Friday, December 30, 2011

Diseases and Dying - Then and Now

There’s an old saying that goes, “The rate of death has not changed since the days of the Bubonic Plague. It’s still one per person.”
What has changed, and most dramatically, is people’s attitudes to death and they way it is dealt with. Many writers forget that penicillin (that is, antibiotics) weren’t in common use until 1945 and there was a war on then, so many ordinary people still didn’t know about them, or had no access to them. Germ theory wasn’t proven until 1905 and even after that many people refused to believe something they couldn’t see could make them ill.
Therefore death was common and expected. Most families, even in the early twentieth century, had a child who died from measles, or influenza or diarrhea. One hundred years earlier, one quarter of all teenage brides still died in childbirth, and most women were married before they were twenty. Families did not mourn their children any less than a family does now, but death was expected, considered a part of life. Death was a fellow-traveler, always present and as likely to strike from a simple infected cut as from cholera or typhoid—diseases which appeared regularly with droughts and floods.
Any historical novel needs to accurately reflect this situation and the attitudes of those times. Today’s treatment of diseases, death and dying, are totally different from those of last century. Every time I read about a heroine washing the wound, pouring alcohol over it to cleanse it, then carefully sterilizing her needle before sewing up the wound, I shake my head. No, no, and no. A village wise woman may have learned that cleaning a wound helped it heal, but the local water supply was probably full of germs, alcohol was more likely to be forced down the victim’s throat to help them bear the pain, and the wound may have been covered with moss, or spider webs, or a dirty piece of old fabric.

Helen Woodall

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The seasonally adjusted story

This blog was originally published on

Dearest Editor
I know you will be wanting to buy some Christmas stories with Christmas just around the corner so I am sending you my latest masterpiece. I just know you will love it as much as I do.
Originally it was going to be about Halloween but life intervened – you know how it does – and I didn't get it finished but I just changed the pumpkin pie into mince pies so I am sure everything will be fine.
Love from
Your Favorite Author

Hello Author
I am sorry to inform you your book is not acceptable as it is. You need to do some more revising.
I can quite understand that it may snow at Halloween and Christmas where you live, but you sent your hero and heroine off on vacation to Uncle Charlie’s in Australia – and December is summer there. They need sunscreen and flip flops, not coats and snow boots.
And in Australia chrysanthemums flower in May not December.
And birds do not fly south to escape the winter. South is the Antarctic. It is very cold there.
Your Editor

Dearest Editor
Since it took you a whole month to read my book I am not going to be able to get it ready in time for Christmas now, so I have made it into a Valentine’s Day story. The pumpkin pie/mince pies are now jelly cakes in the shape of a heart – so very romantic.
I have changed the flowers and the birds. Did you know Begonias flower all year round – I can use them in every book I write and never have to worry again!!!
Love from
Your Favorite Author

Hello Author
Maybe because you have changed the dates of your story so much there is now nothing at all to make it a real Valentine’s Day story. Jelly cakes in the shape of a heart are indeed a lovely romantic gesture but they do not specifically say “Valentine’s Day”. Nor do Begonias.
Perhaps you should decide on a holiday and stick to it. Do some research specifically about that holiday and then weave those items into your story –spooky details for Halloween, maybe some carols for Christmas, and something unusually romantic for Valentine’s Day. Really the whole point about writing a holiday story is that the season is an integral focus of the plot – it brings the characters together for a reason or to a specific place or to do something different from normal.
If you send your characters to some special location you should use that location in the story. Uncle Charlie lives in Queensland – there is a very famous coral reef there that I am sure would make a wonderful background for a romantic scene.
I am sorry to inform you that your book is still not acceptable in its current form
Your Editor

Helen Woodall

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Colloquial speech, local dialects and bad grammar

Not all bad guys use bad grammar. Some are very suave and sophisticated. Similarly, not all persons doing low-paid jobs use bad grammar either.
Every person from Scotland does not use “wee” or “drap” in every second sentence, nor does every Australian call you “mate”.
Typecasting happens because there are similarities inside groups. An Australian is far more likely to call you “mate” than a British person is, but both of them are more likely to use your given name.
Please don’t typecast your characters. If that strong young man on the road crew drops his mallet on his toe he probably will swear. But then, so would a doctor or lawyer. And all of them are equally likely to say invite (verb) instead of invitation (noun) because they’re probably all on Facebook. But there is no excuse for bad grammar in narrative. Nor is there need for endless “local color” in dialogue. The lady in the Scottish hotel may offer your hero “A wee drap” of something alcoholic to drink. But leave it there. Don’t overload your story with colloquialisms or poor grammar.

Do you have a book you want edited before sending it to a publisher or self-publishing it?
Contact Helen Woodall for prices and services.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wandering Body Parts

Almost every reader has been pulled out of a story at some time by wandering body parts.
“His eyes were glued to her face.”
Ah no. His gaze may have been fixed on her face, but his eyes were probably still in his head, like normal.
“His feet raced to the door.”
What? The rest of him stayed behind?
“It might seem romantic to say, “He gave her his heart,” but to some people, who’ve watched too many horror movies, that is not a romantic image at all.

Some publishing houses have rules that prohibit body parts moving independently.
“His fingers wandered onto her thigh.” No, in these houses, he has to be in control, so “He let his fingers drift onto her thigh”. Besides, I’m betting those fingers were still attached to his hand, so therefore the second version makes more sense. Although, “He gently stroked her thigh” might be even better.
Before sending your book to a publishing house or agent, be sure to check it for wandering body parts. Always remember that some people will be icked by the thought of body organs having an out-of-body experience.
Helen Woodall

Friday, December 16, 2011

Tough Love. Suck it up, Princess

Sometimes an editor needs to use tough love on her authors. I'm blogging over at Amarinda Jones' today talking about tough love.
Suck it up, Princess.

Helen Woodall

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Dialogue tags versus action tags

This is an area where most publishers have “house style” rules which must be followed. So if you are submitting to a specific publisher you need to follow their rules even if they aren’t what you’d prefer.
Most fiction publishers these days allow some action tags to be used as dialogue tags. By this I mean “he grunted”, “she squealed” are acceptable. Generally speaking, “he nodded” is not as it’s a silent move.
Another thing to watch is that while many literary workshops strongly encourage the use of words other than “said”, many readers of popular fiction find an endless list of “she snorted”, “she laughed”, “he groaned”, “he rasped”, intensely annoying. It pulls them out of the story. If it’s quite clear who is speaking, and if their action makes the descriptor unnecessary (they are running away from the bad guy while he speaks, so unless he is very fit, the reader can guess “he gasped”) you don’t need a dialogue tag at all. A brief section of dialogue with no tags at all can be much more dramatic and immediate than even the most creative of dialogue tags.
Which do you prefer?
“Is the bad guy still chasing us?” asked the heroine.
The hero glanced over his shoulder. “Yes, sweet one, I’m afraid he is,” hero explained.
“Oh dear,” she replied.

“Is the bad guy still chasing us?"
The hero glanced over his shoulder. “Yes, sweet one, I’m afraid he is.”
“Oh dear.”

In the second version it’s quite clear who is speaking, and the pace is faster, more appropriate for a chase scene.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Put your book on a diet

When your book is finished and you’ve let it sit a while, it’s time for you to put it on a diet. By this I mean to ruthlessly prune unnecessary words, sentences and even entire scenes.
Quite often a scene that made sense when you wrote it has become a waste of space by the end of the story, as the character development or place it was meant to show is no longer needed, or has been described much better elsewhere.
How many times have you written phrases like, “He blinked his eyes”. “She shrugged her shoulders”.
Stand in front of the mirror. Can you blink anything other than your eyes? Can you shrug anything other than your shoulders? No. “He blinked”. “She shrugged”, says it all.
Then there are sentences like, “She visibly shook with tension”. Uh-huh. While you’re there in front of the mirror try to shake invisibly. Doesn’t work does it?
There’s a lot of common phrases like these, and using them once or twice is not a problem. But if you find them cropping up again and again it’s time to put your book on a diet and get rid of them. They’ll grate on your readers’ nerves.
Helen Woodall

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Cover letters: First Impressions are Important

When you go to a job interview you make sure your nailpolish isn’t chipped and that your clothes are clean, neat and appropriate. You should act exactly the same with a cover letter when you send your book to a publishing house or agent.
Proofread it. Polish it. Get a critical friend to check it for grammar, spelling and punctuation. Make sure you have done exactly what the publisher/agent asked you to do. If they said provide a one page summary of the book that means one page. And not one page in 20 point font or 6 point font either.
If they ask for a brief personal biography they mean a writing-related biography. List any publishing credits or experience you have. No matter how cute your kitten is, the publisher does not want to know about it.
KISS = Keep it short and simple.
If your cover letter is messy or irrelevant or does not provide the information they asked for, the chances of the agent/publisher reading your book diminish greatly.
Helen Woodall

Monday, December 5, 2011

The ingredients for a good book.

Characters. If the reader cannot relate to your characters she will not continue reading. She may love them or hate them, but the author has to draw the reader into their lives so she keeps reading. If a character is Too Stupid To Live (eg. walking alone into a possible murderer’s house) you will lose the reader right then and there.
These days, female characters are expected to make an effort to solve their own problems. The hero may still come riding up on his white horse to sweep her away, but she should have been endeavoring to solve her own problems, not crying in a corner and wringing her hands.
Plot. There must be a plot. It is through the plot the characters show their development and build their relationship. In an erotic romance the sex may be part of the plot, but there must be something else happening as well—a bad guy to defeat, the world to save, or whatever.
If you are marketing your book as an erotic romance there must be detailed sexual encounters as well as hot, steamy looks. Otherwise what you have written is a mainstream romance.

Fiction writing is a very tough, competitive world. Give yourself an edge toward success by having Helen edit your book. Rates on application.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How to argue with your editor

As I said in an earlier post, the writer’s relationship with her editor should be a professional one. Your editor is neither your mother, nor your best friend. She is there to work with you to make your book the best it can be. Therefore arguing with her about every comma and editing change is not a good idea. If your book is being published by a publishing house, there will be House Style which has to be followed. There will be set, unchangeable rules about things like semi colons and certain word choices. Arguing about these things is simply a waste of time, as the publisher will not suddenly rewrite their style manual for you.
Most publishers follow the Chicago Manual of Style. Again, if there is something you want changed that breaks the rules in CMOS, you can stamp your feet as much as you like, but your change is not going to happen.
Outside of these things though, if you explain to your editor why you want something expressed a certain way, she will listen to you. If it’s not possible she will tell you why. It may be that your sentence had simply been unclear and she’d misunderstood what you were trying to convey.
As long as you remain polite and professional, it’s perfectly fine to argue with your editor. Just understand there are some things out of her power to change.
Helen Woodall