Ask Me Anything: How can an average person get their life story published?

Dana Jean writes:

I have a friend (yes, this is true, this is not me) and he has a really interesting non-fiction story to tell about life in a certain field of work. I have encouraged him to write about it, but he is so reluctant as he is embarrassed about his grammar, punctuation, spelling — he won’t do it.

How does someone with no contact at all with anything or anyone in the publishing field, how would he find a ghostwriter, or a really good, reliable editor? Could he approach an agent with the idea, and just honestly lay out his weaknesses and see if an agent would be interested and then set him up with someone?

The publishing world seems so snooty. So many really good stories out there in people (especially the elderly) who grew up in a time when some had to work a farm instead of getting an education, and we are missing out on history by insisting every comma be in the right place, and spacing be just so, and and and…

Any ideas I could pass onto him?

This is a great question. Capturing first person accounts is wonderful and important. Preserving these accounts for the future is vital.

Finding a commercial publisher for them is a different matter. Who would the story be written for? Family? The historical record? The general public? If somebody wants to get their memoir commercially published, they need to think about its appeal to readers. Is there a large potential audience for this story? Will the author’s voice delight them? Will the tale the author tells hold readers spellbound?

Hiring a ghostwriter would be expensive, and isn’t generally what agents do for would-be clients. As for finding an editor: I’m going to hand you over to someone far more knowledgeable about both editing and memoir writing.

From Ann Aubrey Hanson:

I’m sorry to hear this, Dana Jean. Unfortunately, your friend’s situation is not uncommon. Many people who can and should be telling their stories are inhibited by not being “literary” enough, or fearing that their lack of grammar and punctuation skills are game-enders.

But that’s not the case. In this situation, I would suggest one of two options, both of which I have offered to clients before, and both of which work out.

First, I would suggest that people opt to write a memoir rather than a novel. This isn’t the same as writing an autobiography, but rather is a collection of memories that are woven together into a framework.

I have offered classes as well as individual memoir writing lessons, in which I help people such as your friend to get their stories out, one vignette at a time, until we are able to see the narrative framework that works best for their life story. This is rewarding for the memoirist, as well as for me. I’ve worked with people from age 26 to 98, and each story has been eye opening.

The benefit of working individually or in a small group for memoir writing is that the author gets immediate feedback on his or her work, not only on content but also with respect to grammar, punctuation, and writing style. In this way, the author can improve, learning along the way.

The second option is to write their story/novel, and then to find an editor who will revamp the writing into correct English. This is less advantageous for the author, who won’t learn as much unless she or he studies the edits carefully. But it has the advantage of allowing the author to get the words on paper without worrying about grammar or style.

One caution, however. If a writer contacts an editor, that writer must be willing to pay for services, and not ask for a special discount since the writer is “new to this” and doesn’t “have much money.” The writer’s amateur status means more work for the editor, and logically the editor should charge more. Typically, I don’t do that, but I certainly don’t charge less. If a writer is serious about improving the written word, then the writer must pay for professional editing.

In either case, memoir writing guidance or after-the-fact editing, your friend and others with stories to tell should simply tell those stories, if not for general publication then for their families and friends and neighbors who might enjoy their unique life story. An African proverb says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Please tell your friend, Dana Jean, not to let his library burn before he records the stories of his life!

As always, I am here to help as memoir coach or editor.


Thanks, Ann. Good luck to your friend, Dana Jean.

Ask Me Anything: What were my favorite scenes to write?


Last week, I listed some questions I wish writers would ask me:

1. Which scenes were your favorites to write?
2. Why?
3.  Did all of your favorite-to-write scenes make it into the final draft of the book?

Okay. A few of my favorite-to-write scenes:

China Lake: Evan Delaney discovers a garbage can on fire in her brother’s back yard. When she sees what’s in flames… the plot turns. This scene had been in my head for more than a year. Finally writing it felt cathartic.

Mission Canyon: Evan suffers through a bridal-shower/cheesy-lingerie party. I survived a horrific lingerie party myself. I wrote the scene to cleanse myself of the memory. And when the book was published, I presented my editor with a handmade version of the lingerie set she couldn’t believe I’d invented: the Jackie Kennedy.

Jericho Point: Evan discovers what P.J. Blackburn has been up to, and confronts him in the most embarrassing and public way possible. I admit that while writing this scene, I made myself laugh. Partly because Evan gets to use a cocktail called a Flaming Asshole.

The Memory Collector: Jo Beckett flees a marksman firing at her with a high-powered rifle. While she’s zip-tied to the steering wheel of an SUV. And the marksman doesn’t realize that his family is in the vehicle. The scene was an emotional and logistic juggling act, and it raised my own blood pressure.

The Liar’s Lullaby: Jo body-rappels down the side of a San Francisco skyscraper. While wearing a tight black suit. I loved putting my research on rappelling to work. And putting Jo through the wringer.

The Shadow Tracer: I’m torn on this one. I loved writing the chase scene through Roswell where Sarah Keller fights Fell Worthe in the cargo bed of a pickup truck. There’s a nun at the wheel, homicidal maniacs in pursuit, a van of UFO tourists in the way… and Sarah’s only available weapon is a baby doll. But even more, I loved writing the scene where five-year-old Zoe Keller stands up in the middle of a desert sheriff’s station, stares out the door into the endless night, and tells a spooked U.S. Marshal, “Something’s coming.” Because scaring readers: that’s fun.

Phantom Instinct: Detective Erika Sorenstam makes her stand. Because she’s a badass.

A scene I like that didn’t make the final cut: In an unpublished manuscript, I wrote about a sting operation. Two people carrying out the sting go the office of a software millionaire and convince him they’re federal agents. They bamboozle him, to the point that he goes purple with rage, and tears off his tie and shirt.

Someday, maybe, that scene will find a new home.

Thanks for letting me talk about these scenes. It reminds me how rewarding writing can be.

Ask Me Anything: What’s the line between experimental and self-indulgent?

Chris Beausang asks:

Could be a difficult one — what’s the line between self-indulgence and ‘experimental’ when writing? How do you encourage avant-garde/weird stuff in a creative writing course or do you?

This is a good question, and important for writers to think about. Self-indulgence, according to Merriam-Webster, is “excessive or unrestrained gratification of one’s own appetites, desires, or whims.” I think writing becomes self-indulgent when it is solely about self-expression or about demonstrating virtuosity in technique.

Self-expression is a good reason to write. But it’s not a reason to expect people to read our work. Writing that’s only about self-expression — about pouring our thoughts and feelings onto the page — can come off as interior monologue without a filter; as incoherent stream-of-consciousness.

“Experimental” means using a new way of doing or thinking about something. In writing, the experiment can lie in the topic, the style, or the structure of the work. If you’re going to experiment — and come up with something that’s genuinely new, not just new to you — you need to know what has come before. What forms of storytelling, what dramatic structures has humanity developed over the millennia? You need to understand classic story structure, minimalist structure, anti-plot, and the boundaries of the avant-garde, before you can break any molds and call it an experiment. Otherwise it’s just pouring paint on the floor. Jackson Pollock didn’t do that.

The important thing is to understand story structure (if you’re writing fiction) and how to construct an argument or organize an article (if you’re writing nonfiction).

Expecting readers to embrace and congratulate every unedited blurt is self-indulgent. Writing to show off our vocabulary is self indulgent. We need to speak our truth, but if we want others to read it, we have to remember: the person who speaks has the responsibility to communicate. It’s up to the speaker to make sure their message gets through clearly to the recipient.

My grandfather taught me that. It’s still good advice.

That’s where I find the line. Does the writing communicate effectively? Does it speak the truth, and give the reader a powerful emotional experience? Does it work?

As for encouraging avant-garde stuff: absolutely. Especially in a class or when writing a first draft, be your blessed weird self. Hoist that freak flag as high as it’ll go. Pour everything out. Don’t censor, don’t edit. Try new things. Expand your repertoire. Develop new muscles. Soar, crash, and come at it from new angles. Experiment, or you’ll never grow.

Then, when that glorious pile of weird is writhing on the page, edit it until it coheres and shines.

Ask Me Anything: How completely do I outline — and rewrite?

More of your questions, and my answers.

Jack Hrusoff asks:

Do you commence a book with a complete outline before writing, or begin and then work toward the arcs and denouement?

Before I write the first word of chapter one, I spend a significant chunk of time — months, usually — brainstorming, spitballing, and then outlining the novel I’m going to write. I don’t outline in Roman Numerals, a la school reports, but I write a condensed look at the entire story: beginning, inciting incident, major turning points, climax and denouement. The outline can be anywhere from 2500-8000 words.

I do this because I learned from painful experience that when I wing it, writing by the seat of my pants, I flail and wander and end up in a thicket someplace far off the track, with no idea where to go next. I may invent a bunch of vivid scenes, and interesting characters, but the story stalls. It’s a waste of time and effort for me simply to put fingers to keyboard and see what happens.

Writing an outline forces me to think deeply about the characters and story before I sit down to draft it. It allows me to set up everything that needs to pay off for the story to satisfy readers. And it saves me months when I write the first draft.

Christa asks:

Do you engage in a complete rewrite process, and if so, how much changes between your first and second drafts, or do you edit as you go along?

Rewrite? Oh, yeah. After I spend all that time writing the outline, I pour a vat of coffee, turn up the Foo Fighters, and sit myself down to bang out the rough draft. And I do mean rough.

Purposely, I don’t edit during the first draft. Some writers do, but I find it slows me down too much. I want to get the story on paper. All of it. Because once it’s there, I can improve it. I can’t improve a book that exists only in my head.

Because I don’t edit as I go, when I reach the end I have a ton of work to do. I tend to write the first draft too long — it’s fluffy, puffy, vague, and both too melodramatic and too bland. The rewrite takes a couple of months and significantly tightens and strengthens the story. The characters come more fully to life. The dialogue is better. Weak scenes get cut. New scenes get written. The conflict between protagonist and antagonist becomes both more explicit and more subtly developed.

And then I’ll get comments from my agent and editor, and I’ll edit it another time. Then I’ll get more comments, and edit again. And then I’ll polish it. If I could, I’d continue editing once it’s published, by sneaking around bookstores with a Sharpie, crossing out clumsy wording and improving the dialogue.

I estimate that between the first draft and final polish, a third to a half of the text gets changed.

When they say “writing process,” they really mean it’s a process. A long one.

But worth it.

‘Bye, Raleigh — thanks for a great Bouchercon


I’m heading home from a great weekend of panels, laughter, author talk, fried chicken, and book lust. Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, is wrapping up. It was — as usual — a whole lot of fun for people like me who love to immerse ourselves in the world of mystery and suspense fiction.

There are always a few surprises at a convention. Such as: I will again never poke fun at the concept of chicken and waffles. And: I’m bound to meet someone who went to the same high school as my mother. Big continent, small school; yet it’s inevitable.

And, at Bouchercon Raleigh, I got this surprise: a copy of Books to Die For, with the title page of my essay on A is for Alibi autographed by Sue Grafton. I got to put my signature next to that of one of my heroes. This is a highlight of my writing life.

Ask Me Anything: What questions do I wish writers would ask?


Lisa writes:

Kind of silly but… what’s the one question you wish writers would ask that they haven’t yet?

It’s not silly at all. Writers get asked plenty of questions that we don’t enjoy answering. Where do you get your ideas? Who are the characters in your books really based on? Why is your imagination so sick? What’s wrong with you?

I wish writers would ask:

  1. Which scenes were your favorites to write?
  2. Why?
  3. Did all of your favorite-to-write scenes make it into the final draft of the book?

I would love to talk about writing scenes that were so full of passion, drama, surprise, action, or humor that I ended up with my heart pounding, muscles tense, and tears in my eyes. Even though I never moved from my desk chair.

Ask me: Which scenes leave you looking like Joan Wilder finishing a novel in the opening sequence of Romancing the Stone?

To Bouchercon I go


I’m getting ready to attend Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention. This year it’s in Raleigh, North Carolina. So, along with the authors, readers, books, panels, mayhem, murder, author cage fights, monkey races, sniper training, lions and tigers and bears, oh my, there will be Carolina barbecue.

My official schedule includes these panels, which should be a lot of fun.

Crime and Mystery meet Conspiracy, Science and Medicine
8th October 2015
Meg Gardiner [Moderator]
Dirk Wyle
Ross Pennie
Patricia Gussin
Mike Tabor

Keeping it Moving / Maintaining Pace in the Narrative
10th October 2015
Alexandra Sokoloff [Moderator]
Meg Gardiner
Glen Erik Hamilton
Terrence McCauley
SJ Rozan

Hope to see you there.