Inside the Macabre Mind of the Horror Writer

(c) 2014, Amanda Headlee

(c) 2014, Amanda Headlee

Within each and every one of us are those dark thoughts that causes our skin to prickle and muscles to shiver in terror, thoughts that horrifically shame us. Deep in the recesses of each human mind is darkness. That darkness is what fuels our terror and nightmares. It is what gives us our conscience, our morality. However, there is a breed of humans that feed off the darkness and wallow in pits of of human fear. Those special, select humans are the ones that dabble in the writing of horror. The key difference between horror writers and others is that those who script the macabre shine a big spotlight on the darkness within their minds, drawing attention to it, where the majority of other writers prefer to not acknowledge that aspect of their being.

To read the full story, please click here.



Writing 101: How to Treat your Beta Readers

BetareadingI have done a lot of beta-reading this past year, and in turn, I’ve had people read my own work. Nothing is more essential in the early stages of a manuscript than its beta readers, so if you have a collection of reliable readers, you should do everything in your power to hold onto them. Below I’ve amassed a series of points that I think are important to take into consideration when you ask people to read for you.

  1. ) Do not give them a first draft. The first draft is crap. You can write the first draft, edit the hell out of it, and then share it with your readers. And that’s okay. Because, by then, it’s no longer a first draft. But do not give away a draft you haven’t even bothered to edit yourself. That’s a waste of your readers’ time. If you’re desperate for someone to read your manuscript after you’ve completed it, then find an alpha reader to go through and do a developmental read-through while you have the manuscript in its “resting” phase.
  1. ) Offer your beta readers a list of points you want them to focus on while reading. I personally love when authors do this. This redirects the attention of your readers to areas you’re unsure about. Want to know how the reader reacts to a certain character? Want to know if a particular scene is working the way you want it to? Specify those questions throughout your document or in a separate attachment.
  1. ) Let your reader form his/her own opinions. This means, don’t bombard your readers with your (very biased) opinions of your work before they’ve even gotten to read it. Send out your document with your focus points and then thank them for their help. Don’t tell them what to think. Don’t tell them what you think. Don’t tell them anything. That defeats the purpose of having beta readers in the first place.
  1. ) Give the readers enough time to read the novel. Your beta readers are probably just as busy as you are, so be considerate of what you’re asking them to do for you. For instance, the Sarcastic Muse writers know that if they want me to read their 60,000 + word manuscripts during my school year, they need to give me a minimum of three weeks. Plan your beta reading around your own deadlines while keeping in mind the schedule of your beta readers.
  1. ) Accept your beta comments with grace, even if you disagree. It’s a given that you’re not going to agree with each and every comment you receive. It’s a given that occasionally comments may ruffle your defensive feathers. Your beta readers know this. If you have questions about a specific comment, then you should certainly ask, but don’t argue over or criticize feedback. They didn’t have to read your manuscript. Their time wasn’t compensated in any way by helping you. Squelch your ego, thank them, and move on.
  1. ) If you’re under an agreement of mutual exchange, honor it. If one of your readers is also a writer, then it’s polite to offer to read their work in exchange. If you are in a critique group of some kind, then you should give back what you get. Don’t be that writer who never returns the favor.

As a final note (and it’s sad I even need to say this), I’d like to mention that writers and readers talk. Beta readers, who are often writers themselves, will spread the word if you give them a hard time. If you lose one reader, you’ve probably actually lost several. Treat them the right way, make beta reading a pleasure for them instead of a chore, and you are one step closer to making your manuscript shine before getting it out to the world.

I’d love to know what you all think about beta readers? How have your experiences been? Do you have any specific way of going about it? Let me know in the comments!

Our Newest Addition to the Sarcastic Muse: Welcome Chris Musgrave

Since it’s not every day (as in this is the first time) that someone new joins the Sarcastic Muse, we feel introductions are in order. Of course, we are quite particular. Anyone mixing with us needs to be one part skill, one part talent, and a whole lot of nuts. When Kirsten discovered Chris Musgrave during April’s A-to-Z Blog Challenge, we knew he was something special. He’s a great writer, a great editor, and just crazy enough to hang with the rest of us. To say that we’re looking forward to working with him would be an understatement.

Be on the lookout for his weekly posts every Monday. We plan on keeping him busy.

Welcome, Chris, to the Sarcastic Muse!


If you want to know more about Chris, check out his personal blog. It’s got a ton of quality writerly posts.

Working With An Editor

Photo Credit: Joanna Penn via Flickr

Photo Credit: Joanna Pennvia Flickr

Well. The best laid plans of mice and writers, as they say. I learned a lot this week, and the most important lessons were not, as you might suspect, making sure you upload the copy that was NOT converted from .html back to .docx.  However, Shadows Wake is as flawless as we know how to make it. Watch that formatting as it can change between versions and file types. Whew.

Michelle wrote yesterday about her experience as the editor for Shadows Wake. I am happy to report that we are still on good terms! Today, I’ll try to give the writer’s side of her observations.

Relationship matters more than you think.

Picture yourself seated across from someone as you both tug a manuscript back and forth between you. This is not the kind of relationship you want with your editor. Instead, pull your chair around to sit beside her, and work together. Mutual respect is essential. Trust is essential. Patience is a real bonus. The editor is also working for the good of your story. You are on the same team. If this isn’t the case with your current editor, find someone else.

Editing is subjective.

I strongly recommend using just one editor per round or per project. Slight style differences and mark up methods can add up to a real pain. Agree on a style guide before you start and let that style guide settle any disputes. One part of editing is creating consistency throughout your book. Two or more people acting as editors on the same round or project will leave you correcting one’s preference for the other.

One thing I appreciated about Michelle was her willingness to research and provide documentation for anything I challenged. Fortunately, there were only a few obscure points that needed research.

Swallow the ego.

I don’t have a pocket full of ego when it comes to my own writing, but even so, there were a few moments when I bristled at a suggested change.  If that happens, get up and walk away. Come back later and look at it with fresh eyes. In all but one case, the editor was right and I made the change. A good editor isn’t going to try to change your voice, but they will help clarify your prose. If you feel your voice or style is becoming altered, step away for a while or come back to it when you are fresh. Trust that your editor is working for your story, not against you (and she was usually right).

Something else to keep in mind is that we, as writers, are very familiar with our story. Your editor is reading it from a fresh perspective and is better able to point out the areas where we miss because we see it in our mind’s eye instead of as a new reader.

Know what type of edit you want.

Though most people divide editing into three types, I have added a fourth to the list. These are not comprehensive and descriptions vary depending on who you ask.

  • Developmental edits take place right after the rough draft to smooth out plot holes and address both dead paragraphs and areas that need expansion. If you aren’t sure where your story is going or how to use conflict, a developmental edit is a good idea.  Beta readers or a writing group can serve you well here.
  • Content edits watch for continuity, check description, the balance of dialog to prose, identify spots where you are “telling” instead of “showing,” clear up present and past tense inconsistencies, and generally make sure your story makes sense, flows, and has both character development and conflict.
  • Proofreading works on spelling, word choice, dialog tags, grammar, and sentence structure.
  • Line edits check formatting, grammar, punctuation, spacing, and uniformity.

Fact-checking can take place at any level, so make sure you ask your editor if that is part of the editing plan for your book.

Do a good turn.

Include your editor (and her link) in your acknowledgements. I put my editor in the front matter right under my name as well as including her in the comments. Editing is a business just as authorship is. Promote each other. If you are happy with your editor’s work, recommend her.

What are your suggestions for working with editors and/or writers? 

My First Professional Edit: The Things I Learned

Today I have finished the fifth-ish round of edits for Robyn LaRue’s debut novel, Shadows Wake. I say ‘ish’ because, at this point, I’m not exactly sure how many times I’ve read the book. But, being the perfectionist that I am, I can’t help but go over it a few times to make sure the copy she’s offering to the public is as clean as possible. (Note to any new buyers: there was a mixing of copies and an issue with the original release version. Those minor errors are currently in revision and will be corrected ASAP.)

editingThe thing is, Shadows Wake was a debut novel for both Robyn and me: she as the wonderful writer, and me as her dictatorial editor. The entire process was a learning experience for both of us, and thankfully Robyn was patient — both with my 200 trillion edits and my back and forth of ‘put this back in’ and ‘no, I changed my mind, take it out.’ (I’m kidding . . . sort of.)

Regardless, thanks to her trust in my work, I was able to gain valuable experience, which I am hoping to use in pursuit of a future career in editing. Here is what I have learned.

1.) Preserving the author’s voice is just as important as fixing grammar, syntax, and punctuation. I read somewhere, and this is loosely paraphrased, that the goal of any editor is to take what isn’t working and make it work in such a way that the author says, “Yes, exactly, that is what I was trying to say all along.” Authorial voice is perhaps the backbone of any good story. No two writers will write a sentence exactly the same way. And being a writer myself, I can understand the pull to make something sound more like the way I would write it. But that’s not my job. My job is to ensure that the edits preserve the way my chosen author speaks through his/her written work.

2.) Your relationship with your client/editor matters. Working with Robyn has been a great joy. We both wanted the best for her novel, and we’ve both worked equally hard to get it to the point of polish. As an editor, if you’re not invested in your client’s novel — in his or her success — you’re going to have difficulties. I wanted her book to shine because it was her baby. Because she cared. And it deserved 110% of my effort.

3.) Line edits are not just about grammar, syntax, and punctuation. To be honest, I did much more than a line edit for Robyn’s novel. But I did eventually get to it. For me, a line edit is the road to making words sing on the page — finding and bringing out the song in the author’s voice. Sure, that comma there probably matters. My brain says it does, and I’ll tell you to fix it. Most of the time. But line edits are about making each line read like water passing in a brook. Smooth, fluid, beautiful. The dipping intonation of certain sentences, the fragments pulsing in beat to a scene. There was one moment in my edits where I encouraged Robyn to take advantage of the situation by using the rhythm of language and bending it to mirror the emotional discord and fright of the MC. This not only strengthened her prose, but it helped her to find a rhythm that worked for her and the scene — one that made the story flow and the words scream.

4.) Editing is subjective. There were moments when the Chicago Manual of Style would say, “A comma most definitely should be here.” But there were moments when I said, “No, for the story, it should not be here.” There are basic English rules of grammar and punctuation to follow, I know. Since I study linguistics, nothing irks me more than bad grammar. But part of being an editor (and a writer, for that matter) is knowing the rules of language — knowing the rules dictated by style guides and grammarians — and then knowing when and how to break them. Learning how to exercise this judgment has been an important part of my process. Which leads me to my next point . . .

5.) Style guides are friends, not food. No, but seriously. The CMoS was great help, and I referred to it on more than one occasion. Part of an editor’s best-educated choices come from knowing the rules or, at least, knowing how to find them. No editor knows everything. No editor should edit your novel without knowing how to use a style guide. Whether or not they need to use it is another matter entirely. But I think most editors would agree that there is always going to be at least one instance where some element of language or punctuation requires outside advice or a quick review.

6.) Reading is just as important for the editor as it is for the budding writer. They say you can learn a lot from reading. It’s true. My inner-editor never shuts up now when I sit down with a book. I find myself studying the editor’s allowances for punctuation. I look at the way the pacing works, the syntax used. The rules broken. Not only does this allow me to see what the pros are doing, it lets me see what has become the standard for editors in the traditional publishing world. Rules change as language evolves. What is correct in the technical sense is not always correct in the world of fiction. Knowing what other editors are doing keeps me up-to-date. Reading is like a window into their world. Use it to your advantage.

I’ve learned much more than these six bullet points could ever express, but these are some general things that come to mind when I think about the work Robyn and I have done over the past six months. What about you guys? Do you have any experiences with editors to share? What do you look for in an editor? If you edit, how do you go about it? Any advice?

Shadows Wake Launches Today


Shadows Wake is now available at Amazon and coming soon to other retailers.  You are invited to a low-key online launch party today at 5:30 pm central time on Twitter at #thewritinghabit.  We’ll share a glass of wine and just hang out. :)

Five Steps to Meet Your Writing Goals

Hot on the heels of releasing Kirsten’s newest book, A Shadow’s Kiss, comes the release for Shadows Wake (7/15/14).  2014 has been a special year because, in part, each of us published this year. Four completely different genres, too!

Milestones are great things.  They bring a sense of accomplishment, pride, and progress.  I was just thinking about the milestones each of us hoped to reach in personal and professional lives this year, and I’m so proud to be part of Sarcastic Muse.

Meeting a milestone can also lead to letdown, even a feeling of being lost. going forward.That’s why I feel it’s vital to have several milestones on the horizon.  The rhythm of publishing can leave you bereft if you let it, or it can perfectly move you along.  There’s always a delay between the draft and the edit (or should be) and there’s always a delay between the final polish and the launch.  Those are the times you can fall into obsessiveness or worry depending on your personality type, and they are practically the same thing.

Move on to the next book or project.

5 Steps to Meet  Your Writing Goals

5 Steps to Meet Your Writing Goals

The best way I’ve found to combat nerves or self-doubt or  let down is to start the next book.  I like to build up drafts so there’s always something to work on.  Since I always end up dithering about what to do next, which is

more like having to choose between a dozen desserts or purchases, those extra drafts usually mean there’s progress happening all the time.  One of the joys of writing is that we get so many ideas and plots and characters just from the act of writing that we (hopefully) jot down and can use as soon as the current book is complete.  Don’t hesitate to start the next project.  Write the next book.

Have clear goals in mind.

If you haven’t taken the time to think about your writing goals, do it.  How many books can you submit or publish in a given year.  How many short stories can you polish and submit to anthologies or file away for your own short story collection?  How often do you want to publish?  What are your hopes and dreams? For example, you might want to publish six titles by the end of 2016.  That helps you budget your time and stay on task, right?  It doesn’t matter if those titles are a mix of novel, short story, non-fiction, or what have you.  Make the list.

It might help to take a blank sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle, and two parallel lines across to divide the sheet into six roughly equal boxes.  This gives you a planning sheet of two-month increments (Jan/Feb, Mar/Apr, etc).  Or just draw one vertical and one horizontal line for the quarters of the year.  Write out the big goals for each segment and then break those goals down into action steps.  This is a really good time to block out space for non-writing events such as Kirsten’s and Amanda’s trips to writers conventions, Michelle’s schedule of finals and thesis presentations, etc. I have half the month of October and the whole month of January blocked out for time with my grandson.

Create a road map to your goals.

By having a clear set of goals in mind, you have a road map to follow.  If there’s anything you need to learn or a skill you need to develop, that needs to go on your map as well.  Use the major goals from your grids to crate monthly and then weekly goals.  Set deadlines.  Share them with someone who will check up on you.  Do your best to line things out so there’s always something to do.  Some parts of the process are times of waiting (resting the draft, waiting for a class to begin).  Find ways to fill that time with things that support and help meet your goals (social media, research, pre-write, etc).

Set your schedule.

Once you have your goals broken down to monthly and weekly levels, complete with deadlines, get out your calendar and schedule the time.  Calculate your daily word count against your deadline.  For example, if you want to complete a 90,000 word draft in six months, you need to write 3462 words a week.  Break that down into five, six, or seven days to give you a daily word count goal. (Note: with practice, you will write faster.  Keep this in mind while setting future goals.  Three thousand words (or more) a day isn’t out of reach if you have the time.  Busy single moms are still ahead of the above example if they write 500 words a day, every day.  If you need help finding time to write, let us know. Kirsten is a busy mom with two kids, Amanda’s work schedule is just insane, Michelle is a full time Masters student, and, until recently, I worked and cared for my toddler grandchild.  We can help you find time).

Stick with it.

You have schedule and goals on paper.  Now comes the hard part.  Stick to it.  Every day. This is how you develop the good habits and the discipline to reach those goals.  To use an old stand by, this is where the rubber meets the road and you put your map into action.  (It’s also the toughest part).

Plan to re-evaluate your goals every few months just to make sure you have the right schedule.  If you work faster than expected, adjust your deadlines.  If you find you can only get 250 words out every day, adjust your deadlines.  Do not stop.  Keep moving forward, keep protecting the habits and discipline.

Experienced writers, what goal and schedule tips can you provide?  New writers, what is your greatest current struggle?