Friday, July 16, 2010

Writing Advice from Editor Helen Ginger

Helen Ginger is a freelance editor based in Austin, Texas. A book consultant and writer with three nonfiction books to her credit, she hosts a popular blog, Straight From Hel. She also teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her ezine, Doing It Write!, goes out to subscribers around the globe. It's now in its eleventh year of publication. She's also an owner/partner and the Women’s Marketing Director for Legends In Our Own Minds® as well as serving as executive director of the Writers' League of Texas from 2003-2005. Helen is currently committee chair for the Texas Book Festival, and volunteers as a gift wrapper for the Bess Whitehead Scott Scholarship fund.

Helen, what have you found to be the worst mistakes writers make, whether novice or experienced?

A common mistake novice writers make is to start the story by settling the readers into the book’s “world.”

For example, the writer puts us into the head of John who’s in Cabo San Lucas on a fishing excursion. He’s sitting at the back of the boat, fishing pole in hand, waiting for a tuna to latch onto his bait. His best friend, Jack, stands beside him. They watch the water and talk about how long John has wanted to go on this trip and how they’ll ship the tuna back to the States. John anchors the pole and walks around the deck to loosen his tense muscles, then grabs a beer before buckling himself back into his seat. They stare out at the water frothing behind the boat and John licks his lips, tasting the salt in the air.

By this time, readers have fallen asleep and agents have already tossed aside the manuscript. Sure, all that lets your readers see the setting, smell the water, know John, but what good is it if they don’t continue reading? It used to be that you had the first chapter to hook your reader. Then it was the first page. Then the first paragraph. Now it’s the first sentence. Okay, I’ll give you the first page to hook us, but from the opening sentence you better give us a tingle that says, something’s going on here, keep reading. By the end of the first page, you want the reader to quickly turn the page and read on.

Writers may not like it when they turn to page 16 and find a note from me that says, This is where your book starts. But that’s better than getting a rejection from an agent that says, Not for me.

What in your background prepared you to edit other writer's work?

Like most writers, I’ve written since I was a child. In college, I double majored with Bachelor degrees in English and in Speech Communication, and a Master’s in Oral Interpretation. I also worked as a grader and assistant for my English prof, Dr. Steadman.

It’s easy to see how the English degrees factor into editing. The Speech degrees taught me how to hear the words, not just write them, to understand how sentences are put together to create a flow, a rhythm, and how to construct pictures through words.

In addition to being in many critique groups, both small and large, I started a screenwriting critique group of working screenwriters. Screenwriting is a great way to practice writing dialogue. You have to get down to the core of expressing hidden meaning and coming up with the fewest words possible to convey what you need to get across.

I’ve been editing writers for years. Most of the time working via email. I also have started doing one-on-one coaching for beginning writers.

Does anyone edit your work? And does every writer need an independent editor?

I don’t belong to a formal critique group anymore, but I do have others who edit my work. Several of my friends are willing to read for me. I don’t usually ask them until I feel it’s ready to go to an agent since most of them are published authors who have their own deadlines and projects. I can trust them to tell me what works, what doesn’t, what sucks and what sings.

In my opinion, every writer needs an independent editor. Even best-selling authors have a house editor who bleeds on their manuscripts. Don’t ever think it only happens to new writers. If what you want is someone who will say they love your manuscript and you shouldn’t change a word, you can find someone to boost your ego that way. But when your book comes out with mistakes and problems, you’re going to lose readers and sales, both with that book and future books.

Whether you’re self-publishing or working with a small or big press, you need an editor.

Which types of books do you write and do you travel to promote them?

I have three books with TSTC Publishing. All non-fiction, all in their TechCareers series. Texas State Technical College (TSTC) hires writers to produce books for each career they teach. The research for each book is intense, since the timeline is short and the information broad. Included is the outlook for the career, all the schools in the U.S. that teach that career and what classes have to be taken for the degrees, and twelve to sixteen interviews and profiles with people in those careers across the U.S. and, in some cases, other countries. For each book, I have a four-inch notebook filled with research as well as hours of tapes.

I started by contributing interviews and profiles for Biomedical Equipment Technicians, then signed on to do three on my own: Automotive Technicians, Avionics, and Computer Gaming. My name is on the books, but I receive no royalties, since these were Work for Hire books. Although I don’t travel to promote them, I’m proud to have them on my bio and website.

Advice to aspiring writers?

Three things: Write, Learn, Share.

To be a writer, you have to write. If you can do a thousand words a day, write them. If you only have time to do fifty words on the train to work, write them. If you have no time to write, turn off the TV … and write.

To be a published writer, you have to learn. You have to learn to be a better writer, through practice, advice, editing, classes, tutoring, critiques, books, reading, mistakes, and successes. You have to learn to promote yourself. That means developing a platform, before you’re published, and building an online presence through a blog, a website, and social networking sites, and expanding your bio with contest wins, or published short stories and articles, or other ways to build your credibility. You need to be filling folders on your computer with information you gather about agents and small presses, bookstores and libraries, online sites, and other bloggers who can help you when you need to put together a virtual book tour.

To be a selling writer, you have to share. Yourself. Your time. Your knowledge. You share via your blog or your comments on other blogs. It’s a win-win. You learn as you share. And those you share with learn from you and about you. The more someone knows and connects with you, the more likely they are to buy your book when it comes out. At the same time, you’re meeting new friends, people who can help you, not just by buying your book, but possibly recommending an agent or an editor, or offering to read your manuscript or write a blurb for you, or encouraging you when you’re down and having trouble writing.

Do these things now. Don’t wait until that magical day in the future when you’ll be published. Develop relationships and skills as you grow from an aspiring writer to a best-selling author.

Questions for the editor? Helen will be here all day to answer them for you.

Helen's website: Helen Ginger
Her blog: Straight From Hel


Helen Ginger said...

Thanks for having me here on Murderous Musings, Jean.

Liza said...

Fantastic Helen. I've learned so much for this one post...on top of how much you teach and share each day. Thank you Helen, thank you Jean.

Simon Hay said...

Helen, you really are great. Yes, we have to connect with people. Every comment is gold and an opportunity to meet someone who can promote you. As big as the blogging community is it's also a close knit family. We notice the sincere people. Sales people and spammers are soon weeded out. Turn the TV off and write! I love that. This is a tough game, but there's generous people like yourself sharing so much. I think writers want other writers to succeed because it's like a small victory. Yes, we have a winner. Next time it might be me.

Thank you Jean, for having a wonderful guest.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your advice, Helen! And thank you for the interview, Jean. :)

This particularly resonated:

In my opinion, every writer needs an independent editor.

My beta readers, who always work closely with me on everything I write, have been invaluable over the years, and I've learned so much from them - even when we've been discussing something we don't agree on. It's getting that other perspective which enables a writer to look at their own work from various angles, and maybe spot things they wouldn't have before.

Jean Henry Mead said...

It's a pleasure to host Helen today. She provides a valuable service to aspiring writers on her blog site and in her newsletter, and deserves all the kudos she receives.

Joanne said...

Thanks for sharing today, Helen and Jean. I'm intrigued with how your speech degrees seemed to open up the language to deeper layers. Grammatically, with words rather than style or content, what's one of the most common errors or weaknesses you see while editing?

Laura Eno said...

Thank you, Jean and Helen. Fabulous advice from a woman who practices what she preaches. I've never seen anyone with such a powerful presence online as Helen.

Helen Ginger said...

I hope it's not restricted to writers, but you're right Simon. Just about every writer I know is excited when they hear another writer has succeeded at getting an agent or self-publishing or hitting the best seller list or whatever the accomplishment is.

So true Jennifer! We're so close to our work that we can't always see the small (or even big) problems.

Joanne, two very common word problems are using the passive voice too much and not taking the time to describe things in a unique way. Okay, three things -- also not making use of all the senses, not just sight.

Hi Laura. Wow. How sweet of you.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Great interview, Jean, Helen. You hit the nail with reading the words aloud. While your dialogue may seem fine on paper, when you read it aloud, it may not sound plausible or even logical. Thanks for sharing your insight.

J. M. Strother said...

Nice interview, Jean, and terrific answers and insights, Helen. Helen is one of the most giving people in the blogosphere, always has great advice, and a positive spirit in what can sometimes be a grinding experience. She's one of those touchstones that keeps me sane.

One thing I would add is the importance of place - you need someplace free of distractions where you can write.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Great advice, Helen. And I didn't know you had a degree in speech as well.

Helen Ginger said...

I agree Jon. I need quiet. I don't even have music in the background. I do know people, though, who play music and write in busy places like a coffee shop. Doesn't work for me, though.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Good advice, Helen. Having to capture your reader within that first sentence or paragraph and keep them reading to the last page make it more important than ever to have a qualified editor go through the manuscript before even thinking about publishing it.

Maryannwrites said...

Great advice, Helen. So glad you pointed out the importance of reading work aloud, and not just the dialogue. I don't have a background in Speech, but because of my acting and directing experience, I learned the importance of reading my work aloud, as well as blocking scenes. My dog looks at me like I'm nuts when I get up from my computer and move around my office mentally blocking a scene if I'm having trouble seeing it as I write.

Karen from Mentor said...

I loved the bit about the note to an author telling them that their book started on page 16. I've had some authors where their first BOOK needed to be tossed because they used it to find their voice and the voice of the MC. They needed to understand the character first, really get inside their MC's head...and then go on to grab the reader by the imagination.

So tossing 15 pages? In that perspective...not

This was a GREAT interview.
Thanks Jean and Helen.
Helen never disappoints.

Carol Kilgore said...

Wonderful post, Helen, filled with lots of great tips and advice. Thanks for hosting her, Jean.

Helen Ginger said...

Maryann, blocking a scene is great advice!

Karen, I have manuscripts somewhere in storage that will never see the light of day.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

As usual, great advice.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great advice, Helen! And I loved learning a little bit more about your background and how you came into independent editing. Thanks! :)

Tamika: said...

I knew I wouldn't be disappointed:) Thanks Helen. I look forward to passing my work along to a professional editor one day before I tred the agent waters. It's good to cover all the bases first though~ I wouldn't want to waste their time or mine.

Helen Ginger said...

Very true Tamika. The more you can work on and perfect, the less the editor will have to do. If your editor charges by the hour, that could save you some money. But even beyond that, the more you do yourself, the more you learn, the less likely you are to make the same mistakes next time.

Glynis Peters said...

Helen is a great supporter of aspiring writers. Her blog is so interesting. I have learned a lot there over the last year+.

Thank you Jean for hosting Helen, enjoyable interview.

Jemi Fraser said...

Terrific interview ladies :)

I think my biggest step forward as a writer was cutting 30 pages off the beginning of my ms. It was important stuff for me to know and visualize, but not for the reader at that time. Great point!

Helen Ginger said...

Hi Glynis and Jemi. Jemi, was that difficult to cut that many pages...or did it seem so clear that it had to done that it didn't hurt?

~Sia McKye~ said...

Some great suggestions, Helen. I'll admit that starting the book where it needs to start, in the now, has been a hard one for me. While you have to anchor the stories setting in the mind of the readers quickly, there is a balance.

So much of what we write a story is for US. These are things WE, not the reader, need to know. I've learned to write it as it comes and then go back and edit what the reader needs now.

Absolutely, all writers need an editor to cut away the blemishes and rock, so the facets of the story are clear and bright. Kinda like jewlers cut away and polish when cutting facets in diamonds.

Helen Ginger said...

What a nice way of putting it, Sia.

Sometimes writers, and I include myself, are too close to their work. They can't see the rough edges or extraneous fat that needs to be cut. It takes someone not invested in the work to see it. That someone could be a critique partner or an editor. Doesn't mean you have to take every suggestion or cut, but it does mean that this other person is most likely seeing the words on the page; whereas, a writer often sees what's in his head.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Brilliant collection of advice for writers. Thanks so much :)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful advice, Helen. Thank you so very much for sharing your expertise with us.

Jean - So glad you hosted, Helen. Thanks!

Linda S. Prather said...

Great post, and I'm really glad I found it. Look forward to future postings. I truly believe every author needs to work with a professional editor BEFORE they even consider sending their work to agents or publishers, and for any author considering self-publishing it's an absolute must.