Manuscripts to Market - An Interview With Michael Neff of "The Novel Editors"

    by Connie Chenowith of Author Salon

Q: What made you guys decide to start a novel editing service?

It's a natural outgrowth of the writer conferences. Writers are always asking for something like this, especially following the New York Pitch Conference. Overall, I've spent many hours helping alums get published, all pro bono, and now I feel it's time to parallel that with another more methodical and goal-defined process. Besides, we can justify far more dedication to any given project over a longer length of time if actual remuneration is involved. 

CC:  That makes sense, of course, but seriously, does the world need another novel editing service?

Our service is different, better than most other novel editing services, and perhaps better than all of them--at least, that is the condition we're striving for in terms of our methods and final results.

CC: So how does "Manuscripts to Market" significantly differ from other novel editorial services?  I'm skeptical.  There's a hundred of them out there, or more.

We provide a three-stage review of the manuscript. First, a preliminary analysis of the story premise and other major elements that might well necessitate rewrites from the start. Why begin a read of the manuscript if we know from the onset, for example, that crucial elements of plot are missing? Next comes the core developmental review of the manuscript itself followed weeks or months later by a third and final review once the writer has completed the necessary restructure and rewrites based on the core developmental review.

Overwhelming evidence shows that one-shot reviews rarely, if ever, result in publication. You see writers pay gobs to freelance editors only to go through even more rewrites later. Follow-up is always necessary. The writer must be guided as needed, depending on their skill set, and the project itself developed in stages. 

We also differ from the many editorial services in other ways. For example, our own combined skill set exceeds that of most freelance editors. Unlike the academic types, we've actually worked with commercial publishing house editors and agents, we have a track record, and unlike the majority of ex-editors from publishing houses who left the business to freelance, we are actual writers, published authors of fiction. I recommend a perusal of our website for more on this particular issue

CC: Why do you feel your viewpoint on novel editing more valuable, or realistic than that of an academic MFA instructor? I know you're not keen on advice that emanates from MFA programs.

For the most part, no, exceptions being Robert Olen Butler's program at FSU and a few others. I totally reject the Conroy philosophy and approach began at Iowa decades ago and later cascaded into the bulk of MFA programs throughout the United States. They preach that writing can't be taught, and in keeping with that disproved absurdity, therefore eschew notions of discussing plot or story premise when it comes to writing a novel. What could be more ridiculous? Craft becomes a whisper after dark and the word "market" gains the status of Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter books, i.e., becoming a word which must never be spoken on campus, or even in the presence of ivy.

An academic whose beliefs about novel writing, or fiction writing in general, are rooted in that culture should never be consulted. It's a little like consulting with a home builder who doesn't believe in the basics of physics. If  nothing else, the "professors" fail to understand the demands of various genres and their readerships, and that's just for starters. 

Necessity, experience, and common sense demand that we be the polar opposite.

CC: Do you offer guarantees to writers? I mean, do you assure the writer they will be published as a result of utilizing Manuscript to Market services? 

No editors, no matter how brilliant, by contract or otherwise, have sufficient control over a work to engineer it to guaranteed commercial publication. Why? Because no matter what you do, no matter what services you provide or what you say, it is ultimately up to the writer to rise to the challenge. At the end of the day, the writer must actually write or rewrite the manuscript. Also, given the reality and ease of social media interaction, you sometimes find yourself as an editor in a struggle to be heard over the din of readers and writer groups interacting with your clients--often telling them what they want to hear, rather than what they need to hear. 

Any number of things will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. I've witnessed long slogs to brass ring territory only to see a history of titanic effort go whooshing into the sewer because one single player in the writer's life, sitting beside her one evening at a theater, told her that her novel was perfectly wonderful, no more changes were necessary, and to just "follow her heart" to certain success.

A tragic event for that writer, though it seemed so right and blessed with divine good feeling.

CC: Anything else you would like to add on the subject?

Yes, I want to tell everyone out there to ask themselves the following questions before they ever decide to spend a penny on novel or nonfiction editorial services. As follows:
  1. Do you get to review the credentials of the individual who will be working on your ms?
  2. Do the person's credentials include any real-time experience working in tandem with the New York publishing business, or at least with mid-sized or quality independent presses?
  3. Is there a demonstrable track record of commercial or literary publication of any kind associated with past clients of this person? Is the track record relatively recent or really old news?
  4. Is the proposed editor person an actual writer of narrative nonfiction or novels? Has the work been self-published or published?
  5. Are accolades or testimonials about the business itself focused rather on buzz phrasing than pointers to actual results, i.e., contracts with major houses or agencies?
If you get positive answers to the above questions, you know that you and your manuscript might have a fighting chance.

Thank you for this interview.



Manuscripts to Market - "The Novel Editors" and QuestionsTo Ask Before Hiring a Novel or Nonfiction Manuscript Editor

    by Michael Neff - "Manuscripts To Market - The Novel Editors"


From experience, I know that the vast majority of writers who seek editorial services for their novel or nonfiction manuscript are going about it long before they should--the resulting effect being tens of thousands of manuscripts ill-prepared for publication of any kind regardless of edits. IF the editing process is not rushed and accomplished by reasonably knowledgeable people, the writer will be inevitably faced with a heckuvalot of work, both in terms of narrative polish and story development. IF the editing process is slipshod and more focused on proofing and line editing than actual development, the writer will simply lipstick the pig when all is said and done (and sometimes pay over $2500.00 for the privilege). That is harsh, yes, but you see this circumstance all the time. Matter of fact, most manuscripts shuffled off to transcend their mortal coil and be reborn as homeless novels don't even contain a commercially viable premise.

Regardless, in the former best case scenario above you still have a manuscript that needs a second look once the writer has attempted to include all the edits and advice, and that's why any editorial service worth a damn should also feature adequate follow-up review of the newly rewritten ms.

Still, even with a second review, will it be ready to enter the marketplace?

One of the annoying questions we're often asked at Algonkian is why can't we get even more people published via our programs and conferences? Why aren't the majority of writers just driving away to a world of six figure contracts, especially if our events and materials and instructors are supposed to be so good? If I answer honestly in this blog post, I must say that the question itself, in whatever precise form it takes, betrays a fundamental though understandable ignorance on the part of the curious regarding just how much work and skill-set and knowledge it finally takes to write a publishable literary or commercial novel, much less actually see it published. The slog is daunting and fraught with manifestations of a literary GPS steering you away to dead ends and rock-littered roads. And I do believe that most writers (myself included) would never have attempted such a feat if they had actually known ahead of time precisely what it would require of them in terms of labor and emotional stress.
And keep in mind too that novel editing isn't a plumbing or car repair business. This is art we're talking about. This is nuanced human toil set within a world of social intrusion and tangential distraction. Achievement can be problematic.
Remember the perishing dinosaur march in Fantasia? I imagine a metaphor I call The Manuscript Death March, writer after writer clutching their ms to their chest and finally collapsing with a cry while the remainder trudge on to a dark and uncertain horizon, their eyes wild with desperation as voices snipe at them from shadows: "Why hasn't your novel been published yet? Huh?... Will it ever be?"

Of course, darkly comical (or not, depending on your sense of humor), but you get the picture.

Returning to what began this tangent in the first place, I do have the answer as to why XYZ programs or services don't automatically create a chain link that heaves the writer up into the rarefied air of commercial publishing. Why? Because no matter what you do, no matter what services you provide or what you say, it is ultimately up to the writer to rise to the challenge. At the end of the day, the writer must actually write or rewrite the manuscript. We're not talking ghost writers, we're talking REAL writers. And keep in mind too that novel editing isn't a plumbing or car repair business. This is art we're talking about. This is nuanced human toil set within a world of social intrusion and tangential distraction. Achievement can be problematic. If you get the chance, read the TEN WORST BITS OF WRITING ADVICE to get a feel for what I'm talking about.

Then you also have the lure of self-publishing, a real boat rocker.

Why remain on The Manuscript Death March when you can easily detour to find your spine and paper, and while you're at it, put an end to the mocking voices in the shadows whether real or imaginary. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald said: "so we beat on, boats against the current..." In our case, drawn ceaselessly forward towards the allure of the brass ring, the brilliant commercial cherry on the publication milkshake that seems forever out of reach.

Nevertheless, if you're going to spend your hard or not so hard-earned moolah on any novel editing service, you need to ask a couple of questions first:
  1. Do you get to review the credentials of the individual who will be working on your ms?
  2. Do the person's credentials include any real-time experience working in tandem with the New York publishing business, or at least with mid-sized or quality independent presses?
  3. Is there a demonstrable track record of commercial or literary publication of any kind associated with past clients of this person? Is the record relatively recent or ancient history?
  4. Is the proposed editor person an actual writer of fiction, narrative nonfiction or novels? Has the work been self-published or published?
  5. Are accolades or testimonials about the business itself focused rather on buzz phrasing than pointers to actual results, i.e., contracts with major houses or agencies?
Are the above questions unreasonable? I don't think so, but your goals will ultimately determine the answer. 


"All The Dark We Will Not See" - Is it Okay to Search For a New Publisher?

ALL THE DARK WE WILL NOT SEE, published by the distinguished Serving House Books, first appeared as "Year of The Rhinoceros," published by a popular and respected literary press in LA known as Red Hen Press. The initial birth of this story, fallen to earth as a big cracked egg, never possessed the proper edits or even a suitable cover. Not only that, but the lamination peeled easily, type was smudged in quarter-sized spots throughout the book, and the presence of it was generally rendered odd by "burn victim" artwork I was forced to swallow in order to prevent an even worse cover from potentially manifesting itself. But my intention here isn't to bitch about the staff of chickens at Red Hen, it's to make sense out of the emergence of a new edition of the novel now entitled ALL THE DARK WE WILL NOT SEE.

As time passed, I became more and more determined to get my rights back and land a new publisher, and I was eventually successful. The new edition now possesses everything I wanted for the first, and more, including an author preface, new cover, substantive edits, and text sans scores of typographical errors.

I have to confess that I'm lucky. Most authors don't get a chance to do it over, but I did. My new press, Serving House Books, is both brilliant and led by a fantastic editor, Walt Cummins. I can't thank or praise the press enough. I am surrounded by great writers, poets and authors, and in a company I respect.

So what's the bottom line here? I encourage all serious writers to strongly consider quality independent presses like Serving House. The literary history of the world is written by presses such as these, and by presses like Algonquin Books and Copper Canyon, among many others.

Larger publishing houses in New York have their place (especially when it comes to big genre books), and their advantages, but the quality independents will more likely treat you with respect and make a home for you in a way that many overworked, underpaid New York publishing house staff cannot even imagine much less engineer (usually through no fault of their own). 


13 Ways For Authors To Avoid Being Blacklisted

As someone who organizes readings and a large literary arts festival with workshops, author appearances, and exhibitors, over the last ten years I have developed a list of writers who I will not work with again. And rest assured, I’m not the only one who does this.

Why? Because they didn’t follow directions. It’s that simple. Who's on it? Writers who acted like the organizer/staff were their personal assistant/manager. 

Take note of the following ways to avoid this blacklist and be a true professional!


Double booking is such a big no-no we can’t believe you’re not aware of this already yourself. Whatever you have to do to make sure you know the days you are already booked: DO IT. Back out of our event at the last minute because you “forgot” you already had a gig? You’re on the list.


It should be no surprise to you that we need your bio and right away—possibly a short one and a long one. We also need a high resolution digital photo of the appropriate size with good lighting, not a selfie taken in the bathroom with your cell phone or with the light behind you. We need ordering information for your book. Possibly your dietary restrictions or lunch/dinner order. Special seating or parking needs. Have that at the ready to send right away. Don’t have them? Get them together and email them to yourself now so you will.

Have a publicity team? Great! They are usually more organized than authors. But pick only ONE person for us to work with.


If we ask for your short bio, we mean about 100 words. Not half a page, a full page, or two pages. Put your current, key publications, awards, job in there and include your website so people can find out more. You should not send a link to your website or write back “it’s on my website which is in my signature block.” You will be asked again to send the bio and if you again don’t comply, you won’t have a bio listed. Same with the photo and book order info. If we give you the format in which we want these and you send a link to your book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your publisher’s website you will be asked again, etc. If you're a "famous writer" we will chase you for the info but you'll go on the list.


When we tell you the deadline by which we need the information we are not picking a random date. We have a deadline for ordering your book and/or getting it to the host so he/she can read it before your reading or interview. We are collecting information to layout and send to the printer for marketing materials: brochures, programs, postcards. For posting on the website and social media.

Decided at the last minute you want to change or send your picture now that it’s too late? Yeah, no. Not changing the program which is already at the printer and would incur fees.


Organizers count on participants publicizing the event they are part of, which helps extend the organization’s reach and hopefully means high attendance on the day/evening. Post our event on your website, your Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr/wherever pages. Follow our social media pages and share info from them. Let people know about your part, but also share the info about other writers, exhibitors, etc. if it’s a larger event or festival.


We are aware of our own schedule. We know when we want to release final details to authors, etc. Don't stalk us for weeks before asking where you’re parking, what building/room you’re in, or asking if your book has arrived yet. We will send out the logistics email when everything is finalized and in plenty of time.

Please don’t “check in.” If we wanted to check in we would have. Basic information is, by now, on the organization’s website: location, day, time, parking. Do your own homework until you hear from us. That’s what websites are for. If it’s a few days before and no email, check your spam folder, then call.

How a reading works or an interview or a Q&A is not rocket science. You shouldn’t need a minute by minute breakdown of what is expected.


On the day of the event, don’t show up two hours before your reading if you’re part of an event that runs for several hours, or a festival, wanting to check in or with questions. Check in at the appointed time—an hour before is best. Wait until the session before yours has started so it’s quieter and we can focus on you.

Don’t wander off to other sessions, to lunch, whatever, and not be there on time for the start of your event. Keep track of the time and return at least fifteen minutes before your part starts.


Always check in! Otherwise, you are considered a “no show” and we are scrambling to figure out what to do without you, sending people to look for you, spending time calling/texting you when there are ten other things requiring our attention.


We simply do not have time to take your call. The ringer on our cell is mostly likely turned off. If you want to reach us because you’re going to be late due to traffic or a car breakdown, text us and give us your name and ETA. If there is a host for your session, text them as well. Don’t text us and ask us to tell them. We may not see them in time and guess what? We have ten other things requiring our attention. What? You don’t have their phone number? You know my response to that.


If we didn’t offer or ask about your tech needs then please don't email asking if you can show a short film the day before the event. Or even weeks before. Tech has already been decided. We’ve had the final walk-though. We would have to hire a tech person at the venue which is not in our budget. You also may not call the venue yourself and ask for them to do this for you. We have a contract with them and you are not part of it. Put whatever you want to show on your website and have people view it on their smartphones during or after the session.


We probably gave you a time limit for your reading or, if you’re a host of a reading/session at a festival for us, how long your session is. If you’re a writer, choose appropriate material and practice reading it to make sure you are just under your time. So if we said seven minutes that’s what you prepare. Not three minutes. Not nine minutes. Your running under/over screws up the schedule. Minutes add up.

If you’re a host, don’t run over. Manage/track your time. If the host of the session before you didn’t do that and their session ran into yours, let us know later (they will go on the list!), but that doesn’t mean you can do the same to the session’s host and authors after you.


Go to other sessions if you’re at a festival. Stay the whole evening if it’s a larger event/reading. Take pictures. Post on social media using the event hashtag and quote writers/speakers. Tag people. Share other people’s posts.

If you just do your part and leave you were not really a participant making a contribution to our event and community.


Organizers are juggling more than you know depending on the size of the event: partners and their expectations, venues, catering, audio/visual recording, marketing, publicity, security, tech, tables, chairs, signage, exhibitors, book orders, the schedule, volunteers, parking, transportation/hotel for visiting writers, walk-throughs, last minute changes.

We are horrified that your name was spelled wrong or the parking lot was closed or someone else took your vegan lunchbox. We didn’t do it on purpose and we can’t fix it now. Don’t call/text us asking for restaurant recommendations or the nearest parking lot. These are all accessible to you via your own phone.


We are doing our best to make everyone comfortable and happy while dealing with the banner falling off of the front of the building, microphones with dead batteries, a famous writer needing directions over the phone instead of using their GPS, volunteers who didn’t show up, the session room that’s locked so no one can get in, obvious questions from people who could answer them by simply opening and reading the program or checking the map.

There are plenty of people ready to criticize every aspect of an event with massive amounts of know-it-all disdain. People who have never organized anything in their life but who think they’d be geniuses at it.  Don’t be that person. You have no idea what was discussed, promised by venue/partners/caterers/etc., not allowed or not available, or didn’t work on the day.

Be a help, not a hindrance. How? Remember that the event is not about you (unless you’re the headliner, in which case, still be gracious, not a diva). Do your homework. Do your prep. Bring your own water and a granola bar, just in case. Leave early, map out additional parking, check in, tweet about how much fun you’re having, smile.

We are excited to have you at our event! We think you’re fantastic! But be responsible for yourself. If you can’t be, hire someone who will be able to handle your needs/details or risk not being invited back and word getting around that you are not a professional or too much work.

Your call.

Chris Stewart is Editor-in-Chief of Del Sol Press (@DelSolPressBks), which has a First Novel Competition deadline this Friday, May 13th. Judge is Madison Smartt Bell.  Prize is $1500, 20 copies. Second and third place winners receive free tuition to the AlgonkianNew York Pitch Conference. Published already but retained the copyright? You’re eligible! Check it out:Del Sol Press First Novel Prize

Chris tweets @EditorStewart and provides manuscript editing and critiques. Find tips, tools, information, and inspiration on her website: The Real Writer

Some Thoughts on Negative Critique Peers

Are brutal reviewers always good for you? Are they more often right than wrong just because they're brutal, or are other factors at work? 

So what spurred these questions? A friend recently said she had a "brutal critique partner" that could be relied on. It got me to thinking about brutal reviewers in my own experience who were worse than useless and actually destructive. 

We need to keep in mind that the better an ms becomes, the harder such “brutal” critics are forced to dig for critique at all costs, inevitably focusing on matters of taste, e.g, “I don’t like that character's personality...” as opposed to “I think this point could be made clearer by doing XYZ.” You could put 10 of these brutal negative types in a room and they would shred an unpublished novel to pieces in their own special way. But if the exact same novel were actually written by a commercial author favorite of theirs, they would not only praise it but compete with each other to deliver the most positive, in-depth insight into the work. Their blurbs would shower Amazon with five stars. Perhaps a "however" now and then, but nothing that would ever approach the brutality of decimating the ms they believed unpublished. 

Frankly, I’ve had experience with various coverage types in LA and fought huge battles with them over specific screenplays and manuscripts by writers known to me (two were clients) who they were attempting to annihilate, and I noticed, the more perfect the manuscript, the more vehement and extreme the critique. It was as if the good story and great prose infuriated them and made them all the more determined to find ways to chop at it. Of course, they made their living by using negativity as a substitute for authentic and insightful review, much like certain commercial book reviewers who go viciously negative in order to stand out in a crowd. 

When looking for feedback on a fantasy manuscript I wrote two years ago, I purposely sought out three writers who I knew would rip me a big one (for various reasons), and all three did, but there were no commonalities. I figured that reasonably intelligent writers straining hard to be negative would find an issue if it really existed. It was weird to watch them strive to be as negative as possible over essentially petty things. 

I once sent a very polished ms to some editors in Iowa who I trusted to put the final coat of paint on the top floor. Instead, they shredded the opening chapter of the ms in every inconceivable way. They strained to dissect sentences and nitpick “the real meaning” vs. the words actually used, and in a manner nothing short of bizarre. They even hated italics! Determined to be negative at all costs, the Iowa people didn't say one positive thing about any facet of the ms. When not provided their normal diet of necessary edits they simply picked and picked until they created a series of false negatives. The coverage people in LA, as I noted above, imitated this Iowa group. However, I couldn't help but notice the exact same editors, when courting a client for monetary reasons, fell over themselves being complimentary. Hmmmmmm... 

Conclusion. If you must use reviewers, searched for balanced personalities and look for commonalities.

Del Sol Press - Contest, Christine Stewart, The Jewish Mother

Del Sol Press - A Tradition of Literary Excellence
Announcing some worthy news regarding Del Sol Press. After a hiatus of several months, Christine Stewart has taken over the editor wheel and will work with publisher Michael Neff to publish quality literature with an edge.


This Del Sol Press contest is open to "all authors writing in English regardless of nationality or residence, and is available to published and unpublished authors alike." Genres included in the competition are literary and upmarket fiction, mainstream or general fiction, mystery/thriller or speculative fiction with a literary edge, serious women's fiction, and unique experimental work. Finalist manuscripts will also be considered for publication. The first place winner receives a $1,500 honorarium and book publication by Del Sol Press in fall 2016 (plus 20 copies). Second and third place winners receive free tuition to the Algonkian New York Pitch Conference where they can pitch their novels to editors in the commercial publishing business. 


Christine Stewart has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University and an M.F.A. in Poetry from the University of Maryland College Park. A former artist-in-residence with the arts and humanities nonprofit Creative Alliance, she is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a recipient of an Individual Artist Award in fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine. Some of Chris' publications include Poetry, Ploughshares, Five Points, Smartish Pace, and The Cortland Review. In her hometown of Baltimore, Chris has hosted and participated in readings at the CityLit Festival, the Baltimore Book Festival and has been featured on the NPR station, WYPR. She is a freelance manuscript editor and has taught at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Carver Center for Arts and Technology, and currently teaches writing in the Johns Hopkins Odyssey program. Chris blogs for JMWW and The Writer's Edge. Her current novel was first runner up in fiction for the 2012 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. Her most recent fellowship was from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

"The Jewish Mother" by Melanie Bacon

Facing danger after the death of Jesus, Mary flees to the great city of Ephesus where she must confront rising belief in her son's divinity, growing hostility from Jewish leaders, and the presence of St. Paul who rejects her close friendship with Artelia, high priestess of Artemis, the Great Goddess of Ephesus. Melanie was a writer for National Lampoon magazine, one of the winners of the Writer's Digest 2009 short fiction prize, and her work has appeared in several literary journals including In Posse Review and The Potomac Journal of Poetry and Politics. Her prior novels include "The Deadest Gun in The West" and "Welcome Home, Major Bearclaw."


Should Mentors or Workshop Leaders Give Poor Writers False Hope For The Sake of Building Confidence?

by Michael Neff

Though the blurb below was published in The Onion, it is nonetheless a good jumping off point for discussing how creative writing instructors or mentors should approach students whose stories or prose need extra help:

"CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA—In an effort to help his students develop inaccurate perceptions of their talents, University of Virginia creative writing professor Alan Erickson told reporters Monday that he takes the time to provide each and every one of them with personalized false hope. “Every student is different, and even though there may be 30 of them per class, I feel it’s important that I make enough time to sit down with them individually to let them know they have a unique voice worth pursuing,” said Erickson, explaining that he frequently extends his office hours and often stays after class to meet with students one-on-one to ensure they hear individualized, unfounded optimism about their writing and their prospects within the publishing industry. “It certainly adds a bit to my workload, but providing specific feedback and encouragement really has a huge impact on their confidence. Going that extra mile for your students is what inspires them to follow their dreams.” The professor added that his efforts have yielded some notable results, asserting that a number of his most deluded former students have gone on to humiliating, short-lived attempts at writing careers."

I have been in the presence of professional fiction-writing workshop leaders who have either falsely praised a writer or else avoided addressing flaws in their work--often leaving said flaws to be hopefully discovered by a member of the workshop instead. In this way, the instructor avoids having to face the writer and discuss the problem directly. He or she lets the group do most of the discovery and problem-solving analysis, thus disallowing the writer in question from focusing potential ire on the workshop leader.

Having been a workshop leader, I can tell you, the above approach would be a lot easier on me. However, even groups that are decently moderated (assuming the workshop leader actually understands not only practical creative writing but the commercial and literary publishing business--which is rare) must endure a good amount of poorly considered, amateurish advice issued from the well-meaning heads of the writers present. 

Godspeed them all! 

But what is a workshop leader to do in the presence of hit-and-miss advice and analysis flowing freely around the table? Various strategies exist, but by and large, he or she (if honest and knowledgeable) must be put in the position of tactfully contradicting much of what the writer group has said to each other (much of which already contradicts itself). And how is that possible in group dynamic situations that might not be conducive to such frank reality checking? 

Answer: it isn't possible.

One can only hope for a group that is receptive. And falsely praising the work of poor writers only enables them to continue to fail. The workshop leader should note what works, and what does not, then delve into strategies for improvement.

Good writers are not born. They are made.



Lessons and Readings Necessary To The Creation of a Competitive Commercial Manuscript

By Michael Neff

Let's get right to the point on this issue. Yes, we know that CATCHER IN THE RYE and HUCKLEBERRY FINN could never have been the famous novels they were without the engaging first person voice of their protagonists. And yes, first person seems to be in vogue with paranormal YA and some fantasy here and there, however, third person point of view is the best way to relate a dynamic work of fiction, hands down. Unless the first person voice is so remarkable, unique and/or compelling that the novel could not exist without it, third person is strongly advised.

For purposes of this study, we define four levels of third person point of view (3POV) as follows:
  • Author-POV
  • 3POV Distant
  • 3POV Close
  • 3POV First-Close
The Author-POV or APOV, refers to the author, the detached or "omniscient narrator" who steps in now and then to set the scene or make artful commentary at the right time (just *please* don't address the reader directly because that is so irritating and breaks the reader's immersion into the fictional dream).  3POV Distant or 3POV-D occurs at such time the narrative focuses on a specific character and we watch her or his actions as if we are the camera actively filming this character. 3POV Close or 3POV-C takes us into the character's head and camera viewpoint shifts to the character, i.e., we see or experience, for the most part, only what the character is viewing or experiencing. 3POV First-Close or 3POV-FC dives deeper into the character's head and effectively mimics first person POV, but naturally without the usual limits of first person POV because the author can cut from the 3POV-FC and pull all the way back to APOV.

Let's look at three samples of what we're talking about from my novel-in-progress, co-authored with Kevin Reilly, entitled THE YARROW STICKS OF CATHAY.


The following never quite makes it into 3POV-C, but verges on it. Note how the APOV returns at the conclusion:

(APOV) WHEN ONLY A CHILD OF NINE, ONE OF EARTH'S most powerful kings, Zolo Bold, did something that haunted him the rest of his life. He sniffed a bee up his nose.
     But no ordinary bee.
    (3POV-D) After a night of howling steppe winds and falling stars spilled from The Big Dipper, he saw a white flower, like one of those stars, stemming out the next morning from a vendor’s cart in Samarkand. While his mother strained to subdue him, Zolo nonetheless hopped and hummed with delight. Much to his surprise, he could smell the mind-softening scent of the blossom even from many feet away, competing bravely with the loud odors of the city market. In his mind, it seemed so radiant and mysterious that it overshadowed all the other flowers, even the enormous Silk Road orchids rumored by Christian monks to be death robbers, and the many and exotic blooms whose seeds came from Ulaanbaatar in faraway Mongolia.
     When the flower merchant, a man with an ox-sized stomach, no nose, and the thinnest head Zolo had ever seen, turned to heckle a customer, Zolo Bold--whose name means Crazy Fox--saw his chance. He gently slipped from his mother’s hand and took a few steps, leaning forward to smell the rose. He could not help himself, for never before in his life been in the presence of such a sky born flower. But just as his nose brushed the soft white petals and the scent filled his head, something else did too: a sharp and crawly thing.
     It followed the air up his right nostril, and once lodged, began to squirm.
     Zolo shrieked and jumped into the air!
     His entire nose buzzed and the sound of it curled into his throat and out of his mouth. A nearby child, smaller than him and holding his mother’s hand, heard the bee voice and pointed, yelling “It’s bee boy! Bee boy!”
(APOV)  In the years to come, Zolo Bold, the great enemy of the dark feared from Istanbul to Cathay, would remember that boy’s terrified face and always attach to it all mention of the word "bee" ...


Note how sometimes the lines between levels can be somewhat blurred, but once the reader accepts the reality of the 3POV narrative style, it all seamlessly blends:

(APOV) After what seemed like hours, the two of them drew near their tent. (3POV-D) Zolo broke away from his mother and ran towards it as fast as he could. Once inside, he dove onto his sleeping place, made of quilted blankets, and thrust his arm beneath them.  Groping around, he soon found the object he searched for: a tiny stone statue of an ancient warrior known to him only as Alexander.
  He gripped the figure tightly and whispered his own quick prayer for protection. Many years before, a wandering Kazakh traveler, late of Istanbul, had given it to him as a gift and told him that Alexander once possessed the good fortune and power to rule many nations at once, that he was beloved of all gods-- (3POV-C) and little Zolo imagined that a being of such power would make a formidable ally. He mumbled prayers to Alexander only on special occasions, not wishing to upset Allah, or his parents.
(3POV-D)  But at the moment, his mother paid no attention. She stared out the tent into the desert, her body unmoving, as if something she saw paralyzed her.
(3POV-C) to (3POV-FC) While his mother stood in the corner of his eye, facing away from him, Zolo held Alexander close and whispered a prayer in his head:
  God Alexander,
  Help my mother find my father.
  I implore you.
  Make my family whole again
  And I will make sacrifice
  To you for all my days.
(3POV-C)  He held Alexander for a few more moments, staring at his soft profile and face and wondering how such a soft-looking god could rule so many nations. But he believed it to be true nonetheless. The wanderer from Istanbul had appeared like a man of wisdom and iron, and in his eyes, Zolo saw the truth.

NOTE: if the narrative had described the prayer rather than having us see the thoughts in Zolo's head, we would have stayed in (3POV-C) ]


Note the transition from 3POV-C to 3POV-FC. The narrative narrows down to the actual thoughts of the 3POV character, also using italicized lines which directly mimic first person interior monologue:

  (3POV-D)The old woman stared at Senna, her eyes fixing on her, never straying until she walked to within a few feet of the table. Her two escorts, still masked, let go of her and returned to the performance. The old woman's eyes dropped to the floor and Senna looked her over. (3POV-C) There was nothing special about her. Her face resembled a water-starved desert of lines and cracks, as one would expect. But suddenly, Senna heard someone speak to her: Sing the body young.
  (3POV-FC)A voice? From the old woman? ... No.
  The voice belonged to a man, though it sounded a bit strangled ... Sing the body young. Again! Was it in her head? She looked around. Nothing. Only Hermine and Théodo acting witless as usual, and not even seeing this old woman. Why are they not paying attention? Do they not realize how odd this all is?
  O poder é a vida ea morte, Princess Senna. 
  She knew that language. Galician, yes. A rare language of Spain, heavily influenced by Roman empire. It translated to "The power is life and death."
  Her fingers pricked for a moment and she realized the source of the voice: Mirza Yesun Temur. It must be him!
  Meu segredo está oculto.
  My secret is hidden. She strained her eyes for him. Zolo, Willie, or whoever was right. Tricks, illusions. And what did the words mean? And why? ... Sing the body young. The words intruding into her mind forced her to look at the old woman again. Now her eyes lifted and bored into Senna, and Senna's face began to burn and felt as if dozens of small fingers walked lightly over it. What in Beelzebub's name? The woman's eyes implored Senna to act, as if a terrible thing were about to happen. But what?

A Summary of Plus Points and Arguments for 3POVs

  • 3POV can be just as immediate and intimate as first person (see 3POV-FC example above), but without the usual constraints of being always boxed into what the first person narrator sees/experiences, sans their personality as a continuous filter. 3POV allows for multiple filters and tones, as well as first person intimacy with more than one character (multiple first person can achieve the same thing, but with more difficulty).
  • If you as the author need to deliver exposition or other critical information you will have more hoops to jump through if you are confined to the viewpoint of a first person narrator who may or may not logically be capable of delivering said information. While Jodi the first person narrator is talking to Mary, Bobby has just lit the fuse a mile away. How can Jodi tell us this?
  • Related to above, you can effectively describe events via the APOV and other 3POV characters even though your protagonist isn't present.
  • Allows a universal or authorial voice to more easily and quickly, under a wide variety of circumstances, to define reality for the reader. The reader suspends disbelief and accepts what the author narrator is telling them, whereas first person statements and observation run the risk, in certain situations, of sounding more like opinion.
  • Advantages of dramatic irony. The reader learns about upcoming circumstances that will adversely affect the protagonist before the protagonist realizes this fact. This creates suspense and heightens reader concern.
  • Allows for establishment of "epic perspective" (see the opening above with little Zolo).
  • Cinematic advantages. For example, in THE ALCHEMYST by Jonathan Stroud, we witness a scene of violence taking place in a book store. We see it through one characters viewpoint, in the store, as it plays out, then we switch to a second character outside the store, witnessing the effects of the violence from outside. Like a film, the author is able to cut back and forth and give far more dynamism to the depiction of the scene.
  • Another cinematic advantage is that the APOV can start the action sometimes more readily than the first person who may get mired in TELL TELL rather than SHOW SHOW.
  • Ability to jump into the heads of other characters enables author to quickly and efficiently switch settings and circumstances and thus add more variety and energy, as well bring a different tone and interpretation to the work as needed, e.g., consider the difference between the POV of a child and an elder experiencing the same circumstance.
  • It's easier to physically describe the 3POV view-point character(s) - the author can simply just say straight out how they appear, or even use the camera angle of another 3POV character to render the image.

Notes on Character Viewpoint

The nature of any given 3POV narrative is dependent to a large extent on the personality of the 3POV character engaged in filtering and interpreting the fictional environ. The 3POV narrator chooses to focus on things which interest her or him, comments on behavior she or he finds odd or objectionable, reveals fantasies, etc. Therefore, by placing a specific character with well defined traits at an event, or in the presence of something which must be described or experienced, you render that event or object in such a way as to reflect the character’s mindset, biases, emotion, beliefs and perceptions.

Thus, different characters employed as 3POV cameras or interpreters will yield different results when placed in the same circumstance. A superstitious individual might imagine a dark hand of God blotting the sun in anger, falling rain as tears; whereas the less superstitious, educated observer might focus on the sadness of a small child, her bright clothing soaked by rain, or the frantic motions of the staff attempting to clear food off the table before it is all spoiled by rainwater. The superstitious character might suffer more cognitive dysfunction, interpret smiles as wolfish or manipulative or death-like, the more educated character marveling at light and youthful appearance of the person smiling, the crinkles around the eyes, the cause of the light mood.

Characters by virtue of their personalities will therefore interpret the same phenomenon differently.

A must to keep in mind when juggling your 3POVS.

Michael Neff of Algonkian Writer Conferences


Red Hen's Kate Gale: "AWP Is Us" Fiasco


Kate Gale, the managing editor of Red Hen Press (the press that published my novel YEAR OF THE RHINOCEROS), has made the careless mistake of showing her foolishly racist and generally insensitive nature in public. Gone is the facade of the beneficent white liberal out to help writers and make the world a better place. The war she has stirred up on Internet is just this side of stupendous, or horrific, depending on your pov. A sample of the posts and commentary:

Los Angeles Times

Publisher's Weekly

Huffington Post (her "committed to diversity" attempt at apology)

The Adroit Journal

Inside Higher ED

She has attempted damage control, but it has failed. In Kate Gale's own words from her blog:

It has been recommended by many that I not write this personal message, that I let my initial retraction stand in its place. But I did not become a writer to stay silent. I was raised in—and escaped from—a cult that enforced child abuse, silence, and ignorance upon its members, and I have since dedicated my life to diversity in publishing, to making voices heard that were not heard before. I am grateful for the calls for action, for diversity, for underrepresented voices, for empowerment.

What I can do is tell you how truly dedicated I am to diversity. This is not an empty promise, but a record of twenty years of publishing that reflects this dedication and lifelong mission; a record that stands not for itself, but pushes me forward into projects already in the making to improve and expand on this diversity

I'm not out to pile on Kate Gale for the sake of pilling on. For years I have openly wanted to talk about my especially bad experience with Kate Gale in her role as managing editor of Red Hen Press. As a matter of fact, it was undeniably one of the top worst experiences of my entire life, right up there with a chronic illness, and that's because of the humiliation she inflicted and the calculated hateful impact she leveled on me at a time that should have been my finest hour. Kate Gale demonstrated a near pathological insensitivity towards me as an author,and in a way I can only explain below by relating what took place just before Red Hen actually published my work, and then later, at the AWP conference in Chicago where my novel was to debut in 2009.  

After Red Hen agreed to publish my ms back in 2008, Kate Gale obtained my manuscript, YEAR OF THE RHINOCEROS, sent by me after a clean-up draft. A few weeks later, she returned the manuscript by snail mail, with a note that she'd made some edits. The "edits" consisted of 136 GIANT RED X's slashed onto the pages of my manuscript--coincidentally smearing all my best
passages of prose narrative, and without any explanation. Nothing. No notes in the margin or elsewhere. Just one giant red X after another, some half a page in size. I am not exaggerating.

If you are a writer, you must have known how I felt. I oscillated between a state of anger and confusion. Who would do something so obviously insulting and cruel? Kate Gale was a writer, the managing editor of a well known literary press. She should have known better? And for the first time, I wondered at her sanity. I showed the ms to writer friends and they stared in disbelief at the well over a hundred giant red X's. Proof of an unsettling and disturbing episode of manic hate on her part? I don't know how else to describe it. A day later I called Kate Gale, prepared to tell her the deal was off. Over the phone she behaved as if nothing was out of place. She was guiltless, of course. Her ridiculous answer to me would have me believe those huge red X's were "just there to make me think about editing those particular paragraphs." 

I once again emailed my ms to Red Hen, but without removing or arbitrarily editing the 136 paragraphs of narrative slashed with X. To make a long and horrible story short, my ms underwent six galley changes due to incompetent errors created in the pages by Red Hen staff working directly under Kate Gale. Finally at wit's end, I called the press. Kate ignored my calls to her regarding her personal staff creating errors in my 426 page ms. Yes, they actually *created* errors! One of them, for example, was to remove any space separating an overhanging letter at the end of a sentence from the opening letter of the next line, so sentences appeared joined. After four galleys worth of frustrating edits and re-edits forced on me by Red Hen, her husband Mark joined in the fracas and sent me a sudden diatribe accusing me of not cooperating in the editing of the galleys. I was in disbelief. The circumstances were just the opposite, but I presumed that he'd been lied to because his diatribe directed at me was so genuinely full of indignation. 

Months later, at AWP in Chicago, the date my novel was to debut, she set me up for a humiliating incident involving her staff production manager. She asked me to meet her at breakfast time in the hotel lounge to discuss the book. I met her and we small-talked a bit, then she said, "I have someone who needs to tell you something." I had no idea who she was talking about. She lifted her hand in air and gestured. From off stage came the production manager of Red Hen Press. She walked up to me, sat down in front of me with a look of pure rage that was very theatrical, and proceeded to erupt at me in front of everyone present (yelled, not talked loudly) in the hotel lounge for daring to email Red Hen staff regarding multiple typeset errors and other errors not in the draft I sent them. I sat there listening, not daring to become angry. I politely denied her accusations whereupon she stood up and stomped off. This is precisely what happened. It was altogether a surreal, distressing and mystifying experience. Kate set the whole thing up. She didn't apologize or show any sign of surprise. She knew it was coming. She even grinned when I expressed my opinion of the whole charade.

After having observed me being unfairly trashed (the production manager told so many lies I lost count) and without any intervention on her behalf, she then set up a fake book signing at AWP without providing even a chair, and no announcement of the signing. As crazy as this sounds, it's all true. One thing after another after another. Myself and one other guy simply wandered in front of the table looking like idiots. I supposed that he was on her shit list too. I could not help but suspect that she hated men. She was known for her warmth towards her female poets. Whether that rumor was true, I can't say for certain.

In the months following publication of my novel, Red Hen never promoted my book, never listed it on the front page, and never included it at events. Btw, I'd met Kate Gale at a hotel in DC months before AWP to pick up my book contract and have a social drink. To my shock, she arrogantly blew me off without explanation and went back to her room after less than ten minutes--and this after I'd driven over 50 miles in horrendous D.C. traffic to meet her--a meeting called and arranged by her! 

Another jaw dropping experience, one of those you just have to experience to believe. 

For reasons I never truly understood, Kate Gale behaved like the worst human being I've ever had the displeasure of meeting. To this day I still don't get it. I found her frightening and vengeful. What I did to deserve her wrath, I never understood. I'm just glad I finally got this terrible episode off my chest.

Criticism of diversity issues at AWP inflamed by Kate Gale ...
Los Angeles Times
Aug 26, 2015 - AWP will bring its conference to Los Angeles next year. This week, one planner's dismissal of questions about diversity inflamed passions on ...

Article defending writing program association infuriates ...
Inside Higher Ed
Aug 26, 2015 - Further, the petition states that AWP has rebuffed requests to provide a ... Against that backdrop, Kate Gale, managing editor of Red Hen Press ...

AWP Exec Director Defends Kate Gale - Publishers Weekly › ... › Shows & Events
Publishers Weekly
Aug 27, 2015 - After PW ran a story Wednesday morning about a Huffington Post article called “AWP Is Us,” that stirred existing concerns about discriminatory ...

AWP Is Us | Kate Gale - Huffington Post
The Huffington Post
Aug 26, 2015 - Update (8/26/15): I apologize for this post and the hurt it caused. Red Hen Press values inclusiveness and diversity in publishing. Our Mission: ...

Letter to Kate Gale of "AWP is Us" — The Adroit Journal
Aug 25, 2015 - Dear Kate Gale,. Thank you for bringing the important matter of the privileged homogeneity of the AWP Conference to light via your recent ...

Red Hen's Kate Gale: "AWP Is Us" Fiasco - The Writer's Edge
Aug 27, 2015 - Kate Gale, the managing editor of Red Hen Press (the press that ...

About Kate Gale's post - American Indians in Children's ...
Aug 26, 2015 - If you are looking for it, here is a link to download a pdf: AWP Is Us. Yesterday (8/24/2015), I read Kate Gale's post, "AWP Is Us." Here's a screen ...
My rush to defend AWP lacked careful thought, hurting those on all sides. I am truly sorry for my words and the hurt I have caused. It was never my intention to ...

“A Series of Unfortunate Events”—AWP, David Fenza, and ...
Aug 26, 2015 - LATEST NEWS: AWP director Fenza defends Kate Gale's piece. ... -red-hen-press-kate-gale-apologizes-for-commentary-awp-defends-her.html.