved in several shootings, been involved in SWAT operations, execution of search and arrest warrants, and of course, experienced many of the challenges in my own life that I transfer onto my protagonists.

MA: You have a new release in the series, so please tell us about that and what else you are working on.

JW: I continue to freelance, writing articles for magazines and websites. I’ve written several award winning short stories and have had others printed in several anthologies. I’ve also contributed several stories to a daily police devotional entitled, Cops on The Street, which was released in December.

I am working on a new novel, non-fiction, entitled, Women Warriors: Stories from the Thin Blue Line. The book will be a collection of true stories, written by the women who’ve lived them. I include not only female police officers, but also corrections, dispatchers, chaplains, and prosecutors. If any of your readers know of a woman who might like to share their story in the book, which will be released sometime this fall, please direct them to my website; http://johnmwills.com/

In my latest release, TARGETED, I’ve brought the FBI into the story which may allow me to take a totally different direction in future novels.

All of my books are also available in eBook format on both Kindle and Nook.

MA: John, thanks again for coming back to my website. I wish you well with the new release and with all your writing endeavors.
Read More

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Mar 16

When Not to Edit…Just as Important as Editing by Mary Deal

When Not to Edit
Mary Deal

Sometimes we don’t feel like writing, or we’re frustrated with what we’ve produced. This is NOT the time to switch to editing.

A friend said when she’s stuck in her plot, she edits. Okay, editing what you’ve just written is part of creating a scene or the story. Oftentimes editing triggers new ideas and gets you out of being stuck. We writers do this all the time; edit what we’ve written, to assure we’ve said what we meant, in order to proceed further.

However, as an editor, pure editing of a large or total body of work is not good at certain times.

Never edit when:

It’s late in the day

When you’re in a hurry

When tired

Have eye strain

When hungry

When angry

When someone waits for you to finish

If you wish to take a chance with your own work and edit under these conditions, keep in mind that you may chop up your work. It could turn out to be something you never intended.

One of those distractions, like when you’re hungry, can be dealt with immediately. Have you never eaten a snack or lunch over your keyboard? Do you have a glass or cup of something satisfying sitting on your desk at all times?

It’s crucial that when editing other writers’ prose that you are in the best frame of mind, attempting to understand what the other person has created. The above list of times when not to edit tend to create a less caring attitude. Get through the work and be done with it. That is not good enough, not even with your own work.

Take a break. Wait till the next day. Read a book. Whatever. You wouldn’t want someone editing your work under those conditions; don’t even do that to yourself. Most often when writing your own stories, editing can go too far afield when you’re distracted. You may end up not thinking through any changes and altering the story in ways you never intended it to go. Have a clear head when editing.

When editing your manuscript after a publishing house asks for changes and sets a deadline, you may have to prop up your eyelids if time is of the essence. In that case, you should happily get through your work in spite of the deadline because a publisher likes your story. Yay!

The more you write and create, the more you’re likely to get your ideas down closer to what you wish to say. Editing will be easier and your prose may not need drastic changes that may happen when careless. Have a clear head.

Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More

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Feb 09

So How Do You Lose Words? Just Ask Mary Deal

More Words to Lose
Mary Deal

Have you ever really listened to people talking? We writers should do that all the time. It’s one of the reasons we love to people watch, not to eavesdrop but to learn about fascinating accents, jargon and colloquialisms that could add zing to the characters in our fiction.

In becoming aware of how people talk, on a daily basis I hear words and phrases that make me cringe. Call me a purest. Call me obsessive compulsive. I shake my head when I hear anyone say, “I told him, I said…” What is the purpose of being redundant? “I told him” and “I said” mean exactly the same thing.

“I told him, I said, be careful.”

“She told me, she said she didn’t like my cooking.”

I sigh when I hear a person saying “basically” before starting each new sentence they speak.

“Basically, what you need to know is where to start.”

“Basically, the mystery started with a nondescript clue.”

As you can see in the above two examples, the sentences do not need the word basically at all.

Dislikes such as these are at the top of my list to get hit with the delete button in my compositions.

Language takes on a different aura in dialogue if you have established that one of your characters actually speaks this way: “Basically, ma’am, I’m here to learn the truth and that’s all.” Still, it would be very off-putting to the reader if your character started all or lots of his dialogue with that dreaded word. Correctly portrayed, you would have set up the character’s speaking personality as, perhaps, slow and as being a methodical thinker and that one word used once or twice would then enhance his speech mannerisms.

However, my writing is not yet perfect either. I must continually be vigilant for sentence starters like: “She thought….” or “He said….”

She thought she wanted to go along.

He said he didn’t want to go.

When writing from the main character’s point of view, the reader will be in that character’s mind, seeing the story action from his or her point of view. The reader will be thinking the character’s thoughts. At least that’s what happens if our writing is good enough to draw the reader in. Starting sentences with phrases like “She thought” is, again, redundant. All a writer need do is state the character’s thought: She wanted to go along. Immediately, we feel or sense the character’s desire without being told it’s a thought.

Deleting unnecessary words and phrases helps greatly when word count matters and it really does, not to mention cleaning up a manuscript.

If in a case like “He said…,” instead of saying “He said he didn’t want to go along,” put what the character said in actual dialogue: “I want to go too,” he said. That’s unless you’re relating a past experience. Even then, you would simply say: He wanted to go along.

Any time you catch yourself telling what this or that character said, most of the time what the character said should be put in dialogue, instead of the writer “second-hand” telling the reader what was spoken.

I continue to be amazed at how people in my own circle of friends and family use these incorrect phrases. But then, they are not writers who need be astute at the verbiage they commit into stories. They are just being themselves, and that’s just fine with me. They give me a lot to think about and I am grateful that they can just be themselves with me and not worry that I am going to correct their every spoken word.

Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More

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Feb 02

That Pesky Letter “S” As Only Mary Deal Can Tell Us

The letter S
Mary Deal

Drop the s. If you believe that one letter couldn’t possible cause you to receive a rejection, I encourage you to think again, especially if the same mistake recurs throughout your manuscript.

Incorrect usage comes from the lax attitude about our English language. Most people speak in jargon or a brogue that comes from a certain locale. I also call it family hand-me-down language. Truth is, no matter from where you hail, your written grammar must be correct for a broader audience.

I’m speaking of the letter “s.” Check out these sentences:

She ran towards the garage.

The ball rolled backwards.

Look upwards.

These sentences are all incorrect. That is, the use of the letter s is incorrect.

The letter s denotes something plural. In the first sentence, if you move toward something, you can only go in one direction. Toward.

If the ball rolled backward, it can only go in one direction. Backward.

If you look upward, you can only look in one direction. Upward.

Strangely, an example of an exception is:

She leaned sideways.

The rule here is that when leaning, you can lean sideways in more than one direction, therefore the use of the s.

You’ll find many other words that are incorrectly used with s endings. When you find these, make note of them, maybe a running list. You’ll have the list to refer back to when you question your own writing.

This is but one of the finite idiosyncrasies of producing better grammar when writing stories and books that you hope to sell. Study your own language and speech. Watch how the s is used or omitted in books that you love to read. Get into the habit of listening to the speech patterns of others. Be critical of what you hear, but never critical of a person who speaks that way. Instead, mentally analyze what you have heard. Learn the right from the wrong of speech and your writing will reflect your knowledge.

Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More

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Jan 26

Something We All Hope for: Avoiding Rejection, an Article by Mary Deal

Avoiding Rejection
Mary Deal

The following tips are some that have been reconstructed from a handout I gave at one of my workshops for writers already far along in their manuscripts. On the registration form I asked what each attendee would most like to learn. Surprisingly, the frequently mentioned information pertained to feeling insecure about submitting once the manuscript was finished, and how would they know it was ready for submission.

In order to help avoid rejection of your manuscript, you need to think through what you’ve created. Start by analyzing these points before submitting.

Does your story start off strong enough to grab a potential reader’s attention?

Does your plot contain enough twists and turns to keep the reader from knowing the ending beforehand? Or is your story so predictable that it might be boring?

Does any possibility exist that you’ve created a story that creeps along, when it should fly and keep the reader turning pages?

Do you know the difference between a slow moving, arduous read and a story that moves like lightning where the reader has difficulty keeping their eyeballs in their sockets?

Have you included your own opinions in the plot sequences instead of allowing the scenes and characters to write themselves?

Are you preachy and trying to make a statement concerning something in which you believe and wish to share? Have no doubt. It is a definite turn-off and will show in your writing.

Have you developed your story to its fullest potential? If not, that would be the same as a detective having four clues and investigating only three. Whatever happens in your story, make sure you cover all aspects and possibilities of each scene.

What about your narrative voice? Is it different from your characters’ dialogues? Does it sound realistic or forced?

Always be careful of clichéd writing, and the use of stale jargon. Use only the most recent language of the time period of your plot that people in real life would use if they were your characters. To have a story taking place in present time, but using age-old language just doesn’t work. That’s unless the author shows that their particular story requires it.

Does each and every scene pull in the reader? Are the scenes developed so the reader knows when and where things happen and how the characters fit into that scene? In other words, have you written the scenes well enough so the reader will feel a part of it all and not know that they sit in a chair reading a book?

Do you have the appropriate beginning, middle and ending? As already stated, the beginning should grab the reader’s interest and make them want to keep reading. The middle may sag if you’ve simply tried to flesh out the story by adding inappropriate information that doesn’t feed into and forward the plot. The ending should be dramatic or contain the element of an Aha! experience. Whatever the experience, the reader must feel satisfaction for the characters when the story concludes.

Are your characters’ dialogues commensurate with the types of people you’ve created them to be? Do all your characters sound the same? Even if all your characters share the same backgrounds and social status, you must make each of them unique. One of the easiest places to accomplish this is through their dialogues.

As with the story line, the same applies to the characters. Are they lackluster predictable types?

Do your characters perform to the best of their abilities while moving through the plot? They can be demure to dastardly, but whatever they are, make them true to type and the best that they can be for the situation in which you’ve placed them.

Have you had your finished manuscript edited by a new set of eyes, preferably professional ones? A relative or friend critiquing your manuscript just isn’t enough – unless the person is an English teacher, perhaps.

Too, here’s something I do:

I have my final manuscript in one long file. I do a search for various important words that I may have used throughout the book. When I find too many of one word, I replace some of them with a different word or phrase with the same meaning. To read the same words too often begins to make the writing seem amateurish, as if the author had not seen the inside of a dictionary or thesaurus.

Lastly, these are some suggestions that should be thought through before submitting your work to agents or publishers. This information also applies to short story and novella writers, even some nonfiction. Much of this information may have crossed the mind of the writer way before getting to the end of the writing phase. In that case, that author is a huge step ahead and their manuscript will show it.

Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More

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Jan 21

Fellow Air Force Veteran & Author, Alan Simon, Guest-blogs with Mike Angley

MA: My guest today is Alan Simon, the author or co-author of 30 books dating back to the early 1980s. His writing career began with the 1st edition of How to be A Successful Computer Consultant (McGraw-Hill) that sold approximately 200,000 copies in 4 editions over the next 15 years. He is the author of three titles in the “For Dummies” franchise series and has written extensively about technology and business topics. In 2009 Alan began experimenting in self-publishing with Blocking and Tackling Your Way to Management Success in which he set 40 fundamental management lessons against a backdrop of 40 stories from the history of his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2010, Alan branched out into fiction with the publication of his first two novels including The First Christmas of the War, set at Christmastime, 1941 – only weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Alan currently lives in Phoenix and in the past has lived in Pittsburgh, Tucson, Colorado Springs, Denver, and northeastern Pennsylvania.

Please tell me a little bit about your professional or personal background…the prequel if you would to your writing career.

AS: The best way to describe my professional background is to quote The Beatles: “The long and winding road…” I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA until my family moved to Tucson, Arizona just before my 16th birthday. I attended college at Arizona State in Tempe and then went to graduate school at the University of Arizona back in Tucson before heading off to Colorado Springs where I spent four years as a U.S. Air Force officer stationed at Cheyenne Mountain. In the Air Force I wrote software for one of the real-life “War Games” systems, referring to the early 1980s movie in which Matthew Broderick breaks into Cheyenne Mountain’s computers to play “thermonuclear war.” After my Air Force days I worked for a series of technology and consulting companies in a variety of roles, including several as a national or global practice leader in business intelligence and data warehousing. I began my own firm – currently called Thinking Helmet, Inc. – in 2006.

In many ways my writing career began as an “accident.” When I was an Air Force officer in the early 1980s I started a small computer consulting business on the side mostly so I could stay up to date with the technology of the then-brand new “microcomputers” that were very different than the old-fashioned mainframes we used in the Air Force. One day I was thinking about all of the tasks I had to do to set up my company and learn about new technology and suddenly thought there might be a book in the making there. I wrote a proposal, sent it off to McGraw-Hill, and presto! Book deal! (Little did I know the publishing game wasn’t quite that easy…)

MA: Well, I definitely have a soft spot for fellow Air Force vets, and I am very familiar with Cheyenne Mountain during my work in Air Force Space Command nearby. With such a technical and non-fiction writing background, how did you end up writing fiction?

AS: I began “dabbling” in fiction approximately 25 years ago, sequestered in a near-deserted hotel in the mountains of Colorado in late May of 1985. I had gone there to spend a week finishing up the final manuscript for my first book, How to be a Successful Computer Consultant. (Thinking back, my long-ago writing getaway in the Rockies was sort of a combination of two works from one of my favorite authors, Stephen King: “The Shining” meets “Misery” !)

Whenever I’d take a break from polishing that manuscript during that trip, I’d shift to write two or three more draft pages for an idea I had for a “potboiler” novel; something that in retrospect was heavily influenced by the writing style and typical plot lines from popular writers of the day such as Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. I shelved that book for all eternity shortly thereafter, but over the next two decades spent thousands of hours – and wrote the proverbial million words of fiction – on any number of long-dormant projects, as fiction writing grew into a deep passion of mine.

MA: Speaking of The Shining, my kids and I once spent a night in the “Stephen King” room at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where King stayed and wrote the book. Sadly, nothing spooky happened during our stay there. So tell us about your novels.

AS: I wrote two novels in parallel with each other over a period of 6+ years; both were self-published this past year. The first is entitled The First Christmas of the War and is a family saga set at Christmastime, 1941…only weeks after Pearl Harbor. Beyond the overarching and terrifying news coming back from the war front, each family member has his or her own “mini-drama” going on, and the story interweaves the “macro” and “micro” plots in a day-by-day format beginning with the Saturday before Christmas and ending the day after Christmas.

The other novel is entitled Unfinished Business and just like The First Christmas of the War, it’s set in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I like to think of Unfinished Business as “a darker Bridges of Madison County story” that begins in flashback with a brief wartime affair that takes place in 1942. The plot of the story is based around the resumption of that affair nine years later, in 1951, when Roseanne DeMarco’s steelworker husband is called up from the Army Reserves and set off to the Korean War…just as her long-ago “friend” reappears in Pittsburgh as she’s struggling to make ends meet.

MA: I have a hard enough time writing one story, so I can’t imagine what two parallel ones must be like. Who are your protagonists?

AS: In The First Christmas of the War I’m fortunate enough to have a number of main characters who essentially are an “ensemble cast” as the book’s protagonist. The family’s patriarch – Gerald Coleman – is patterned after one of my grandfathers. He’s a shoemaker who is fortunate enough to have made a decent enough living during the Depression. His wife, Irene Coleman, is the classic homemaker of the day…she runs her household and her family and is always looking out for the best interests of every family member. The eldest son, Jonathan, is patterned after characters such as those played by Sean Penn and Nicholas Cage in the 1980s movie Racing with the Moon…he knows with certainty he’s headed off to war soon and is trying to come to grips with this sudden reality. The rest of the family members are all “demographically appropriate” for 1941 children and teenagers.

In Unfinished Business I tried my best to get inside the head of Roseanne DeMarco. Her husband is suddenly sent off to war, she has no safety net to fall back on, and in general she’s sleepwalking through life…and here comes this person from the past who was her “partner” in an illicit yet exciting brief period of her young life. Throughout the book she’s conflicted between the renewal of this excitement and her increasing guilt about what she’s doing while her husband is away at war.

MA: They both sound interesting. Who are the antagonists in the stories?

AS: The First Christmas of the War doesn’t have an antagonist…unless you want to think of Hitler and Tojo as off-the-pages antagonists who made the story (and the war) possible!

In Unfinished Business Frank Donaldson – the main with whom Roseanne DeMarco renews her affair – is very much an antagonist, but a carefully constructed one. I patterned his character after that of Noel Airman in Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel, Marjorie Morningstar. At first he seems suave, debonair, the man of Roseanne DeMarco’s dreams who has returned to her…but increasingly his fascination in the story with Jack Kerouac (then a brand new novelist) becomes symbolic of his own character flaws.

MA: How much of your real life’s story influenced your writing?

AS: When I moved from Pittsburgh to Tucson just before my 16th birthday, I was very homesick for my original city and spent many hours in the high school and public libraries reading books about Pittsburgh and its history. Since I planned to go into the military in one way or another, I was also very interested in the World War II era and the aftermath, including the boom years of the 1950s. So my fascination with mid-20th century Pittsburgh formed the foundation for both of these novels. I spent many hours researching the facts and tidbits for both stories, though when appropriate I took a bit of poetic license in the interest of moving the story along.

In both books – especially The First Christmas of the War – I did use my real-life great-grandfather’s produce business in Pittsburgh as a plot vehicle, and in First Christmas had eldest son Jonathan working side-by-side with my real-life great-uncles in a couple of scenes. I dedicated that book to those great-uncles, all of them gone now, as members of the “greatest generation” who (to use the words of the book’s dedication) “sacrificed much of their youth to the Second World War.”

MA: So what’s next for you? You are so versatile, I can imagine either a novel or some techno-geek book coming soon!

MA: The biggest challenge I have is getting my head and hands around a much-too-full list of to-be-written projects for 2011. In all seriousness, I have a list of about 15 business, technology and management topics; 25-30 ideas for novels and short stories; and another non-fiction, self-help oriented title based on my own personal close call on 9/11. (A schedule quirk put me in Pittsburgh for a speech that morning, scheduled to fly to San Francisco from there that afternoon; otherwise I almost certainly would have been on United Flight 93 since I was shuttling between projects and proposals in New Jersey and the San Francisco bay area for the consulting company I worked for then.)

MA: Wow! I’m glad you missed the original flight, and it’s nice to hear you plan to turn that experience into something good that may help others. With regard to fiction, would any of your future writing involve characters from your first two novels?

AS: The First Christmas of the War is actually the first of a series of four holiday-set, similarly-structured novels featuring the Coleman family. Next up is Thanksgiving, 1942, taking place – as one can tell from the title – eleven months after the initial book’s Christmas, 1941 setting. The next title is The First Christmas After the War, set at Christmastime, 1945. Finally, a concluding novel set in the 1970s takes a final holiday visit with the Coleman family.

MA: Sounds like a nice set of books. Anything else you’d like add before we wrap it up?

AS: Over the years, I’ve had many, many people ask me about the writing business and my own experiences in the context of book or story ideas they’ve had themselves. I always enjoy sharing my experiences with others and am always more than willing to help people navigate today’s publishing world, craft proposals…pretty much anything.

MA: Thanks Alan for appearing on my blog, and thanks for your military service. Please visit Alan’s websites for more information about this amazing author and his projects: www.alansimonbooks.com and www.thinkinghelmet.com.
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Dec 08

“Preparing Your Manuscript for an Agent” by Mary Deal

Preparing Your Manuscript for an Agent


Mary Deal

Being aware of what agents look for will help you prepare the type of manuscript they will read. Keep in mind, these same rules apply once you have an agent and the manuscript is being sent out to publishing house editors.

All agents hope to find that one manuscript that is unique above all the others. It’s been said that all stories have been told. What makes them different is each individual writer’s slant on the topic, providing they have written a solid story.

When an agent begins to read, after years of experience, they are keen to grammar flaws. This is one area that could cause an agent or editor to reject a manuscript without consideration of any of its other merits.

Too, how long is your manuscript? Paper books presently should be 60,000 to 80,000 words. Anything more than that, since it’s the requirement, the agent will believe the writer too verbose, lacking control over their adjectives and adverbs and overall sentence structure.

With the advent of hand-held readers, entire books are now converted to ebooks. There may or may not be word count restrictions. Still, your story must be good to merit the higher-end costs of ebooks as well.

If the agent or editor reads on, they do so with one motivation. They need to decide if this book, when published, will sell enough to make back their commission and any advance royalty paid to the writer. And still, the book must make a profit for the publishing house beyond that point.

The agent or editor will also be judging the writer’s overall presentation. Is it neat? Was the cover letter professional? Did it follow standard form? Did the writer seem to know what he or she talked about. What they look for is how you, the writer will perform after the book is published. Are you going to be difficult to work with? Are you going to go out of your way to make this book a success? Or do you believe that’s the publisher’s duty?

Professionals know immediately if they want to spend the time to read all the way through. They are also concerned if a reader will want to spend hours with the story and author. They scrutinize to see if the writer’s descriptions are fresh and different. What the agent looks for is individual voice. It was once enough to say “the trees had greened up after the last heavy rain;” another to say “the morning sun reflected in the raindrops on the new green leaves and made the trees sparkle.” Your voice shows in how you describe scenes and action. Your description must be different than anything else you’ve read.

An agent is keenly aware whether or not they will turn from the first page to the second. Agents read thousands of stories. They know by the end of the first page if the book will stack up against others in the same genre.

Have you written characters that an agent will appreciate? Your characters must stand out from all the rest. For character development, see my articles Faces and Quirks and Character Sketches. Everyone, from agent, to editor to publisher to avid reader must like your characters. Make them likeable or make them the kind of characters we love to hate, but make them memorable.

The overall plot must be about something the characters need to attain or obtain. They must want it desperately or the reader simply will not care enough to follow the character through whatever conflict arises.

Not only in nonfiction but in fiction as well, your facts must be right. In nonfiction it can be no other way. If you wish to make your fiction true to life, which helps the reader suspend reality and keep reading, get your facts straight too.

Dialogue moves the story. It must be written in such a manner that enhances the character’s personality. Dialogue exchanges between characters must propel the story. Ordinary conversation is never written into books. It is boring and says nothing really. Consider this:

“Good morning, John.”

“Good morning, Jim. What’s on the agenda today?”

“Guess we’re supposed to take the plane out for a test run today.”

They went to leave immediately.

Or this:

“Morning, John,” Jim said, rushing in. He thumbed toward the sky. “Let’s get upstairs before the boss sees the plane still sitting on the tarmac.”

Ordinary conversation has no place in good writing. Dialogue and beats move the action. Oh yes, see my article titled Let the Dialogue Speak.

The above could easily be included in the instruction we’ve all heard: Show, Don’t Tell. Simply, what this means is that the reader must see the action happening. Dialogue promotes action. Any time the writer begins to tell what a person thinks, how they interact with others, that should raise a red flag in the writer’s mind. See the two examples above? The first version contains dead dialogue and stalls the action. The second example not only contains dialogue that moves the story, but shows us what these two people are doing. Shows, doesn’t tell.

* * *

Most of the information in this article applies to both agents and editors. You must find an agent before you can approach a publishing house editor. The agent does that for you. In rare instances I’ve heard about someone submitting directly to an editor, but it usually turns out to be a small start up publishing house. If you wish to approach the big houses, get an agent.

To help you find an agent, try the site which does not charge a fee. In my experience they have been totally reputable:


The agents listed on this site tell you what types of manuscripts they will accept and in which genres. It’s very thorough.


These are the people who publish those real thick volumes about everything you need to know as a writer. The book is expensive. However, if you sign up for their online edition, you get new listings and updates as new information come in all year long.

You can double check the credibility of an agent or editor you wish to contact by finding them on Preditors and Editors at:


Preditors and Editors tell you who is legitimate and who is a scam. Yes, there are scam artists in the writing industry. You knew that, right?

I’m sure other sites have additional information but these are great places to begin your search.

Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre. Read More

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