Author Archives: Susan Albert

From Manuscript to Book: Part 3, Editing Your Own Work

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I’m posting a brief series about editing and copyediting. Here’s Part 3– important lessons learned from long experience in editing my own work and the work of others. Here are seven things you can do to clean up your manuscript before you send it to a reader (a friend, beta reader, agent, copyeditor, or editor).

  1. Put your darling on the shelf. When your project is finished, go on to something else. Give your work time to cool off and yourself time to put some distance between you and that precious thing you’ve written. When you come back to it, return as a stranger, with analytic eyes.
  2. Print and read (or read from your Word file). Seeing your work on paper and hearing it read may clue you to problems, glitches, and stylistic infelicities. Print and read aloud, making pencil changes to your text. Or read aloud from your Word file, making changes as you do. Another option: send your Word document to your Amazon Kindle account, and read it on another device. I sometimes read a Kindle copy on my iPad, marking the changes I want to make.
  3. Search and destroy those personal gremlins. Every writer has her own personal gremlins (words like affect/effect, less/fewer, your/you’re). Know what yours are, so you can be on the alert for them.
  4. Repetition repetition repetition. Readers notice careless repetitions of words and phrases. You should notice them first (and reject, revise, replace) before you submit your work. My copyeditors use the phrase “close repetition” to remind  me of too many raised eyebrows, frowns, nods, sighs, and so on. I try to catch these before a file leaves my computer.
  5. Present a professional appearance. You don’t wear shorts to a job interview; you make sure you’re appropriately dressed and your hair is combed. (Makeup optional.)  Conforming to “industry standards” makes your work look professional. Here are the basics:
  • Send your manuscript as a Word document (.doc or .docx).
  • Align the text to the left, ragged (don’t justify).
  • Double space in Times New Roman black 12-point font.
  • Single space after periods.
  • Use page breaks between chapters. Start chapters a third of the way down the page.
  • Use #s to indicate scene breaks: insert a space above and below.
  • Number the pages. Center bottom is fine.
  • Check for chapter breaks. I reduce my file image to about 50% or 60% and click rapidly through the pages. This gives me a quick overview of the file and I’m able to see missing breaks.
  1. Run spell check. Yes, I know—Word checks spelling as we type. But another spell check won’t hurt. You might not accept the changes, but you may catch some errors before they get to your editor or reader.
  2. Puzzled? If you have a question about usage, grammar, or formatting issues, check with an industry-standard style manual, such as the Chicago Manual of Style. I subscribe to the online edition (currently $35 a year), and I use it when I’m writing. When my copyeditor returns a file, she frequently notes problems by referring to the CMOS. The print edition is also available, but the online edition allows you to make notes, create your own references, and search.

I’m expecting The General’s Women back from my copyeditor in the next few weeks. When that arrives, I’ll share some thoughts on that process. Watch this space.

Reading note. Editing is the very edge of your knowledge forced to grow–a test you can’t cheat on.–S. Kelley Harrell

From Manuscript to Book: The Copyeditor

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Part 1 in this series, The Copyedit, is here. This is Part 2.

The Copyeditor

As a traditionally published author, I’ve worked with many copyeditors, but I never get to know their names, since we only meet via the manuscript. In fact, because they work on contract for the publisher, I rarely get the same copyeditor twice. One of the pleasures of publishing my own work is the privilege of working directly with the people who help me produce the book you’ll hold in your hand or read digitally.

For The General’s Women (coming March 2017), I have a new copyeditor, Sandra Spicher, who comes with a great deal of experience and a top recommendation from my (now-retired) editor at the University of Texas Press. I thought you might like to meet her.

Sandra

About herself, Sandra says that she was “one of those kids who drooled over those old ads in the back of comics and magazines: ‘Get paid to read books!'” As a freelance writer and copyeditor, she’s living the dream. She tries to leave time for her own projects, but a good book can usually tempt her. “If a manuscript sparks my interest,” she says, “I can’t say no. I work on a mix of fiction and nonfiction, but my heart belongs to fiction. I’m especially drawn to complicated stories that feature female, LGBTQ, and POC protagonists.”

As a copyeditor, Sandra is radically eclectic:

Because I’m fluent in Spanish, publishers often treat me to books that are written at least partially in Spanish or have some Latin American affinity. Recent projects I’ve copyedited or indexed include a translation of a colonial Spanish religious official’s investigation into the deaths of priests in Florida, an architect’s loving description of colonial churches in Mexico, a view of syncretism in Guatemala, and the relationship between art and literacy in colonial Peru. An offshoot of that has been books set in the Middle East, either historical or contemporary. Besides Latin American and Middle Eastern studies, film and TV, race relations, aviation history, and literary criticism are some of the subjects that crop up in the nonfiction books publishers send me.

But Sandra isn’t just a copyeditor. The General’s Women won’t require an index, but if it did, she’s the person I’d turn to. “I also enjoy the process of indexing,” she says, and tells us why:

It requires a deep engagement with the text to choose what headings and subheadings will most serve a particular book’s varied audiences. I recently indexed a book about the HBO seriesThe Wire that made me want to watch the whole thing again. Books about race in Brazil and post-Katrina New Orleans have left me gasping for breath at their insights. After indexing the revised edition of Philip Naylor’s North Africa, I sense that George R. R. Martin might have had a peek at something like it while writing A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s certainly some precedent for the Red Wedding.

I’ve asked Sandra to tell us something about a day in the life of a copyeditor. That’s coming in Part 3 of this brief series, so stay tuned.

Reading note: Knowing how to tinker with a broken piece of prose until it hums is a source of contentment known by all who have mastered a worthy craft.― Carol Fisher Saller. The Subversive Copy Editor

From Manuscript to Book: The Copyedit, Part 1

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The General’s Women, the third in my series of historical / biographical novels, is now in the production queue. I’ve asked a number of people (historians, a biographer, and other readers) to read it and give me suggestions. The next step is to put together a production team, which includes a copyeditor, a cover designer, and a formatter, in addition to Kerry Sparks, who manages publishing, distribution, and subrights.

I asked an editor, now retired from the University of Texas Press, to recommend someone good–someone who is used to dealing with footnotes. (The epilogue of the novel tells a true story for the first time, so I’ve documented my sources.) My editor friend recommended Sandra Spicher. Sandra and I got acquainted via email. After this preliminary handshake, I sent her my manuscript (in Word). She returned several sample pages, edited. I was delighted, and asked her to join my production team. (More about that in future posts.)

You can meet Sandra via her website. But since I know that many of you are also writers, I thought you’d like to know what a copyeditor does. (The book publishing industry makes copyeditor one word, Sandra tells me; for journalism, it’s two.) Readers may be interested in book production, as well. After all, you’re the final beneficiary of the copyeditor’s work. The copyeditor may be invisible, but she (or he) contributes enormously to the book’s final presentation.

I asked Sandra to send me some of her thoughts, as a copyeditor, about the process of working with an author. Here are her thoughts. (More coming in a later post.)

1. An author usually starts looking for a copyeditor when she has revised the manuscript in response to feedback from herbeta readers and/or a developmental editor and feel that it’s super clean. It just needs fresh eyes and a final polish.

2. An author needs to be sure she’s compatible with her copyeditor, and we want that, too. Ask published authors in your writing groups and on social media for a few recommendations. Out of these, choose two to four prospects who appeal to you, or who have worked on manuscripts similar to yours. Investigate us online, if you like—you’d do that for a person watching your children or pets, right? Your book deserves someone who will treat it with similar tenderness and respect.

3. Approach the copyeditors you’ve selected one at a time (that is, no multiple submissions) with a query similar to what you might send an agent: include word count, a brief description of the book, and how you heard about them. Suggest a schedule and ask about availability. Be frank about the genre, any explicit sex or violence, religious and political themes, and so on.

4. Most copyeditors are glad to provide a brief sample edit at no charge. It’s the way many of us discover whether we’re compatible with an author or manuscript, too, and what our budget should be. It’s best to send your entire manuscript in Microsoft Word so that the copyeditor can choose a few pages to work on. Most of us realize that the first few pages are likely to be the cleanest, and we’ll pick a section from the last half of the book to sample.

5. When you receive the sample copyedit, read through the corrections to get a feel for the kind of things that are marked. You should sense a willingness to explain rules but not necessarily to insist upon them. When I’m editing, I refer constantly to dictionaries, websites, and style guides—and many of those contradict each other.  From the beginning, English has been expanding to fit our world, to the delight of many copyeditors and the dismay of others. When in doubt, an experienced copyeditor will query or let the author’s decision stand. The sample should help you determine which way your copyeditor leans, and whether the two of you are a match.

You’ll hear more from Sandra later, and I’ll also include some of my own observations about working with a copyeditor.

Reading note. Self editing is the path to the dark side. Self editing leads to self delusion, self delusion leads to missed mistakes, missed mistakes lead to bad reviews. Bad reviews are the tools of the dark side.–Eric T. Benoit

On Writing Women’s Biographical Fiction

Most readers know me as a mystery author, but for the past five or six years, I’ve been indulging my interest in biographical fiction. My first biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, told the story of Rose Wilder Lane, the woman who rewrote the family stories her mother—Laura Ingalls Wilder—had written down. Together, they created the Little House books. When publishers weren’t interested in the book, I published it under my own imprint, Persevero Press. A Wilder Rosehas sold over 60,000 copies and is under option for film.

My second biographical novel, based on letters held in the FDR Presidential Library, tells the story of the friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Titled Loving Eleanor, it too was published by Persevero Press just a few months ago. I’m almost finished with a third, set during WW2 and into the postwar years. The General’s Women is about Kay Summersby, Mamie Eisenhower, and Ike, the man they both loved. It is based on Kay’s memoirs, Eisenhower biographies, and letters I found in the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Another project, now in the research stage: a novel about the five women who loved Franklin Roosevelt: his mother, his wife, his lover, his secretary, and his cousin. I’m tempted to call it Loving Franklin, to pair it with Loving Eleanor.

Writing biographical fiction is—for me—deeply satisfying work. I am far more interested in her stories than I am in histories. I am fascinated by stories of women who have set out to do things, discover things, make their way in a man’s world, even change that world and the people in it. Unfortunately, history—that is, our public memory, the culture’s corporate record of events and ideas—is not only written by the winners but written by the men who have won. The stories of women who counted for something are usually hidden in history, behind his stories, because their achievements often challenge commonly-accepted beliefs about how women are supposed to behave. So I spend a lot of time digging around in unpublished diaries, letters, autobiographical fragments, pieces of memoir—listening for voices that need to be heard. Silenced voices, misunderstood voices, whispers. Not history. Her stories.

It’s a good thing that I enjoy research, because any kind of historical fiction—fiction set in the past—requires quite a lot of it. Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research demands. And biographical fiction about a well-known, much-admired woman is extraordinarily challenging. For Loving Eleanor, I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find to read. At the time (2014-2015), there wasn’t much published material about Lorena Hickok, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins and an inadequate biography. The Roosevelts, of course, are the subject of dozens of books, so I ended up with a full bookcase and plenty of film and online resources.
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But since I’m interested in the hidden stories, what I’m chiefly after are unpublished documents. It is our great good fortune that Lorena Hickok, who clearly wanted somebody to tell the story of her friendship with the First Lady, donated her collection of letters and other documents to the FDR Presidential Library. Reading them is very much like listening to hundreds of hours of private, intimate conversation. I found myself pulled deeply into the worlds that Hick and Eleanor shared. That’s when the real questions began to arise. Who are these women, behind the personas history has created for them? What do they want, what do they need? What are they afraid of? What is it they have to learn? Where is the real story, the hidden story? These are the questions that take us deep into the imaginative heart of fiction, but keep us within the boundaries established by the biographical and historical facts—the truths—that careful and persistent research can discover.

I heard filmmaker Errol Morris speak recently about making documentary films. “We don’t  judge a documentary film on whether it tells the truth,” he said, “but whether it attempts to seek the truth and asks you to think about the relationship between the film and what the truth might be—if it could be found.”

That’s what I’m trying to do with these biographical fictions about women’s hidden lives. I want to take us toward what the truth of their lives might be—if it can be found.


Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded the Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website: susanalbert.com.

Lorena Hickok, Journalist

 

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by Story Circle Founder and President, Susan Wittig Albert

Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research and writing demands. And sometimes, extraordinary challenges.

For Loving Eleanor—the story of Lorena Hickok’s friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt —I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find about Lorena (Hick, she was called). As it turned out, there wasn’t much readily accessible material, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins, a woefully inadequate biography published in 1980 by Doris Faber, and Rodger Streitmatter’s notes in Empty Without You, his collection of letters written by Hick and Eleanor. I had a lot of digging to do.

Hick was a woman who went through life with her elbows out. She began working as a journalist at the Battle Creek Journal in 1913 when she was just 19. She had a gift for telling a taut, well-honed story, and her abilities were quickly recognized. Two years later, she moved to the Milwaukee Sentinel, briefly to the New York Tribune, then (in 1918), to the Minneapolis Tribune, where she earned her stripes as a reporter, feature writer, and Sunday editor. In an unusual move, her editor, Tom Dillon, assigned her to the sports desk. Her breezy, conversational style was new to sports journalism, and as a female sportswriter, her work was groundbreaking.

In 1927, at the end of a failed love affair, Hick went back to New York, first to the tabloid Mirror and then to the Associated Press. She was the first woman to be hired in the flagship New York bureau. Fearless and energetic, she quickly earned a by-line. In her first year at the AP, she covered the sinking of the steamship Vestris, which gave her another first: she was the first woman to have a bylined front page story in the New York Times. As an investigative reporter, she covered politics (FDR’s election as New York governor in 1928); political corruption (the downfall of New York mayor Jimmy Walker and the hugely complicated trial of banker Charles E. Mitchell); and sensational crime (the Lindbergh baby kidnapping). I’ve found her bylined stories in hundreds of newspapers across the country, and almost every story is a standout.

In 1933, at the top of her game, Hick left the AP. It was an anguished decision she felt she was forced to make. Her deepening personal (and very intimate) friendship with the new First Lady made it impossible for her to write objectively about the Roosevelt administration. She believed that she was ethically compromised, and she did the honest–but very painful–thing. She went to work for Harry Hopkins, the director of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. For the next two years, she traveled across the country, investigating government-sponsored relief programs and reporting on Depression-era conditions in 32 states. Her nearly 80 confidential FERA reports, written in bleak hotel rooms late at night, provide us with vivid, no-holds-barred descriptions of the appalling—and yet heroic—plight of millions of destitute Americans. She felt their anguish. Even now, reading her reports, we can feel it, too.

When Hick left FERA in 1936, it was the end of her work as an investigative journalist–but not the end of her writing career. In another post, we’ll take a look at her 15-year career as a biographer.

 

Lorena Hickok, Biographer

This is Part 2 of a two-part series of posts about Lorena Hickok, the journalist whose friendship helped to put Eleanor Roosevelt into the media spotlight–and the central character in my novel, Loving EleanorPart 1 is about Hick’s work as a journalist. But she didn’t just write newspaper stories. After she retired from political life in 1945, she wrote biographies. This post is a quick sketch of that part of her writing career.

In 1952, at the suggestion of Eleanor’s literary agent, Nannine Joseph, Hick undertook the writing of profiles of women in political life–the first book of its kind. Called Ladies of Courage, it was an inspiring account of women’s struggle for recognition in American public and political life in the thirty-five years since women had gained the vote. ER lent the luster of her name to the book and Tommy typed the manuscript, but Hick spent the better part of two years on the research—including extensive interviews with her subjects—and the writing. Before she submitted the finished manuscript, she shared it with ER, who wrote: At last tonight I’ve finished reading your material [for Ladies of Courage] and it is simply swell I think. Much more interesting than I thought it could possibly be made.

The book, which included profiles of Frances Perkins, Clare Boothe Luce, Helen Gahagan Douglas, and Oveta Culp Hobby, was published in 1954. Thanks to ER’s name recognition, it received extensive newspaper attention. Hick traveled around the country, speaking to women’s groups about the book and about the challenges women faced in political life. In recognition of her authorship, ER assigned her the royalties, which cumulatively amounted to about $4,000 (about $35,000 in 2015).

As a journalist, Hick had always been deeply interested in people who had stories, who met extraordinary challenges. In the profiles of the Ladies of Courage, Hick had found a narrative voice that enabled her to tell these stories. After that book was published, she began work on what would be three biographies for young readers in Grosset & Dunlap’s much-heralded Signature Books series: The Story of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1956), The Story of Helen Keller (1958), and The Story of Eleanor Roosevelt (1959). For Scholastic, Hick also wrote a biography of FDR, this one focusing on his early political life: The Road to the White House: FDR, The Pre-Presidential Years (1962).

Of the four books for young readers, Hick’s biography of Helen Keller was the most successful. It was adopted by several school-affiliated book clubs, and sales were boosted even further by the 1957 teleplay by William Gibson, The Miracle Worker, followed by the Broadway play and the 1962 film of the starring Patty Duke. The royalties would help to support Hick for the rest of her life.

When Hick was doing the research for the Keller biography, she became deeply interested in Keller’s teacher, and went on to write a biography for older teens called The Touch of Magic: The Story of Helen Keller’s Great Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. The book was published by Dodd, Mead in 1961. Hick felt a special admiration for Macy, who had given Helen Keller her voice. “No author ever finished a book with greater regret,” she wrote in her foreword. “During the months I worked on this book she became as real to me as a living person . . . I miss her.” I can’t help wondering if Hick saw something of herself in Anne Sullivan Macy. Perhaps Hick thought that the empowering help she gave Eleanor—encouraging her to do the press conferences, supporting her early efforts as a writer, urging her to write her newspaper column—was something like the help that Teacher (Helen Keller’s name for Macy) provided her student. Teacher gave Helen her voice and helped to create a place for her in the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that Hick gave Eleanorher voice, as well.

While Hick was working on the Macy biography, she struck up a professional friendship with Allen Klots, her editor at Dodd, Mead. When The Touch of Magic was finished, Hick proposed to Klots the project that became Eleanor Roosevelt: Reluctant First Lady, the book for which Hick is probably best known. It sketches out their most intense friendship without, of course, giving clues to its intimacy. Finished in 1961, Reluctant First Lady was published just prior to ER’s death. it sold well and the royalties from that and her other projects provided Hick with something approaching a comfortable living.

Throughout her adult life, Hick was severely diabetic, and the disease began to curtail her professional activities in the late 1930s. When she finished Reluctant First Lady, she began a biography of labor leader Walter Reuther (also for Dodd, Mead), but her failing eyesight compelled her to stop not long before her death in 1968. That project was completed by Jean Gould and published under the title Walter Reuther: Labor’s Rugged Individualist—with Hick’s name on the cover, as well as Gould’s. That book brought to eight the number of biographies Hick produced in the last fifteen years of her life.

And speaking of biographies: a new dual biography of Hick and Eleanor, by Susan Quinn, will be out in September. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m anxious to read it. I hope Quinn will pay attention to Hick as a writer, as well as the woman who helped to give Eleanor Roosevelt her voice. Hick’s first biographer, Doris Faber, failed her. She deserves a biographer who understands and pays attention to her professional work, as well as her empowering friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Want to read more about Susan’s journey in writing Loving Eleanor? Check out The Secret Story Behind Loving Eleanor.

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Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded The Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website:www.susanalbert.com

The Secret Story Behind LOVING ELEANOR

 

 

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By Story Circle founder and president, Susan Wittig Albert

Some stories beg to be told; some books beg to be written.

For me, the story of the long and intimate friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok was one of those stories–and Loving Eleanor was one of those books. Of all the many responses I’ve had when I’ve discussed the book (forthcoming Feb 1) with readers, the question I most often hear is some variation of “Why didn’t we know this already?”

The most important reason is the most obvious one: the over 3300 letters that document the women’s 30-year friendship were intentionally kept secret. Most of Lorena’s letters to Eleanor were destroyed, probably by ER’s children, after her death. However, Hick kept ER’s letters (and some of her own).

In 1962, after Eleanor’s death, Hick (then in her 70s), realized that she had to find a way to keep the letters safe. The most important threat came from the Roosevelt children, who would not have wanted evidence of the deeply romantic nature of their mother’s friendship with another woman to become public knowledge. They would have destroyed the letters, as they almost certainly located and destroyed the letters ER wrote to her longtime friend, Earl Miller. Another threat came from Joseph Lash, who considered himself the “official” biographer of the Roosevelt family. If Lash acquired the letters, he would likely solidify his relationship with the Roosevelt sons by destroying them. And of course, publishing them herself was not an option at the time, as you can guess.

Hick chose the best and most prudent course. She had a personal relationship with a curator at the FDR Presidential Museum, who urged her to leave her collection to the library. She took his advice, stipulating that the letters be sealed for ten years after her death. She trusted the professional librarians there to keep the letters safe, and they did–although it is fair to say that they had no idea what was in them. Hick died in 1968; the letters were opened to the public, without any announcement, in 1978.

To be continued… Watch this space for another installment of the story. In the meantime, you can read an excerpt from the novel and view my Pinterest photo collection on the book’s website.

Loving Eleanor will be published on Feb 1, 2016. It is available for preorder now on Amazon. Susan Wittig Albert is the founder and current (2015-2017) president of SCN. Susan is a New York Times bestselling author who is publishing her biographical/historical novels under her own imprint, Persevero Press.

Susan Wittig Albert

Susan Wittig Albert

Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded The Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website:www.susanalbert.com

Aside

by Susan Wittig Albert Last week we published part one of our interview with our Stories from the Heart Conference keynote speaker, Brooke Warner. Want to see Brooke in person? Make sure and sign up early for the conference! Brooke … Continue reading