Author Archives: Susan Albert

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 2 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Write about the three most significant jobs (include volunteer work) you ever had. Later, choose one job and write about it. Be sure to tell how you grew from the experience. How did the work enrich your life?
  • List the three most memorable events in your life. Later, choose one and write down everything you can remember about it.
  • What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you? Later, see if you can remember two or three other funny things.
  • List four things you would do differently if you had a choice. Later, write in detail about one of these. Why would you choose differently? What choice would you make instead? What difference do you think it would have made in your life?
  • Write down five things that please and delight you the most. Later, choose one and do it. Write about the enjoyment and pleasure you feel.)

Starting cold? Warm up first! (part 1 of 2)

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


Have you ever tried to start a cold car in the middle of December? You hit the ignition, you give it extra gas—and nothing happens! Sometimes getting started on a piece of writing is just as hard as starting a cold engine. No matter how much we might want to get going, sometimes we just can’t find the spark, or we can’t seem to turn on the fuel. What we need is an extra charge for the battery, a little push, a boost. What we need is something to get us started, to warm us up!

Here are some warm-up exercises that will not only get the ink flowing, but will also give you plenty of ideas to write about later. You might try doing each of these warm-ups on a clean page of your notebook, so that you can come back at another time and expand what you’ve written. (We’ve given you some ideas for ways that you can use the material you develop here.)

  • Make a list of the ten most important things that have ever happened to you. Later, write a page about each one. What happened? Who was involved? Why did it happen? Why was it important to you? What were the consequences?
  • Write down the three most important lessons you have ever learned. Later, write about what you did with the knowledge. Why were these lessons valuable to you?
  • In chronological order, jot down all the houses you’ve ever lived in. Later, choose the 3 most important and describe them. What made them important?
  • Write down the names of the people you have loved longest and most dearly. Later, choose 3 to write about. Why did you love these people? What did they add to your life?
  • Describe the three most imporant choices you’ve ever made. Later, write about what happened after you made each of these choices. What did they lead to?

Seeing Double: Writing from Photos

This post is one of Susan’s LifeStory Briefs, written exclusively for Story Circle members and shared with you here with her permission.


For most of us, a photograph is a way of holding the past in our hands—seeing what happened, when, with whom. Photos are a testimony to a time now gone, and to our intimate connection with people who may no longer be alive. They are a way of “seeing double”—recalling past events and reliving them in the present. For those of us who want to write about our lives, photographs can be a fine resource.

Using Photos to Remember

Here today, gone tomorrow—the past is as slippery and hard to hold as a wet fish. But when we have a photo to write from, our memory of the past may become much clearer—or we may find something new to notice, some new discovery about the past that has eluded us.Try this: find a favorite photo of yourself with someone who has influenced you—your mother, your father, a much-loved aunt, a husband or lover. Look at it for a moment, thinking about your relationship with the person and putting yourself back into the perspective of the girl or woman you were at that time. Then write. Who were you, back then? Who was this person? Why was he or she important to you then? What lessons did you learn, at that time, from him or her?

A Later Perspective

As you wrote the passage above, you were seeing the photograph from the point of view of the person you were at the time it was taken. Now, let’s try a different perspective, take a later point of view. We know that nfluential relationships are often double-edged: that is, we may be influenced to change in ways that might not be altogether right for us. Look at the photo again, but this time from the point of view of the woman you are now. How might your life have been different if the person in the photo had not been there? What did you learn from this person that you now wish you hadn’t? Is there something in the photo that gives you a clue to this more problematic aspect of the relationship? Perhaps there is something in the posture, in the facial expression, in the setting, that helps you see something different. Viewing the past from your present perspective may help you to uncover a different understanding of the events and relationships you have experienced.

Seeing Double: Finding the Truth

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Photographs don’t lie.” But this isn’t always true. In a workshop a few years ago, an older woman named Pearl brought a photo of herself as a small child, sitting on her mother’s lap. Both were smiling, both looked happy. “But those smiles were lies,” Pearl wrote. “My father had abandoned both of us. We had no money and we were afraid. But Mother didn’t want her parents to know how bad it was, so she sent them the photo to show that we were doing fine. ‘Just keep smiling,’ she would say, ‘and nobody will know the difference.’ Deception was the first lesson I had to unlearn,” Pearl adds, “when I began to search for my real self.” If you look through your photograph collection, you may find one that you can “see double”—that is, one you can see with the eyes of the person you were then, and with the eyes of the person you are now. What truth can you find in this photo? What new thing does it show you about the past through which you have lived?

Memoir Albums

If you have lots of photos, you might consider assembling a memoir album: a book of photos and your interpretations of the people and the events depicted—together with your own history, of course. You may be surprised by what you learn from this. Photographs can be a key to the treasures, and the traumas, of the deeply buried past. —Susan Albert

The Past in Pictures

You can learn a great deal about your past by studying the photos you have collected, particularly those of the family you grew up in. Use these questions to help you get started writing.Who?
Who are the people in the photographs? If you know them, write a paragraph or two about them: who they are, where they lived, how they were connected to you. If you don’t know them, ask family members to help with identification. Pay attention to the details of dress, posture, facial expression: these silent messages often speak very loudly.

Where and When?
Where were these photographs taken? What scenes are depicted? What do these tell you about the people? What years were the photos made? How old were you? What details of the period are evident in dress, vehicles, furniture, etc.? What can you write about the time and the place?

What?
Photographs often commenorate important family occasions: weddings, funerals, reunions, holidays. What are the occasions of the photos you have collected? What family rituals are being celebrated? What does this tell you about your family’s ethnic background, religious beliefs, economic and social class? How do you feel about these occasions now, as you look back on them? Write about the events, including not just the details of the event, but your feelings, as well.

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

Edit

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

Copyedited2

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

Copyedited

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.
herstories_HickokRoosevelt1small
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.