Posted in My Writing, Writing

Heading Into the Stretch: Final Edits with Three Readers (High School Boyfriend Continuing)

Due to problems on their website, the deadline for submission of manuscripts to the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition has been extended again, to May 31.

This is wonderful news for those who are  having problems with editing and could use the extra time.

It is a snare and a delusion for anyone whose approach to life is to wait until the last possible minute then race to meet deadlines.

I am not having problems with editing and, in fact, have three skilled readers searching diligently for everything from simple typos to contradictions in names or dates between chapters.. I am especially prone to setting up time frames that under no circumstances are workable, or even believable.  I have traced this flaw to my compulsion to put actual dates to events. I seem unable to curb my need to be specific. That first mistake is  compounded by my inattention to detail, so I never catch the fact that, if Camilla is born in 1893 and Martin in 1880, my  repeated claim that he is twice her age is nonsense and anyone who knows basic math and is even half alert will figure that out. This is the sort  of error that puts a reader off and can also involve considerable re-writing should I be lucky enough to have editors who aren’t afraid to point out that  portions of three chapters will need some work.

I have always been a get-it-in-two-weeks-early kind of girl, and I suspect this time will be the same. My third reader, a friend from Michigan, is coming for a week’s visit and the extension will  give  us time to read the entire manuscript out loud so I can finally get a sense of it as a novel  rather than isolated chapters.

I will hope to submit to the first competition no later than mid-May and will then turn my attention to submitting the same manuscript to at least one other contest.  This will require no further editing  of the main text, just a careful adherence to the particular requirements of each. No two are  alike. Some want a synopsis; others do not. Some require an author bio. Some want a  particular font. For some, you pay the submission fee online. Faulkner-Wisdom is one of a very few that requires you send the short entry form, with check or money order, through the post.

Meanwhile, the readers:

Reader #1

  • ID: My friend, co-author, and fellow editor
  • History:
    • Met in a book club
    • Wrote one novel together
    • Fought like demons during the process then realized we had strengthened our friendship and become better writers
    • Now edit one another’s manuscripts
  • Skills:
    •  Rearranging paragraphs or whole chapters. After reading through the manuscript, it’s as  if she tosses the chapters  up in the air and they fall together in a new way
    • Spotting inconsistencies in every detail of time, place, charactersSuggesting changes that are entirely consistent with my style and purpose
    • Sitting at home, alone, reading the manuscript out loud

Reader #2:

  • ID: The High School Boyfriend
  • History:
    • Met in second or third grade, so have known each other for about 65 years
    • Were sweethearts during our senior year in high school, broke up  when we went away to college
    • Contacts since the break-up:
      • 1970–went out for a beer
      • 1996–got together in our small hometown to walk the territory and see a few old friends
      • 2018–reconnected when I contacted him about identifying someone in a photograph
      • 2019–have been in regular touch ever since
  • Skills:
    • Retaining his southern accent (perfect for this book
    • Framing his comments as questions, an approach that forces me to rethink
    • Having an intuitive feel for the integrity of the story because  he knew the people on whom the main characters are loosely based
    • Having fun with the whole thing

Reader #3:

  • ID: Close friend and teaching colleague from my Michigan days, about twenty years ago
  • History:
    • Met when we both worked in the writing center at a small college
    • Had small offices right across a tiny hallway and so unavoidably got to know  one another
    • Survived and  provided mutual support for an entire year when the work environment became  hostile
    • Have stayed in close touch traveling to  visit in each  other’s homes
    • I consider her probably my best friend
  • Skills:
    • Willingness to devote a good chunk of  her time here sitting in my living  room reading this book with me
    • A hard bargainer, having notified me that she will read for food, specifically scrambled eggs with cream cheese and dill; salmon with veggies cooked in tiny tinfoil tents; Brussels sprouts salad
    • All other  skills remain to be discovered since she has never edited with me

Reader #4:

  • ID:  Me–Retired English teacher who, seemingly by accident, discovered she could write
  • History: Pretty much forever
  • Skills:
    • An instinctive use of language and manipulation of sentence structures (I didn’t spend nearly forty years reading Shakespeare and Faulkner to no avail)
    • A continuous editing of my own work. I edit  as I go, reworking sentences  many times as I write them, then circling back on several paragraphs, or a chapter, to read, double-check, rewrite
    • An appreciation of language as  sound and music,  hence the development of reading out loud as my  primary editing tool–both of my own work and when I am editing  for others.
    • A talent for introducing my friends to this technique. I hold out hope that this isn’t just a talent for manipulating

And  so, onward. If the reading goes  well at the end of April, I might actually decide  to  submit right after my third reader boards her plane for Grand Rapids on May 3.


Posted in Personal, Reviews, Writing Fiction

Editing With Pizza and Salmon

Before you start reading this blog, ask yourself one serious question:
Have you ever seen anything that looks better than that slice of “California Dreaming” pizza from Cogan’s in Norfolk, VA??
As I am laboring away at this story, “The Wife,”–which is feeling less and less like a story and more and more like the very bad start of a novel–I have taken a break to open a Patreon account (
There is a good deal of figuring out the site, which always feels like wasting time to me, although I will confess to a thrill of accomplishment when I actually do master any small detail.
And there is a good deal of writing. You know the kind of thing–biographical details that somehow make you sound charming, witty, serious, and a tiny bit eccentric, nothing excessive.  What’s wanted is just enough to enhance your charm and your  seriousness with a soupçon of spice, nothing to make you seem like a whack-job.
However that might be, the writing–in fact any writing–provides the deeply desired sense of Doing Something Important.  Doing my work.
What follows describes an absolutely delicious editing experience I had a couple of years ago.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Author
Rachael Steil is the author of Running In Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It (Koehler Books 2016).

I know Rachael because her mother knows a good friend of mine in Michigan, and my friend asked me to talk to Rachael about a book she was writing.  And that is how it all started.

For over three months, from early February to sometime in May of 2016, Rachael and I edited her manuscript.  When I first read it, Running in Silence weighed in at approximately 100,000 well-crafted, sometimes lyrical words. By the time I finally met her in person, Rachael had cut it down to a more manageable 80,000.  I remember that almost the first thing she said to me was, “I’ve cut 20,000 words!”

Running in Silence is a memoir, powerful and personal, the story of one young athlete’s war with the siren songs of binge eating and starvation as they play out on the running tracks of high schools and colleges coast to coast in this country.

On her first trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Norfolk, Virginia, I took Rachael out to meet John Koehler, founder and guiding spirit of Koehler Books, the Virginia Beach publishing company that had released my first book almost a year earlier.  John took us to lunch and gave Rachael the benefit of his experience  from many years in the worlds of publishing and marketing.  He was clear: “Memoirs don’t sell. You have to turn this into a self-help book. You need a good editor. I suggest Dean.” Although she was clearly charmed by John and grateful for all his advice, I saw the look of near-desperation on Rachael’s face as she absorbed his words about a self-help book.

When she climbed into her rental car the next morning, headed for the airport, I told her to think everything over and call me if she had any questions.  We parted on good terms, having enjoyed a couple of very pleasant days together talking about writing in general and our own writing in particular.  She had made a connection with my cat, Isaac.

It was about a month later that Rachael called and asked me if I would edit her book, and that was the beginning of an editing and writing partnership, and a solid friendship, that was more and certainly different than either of us expected.

—“I don’t know how I feel about turning my memoir into a self-help book.”

Dean—“I know exactly how Ifeel about it, Rachael. I won’t have anything to do with turning your manuscript into anything other than what it is. We have to figure out a way to impose a self-help apparatus of some kind onto it, almost like a frame.  But no violence to that text. I won’t do it.”

We were both relieved, I think, and we were soon to discover that we had set ourselves a formidable task.

I charged Rachael by the hour and considerably below the going rate for professional editing, because I had absolutely no idea how long this would take.  I sent her regular invoices, I think monthly, so she could keep track of exactly where we were.

**Rachael recently sent me this series of photographs from the four days she spent with me doing a final editing of her book.  I think they pretty well say  it all.










Sunday Rachael sends a chapter or two.

Monday Rachael and I do the first reading, out loud, over the phone, and we stop when we hear that “sour note,” continue to read the sentence or short section over and over and over, often going backwards and reading a paragraph or two before it, hoping to identify the problem in context. When we find the sentence that is out of tune, we take the time to rewrite if it can be done quickly and easily.

Mon-Wed Rachael integrates all the corrections we made or discussed in our reading; I go through the manuscript and, using Track Changes, make more suggestions.

Wednesday, as early as I can,  I send my corrected version to Rachael and she reads it over and either integrates my suggestions or marks them for questions.

Thurs We discuss the chapters as they now exist, Rachael again making changes as we go through.

Friday We read the chapters aloud again and Rachael takes them home over the weekend to write the changes into the text and file these chapters away for the time being.

This describes the rhythm of most of our weeks.  Once Rachael flew in to stay for four days of editing.  We turned off our phones, locked the doors, and read aloud and edited.  Our only contact with the outside world was the guy who delivered the pizza.  The next morning, I introduced Rachael to the thrill of cold pizza for breakfast.





Somewhere in there I cooked salmon and vegetables.

I started looking at self-help books online, not liking them any more than I ever had, but this was a mission.  We ultimately came up with a very simple formula.  At the end of each chapter we wrote questions for thought and short assignments for journals. Our goal was to engage the reader in as active a way as possible.  I began to take some delight in this entirely new area of creative thought. For example, and I’m proud of the sheer corniness of it—in this book about eating disorders and running, I labeled the two sets of questions “Mile Markers” and “Food for Thought.” I got us started, but Rachael soon picked up the rhythm and took over.  By the time the book went to Koehler Books’ editor and to press, she had fleshed out all the chapter challenges and had attached a Glossary and an exhaustive worksheet at the very end.  It is an amazing achievement. And the whole experience has led Rachael down some unexpected paths.

Rachael Steil has become a spokesperson for her cause. She travels to high schools and colleges, speaks to students, teachers, coaches, and counselors, raising awareness of eating disorders among serious student athletes, especially runners.

I believe she will back me up when I say that she never saw herself doing any of this, starting with that self-help book we were both so determined not to write.

Posted in My Writing, Writing, Writing Fiction

On Writing #4: Autobiographical Fiction, A Cloud of Unknowing


DECEMBER 16 2017
Not Quite a Year Ago

            “When I refer to Aunt Cade’s ‘big house downtown,’ I am talking about a house that, to my child’s eyes, was a castle. It had turrets and towers and lots of slanting roofs, and it was dark, looming over the street, completely shadowed by the big trees that surrounded it.”




Recently,  I reported having written a little over four pages of a novel about my family, with a great deal of compulsive “make-work” in between the sentences that were trying to carve their way into paragraphs. In the two months since October 5, those four pages have  grown to almost fifty, and I am stopped again.  Two months. At this rate, I don’t imagine I’ll live to see the end of it.  All the signs suggest that the wise course of action would be to abandon it and get back to something I have a chance of completing.

I haven’t been entirely idle, of course. I have found more than I expected about the family without the help of the whole generation at the center of the novel, who are long dead and buried. I know a great deal about what life would have been like for any family in rural Alabama during the period that began in the late nineteenth century.  I have polished sentences, taken as great care in my word choice as I imagine Emily Dickinson did, read aloud to myself and to friends, enhanced dialogue. I have found a photograph of my aunt’s house that figures prominently at least in the scant beginning of the novel.

But I am not moving forward very quickly. I am circling the novel, working the field around it, but I am writing very little.

Perhaps this slow pace is the undertow that pulls me into this challenging and disturbing engagement with characters and story that both are and are not real.

I have read the accounts by famous novelists of their characters taking over, and I have usually considered that sort of thing an annoying bit of writerly posturing.   Unfortunately, although it might well be both pretentious and transparently affected–dammit–it’s true.  The characters do, in fact and literally, stake their claim to the story early on and continue to speak and act in ways that I have not planned. They do this to the outlandish degree of sometimes actually disagreeing with one another about where we are all going.  It is disorienting and terribly exciting.  I wake in the morning, eager for the next twist in the plot but much, much more than their actions, my characters greet me with revelations about themselves. I am getting to know them. I am entering into their lives and hearts at a depth simply not possibly in life. There is something about this combination of the person known and the person imagined that is pure magic.

My friend and sometime co-author, Alison Daniels, encouraged me in a recent email to take my time. Alison and I have been turning out novels–and pretty good ones–every few months. She assures me that this one is different, that it has the potential to be a serious piece of writing, that I should think in terms of a year, at the least. I’m not sure.  I know that I seem unable to make the decision to simply walk away from it. So I suppose I will continue. And thinking of this as a year-long project has relieved me of some of the pressure I tend to put on myself.

“My name is Emily Cade Ainsworth, and I am going to tell you a story about a family. In many ways, both the story and the family are like all the other families and every other story. But because this is a story about my family, it is also a story about the South. And that complicates things.

There are as many narratives about the South as there were crawfish in the creek behind my house in the North Georgia hills. One common notion about those of us born and bred in the Deep South is that we are stranded, permanently and more or less contentedly, that–immobilized by the heat or our genes–we are unlikely to move from the place or the state of mind in which we begin. Although I am not unaware of those sons and daughters of the South who will remain happily sweating out their July days by the pool at the country club or on the porch of a dirt farmer’s shack, the southerners I have known best are a restless and dissatisfied lot.

And because the South is a land haunted by the Scriptures, we have the perfect metaphor for our odysseys. Whether we are Baptists or Episcopalians, the image of the Promised Land, just over Jordan, informs our dreams. However–with no irreverence intended–promised or not, I’m afraid that in this particular version of the journey, you can only get to Canaan by way of bloodlines, memberships, an air of carelessness, and the casual cruelty of the question, ‘Who are your people?’

Our ‘people’ were pretty much a disgrace, but due to the monumental efforts of the generation before mine, we have achieved a reasonably convincing appearance of gentility.”

I am layering and interweaving time and place, which drives Alison crazy and sometimes, I will admit, even confuses me, but it just seems to be how I write.  I have begun with a present-time first person narration by the main character and have laced in chapters that travel back to the late nineteenth century (my great-grandparents) and forward again to the 1920’s (my grandparents, parents, and aunts).  I have travelled from a dirt farm north of Birmingham to “Aunt Cade’s big house downtown” in Montgomery.

I spend long hours looking at the photographs of all the women whose story I am trying to tell.

Imagination and Memory. Imagination and Life. In my limited experience of writing fiction, I find that I can no longer readily distinguish them. What I find, in fact, is that by imagining them, by taking the risk of just showing up as they worry and decide and speak and act, I am coming to know and understand these women I thought I knew so well.

My cousins and I call them “The Queens.”



“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

  • Johnston, William; preface:Huston Smith (1996) [1973]. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. New York: Image Books. ISBN 0-385-03097-5. (first edition, 1973)