Interview with Voice Actor Suzanne Cerreta

An Interview with SUZANNE CERRETA Narrator of Bullet in the Chamber by John DeDakis

What do you think of Bullet in the Chamber as a story, Lark Chadwick as a protagonist, and John DeDakis as a writer? [Use both sides of the page and as many words as you’d like.]

One of my favorite things about Lark is her quick mind and strength. She isn’t afraid to stand her ground or run into danger. This isn’t something you see in the portrayal of female characters and it’s refreshing to have the chance to narrate a character who is both warm and strong.

I think “Bullet in the Chamber” is really relevant right now. The country is dealing with some scandalous leadership, as well as frightening circumstances regarding heroin dependency in many communities, so I find this book to be carefully crafted, funny in many places, as well as relatable to our current situation.

And John is a great author to work with! The characters, you can tell, all come from a very truthful and real place and he makes his care for each one apparent in his writing.

You make narrating a novel seem easy, but I’m sure it can be an ordeal. What are the mental and technical considerations that go into being a voice actor?

I have been recording books since I was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, recording myself on my pink radio in the 80s. I have always loved narrating and telling stories. It’s what I love about acting.

I have always been good at coming up with voices or essences of characters through their voices, especially with accents and dialects, so for me, narrating is a very natural part of my personality. I can’t imagine not doing it!

One of the hardest things is the longevity, so you need to make sure over a long period of recording time that you don’t change anything about the character voices and you are consistent. Going back and listening to make sure you are consistent is key. It can be very time consuming.

Did recording Bullet present any special challenges?

“Bullet in the Chamber,” because it was in first person narrative, was actually quite enjoyable and easy to really dig into. I love doing first person because you feel as though you are giving a monologue and deep insight into the character.

I especially loved your vocal interpretations of Lark, First Lady Rose Gannon, Muriel Stone’s slight Wisconsin accent, and the Valley Girl Temp at Applied Electronics. How did you learn to do so many voices?

Like I said above, voices have always come very easily to me. Also accents and dialects. I teach them to other actors, actually, as my day job, and I have a Masters degree in Applied Linguistics with a concentration in pronunciation and phonology.

Understanding why and how, or the motivation behind why we sound the way we do — whether we speak English as a second language, or have grown up with different language backgrounds, or have lived in different cities or countries — is so fascinating to me and vital when developing a character voice. Finding their speech rate, their sound changes, their pitch patterns, etc. all contribute to who they really are. The voice tells us so much about a person and the subtlest changes can change a character.

How, as a woman, do you approach reading a man’s lines?

In doing a man’s voice, I am lucky to have a very wide range regarding pitch. I also have studied a lot about voice (not just speech) and know how to change my vocal folds (i.e. – thick folds, lax folds, thin, etc.) in order to create different textures and genders in the narration. I once had to do six different teenage boy voices! Holala, that was tough!

What are “vocal folds”?

Vocal folds are actually the correct term for the vocal chords. Knowing how to change their shape and quality takes some time.

How do you make your vocal folds thick, lax, or thin?

If you, for example, drop your larynx down as well as the velar or soft palate in the back of the throat and allow the tongue root to be relaxed so the tongue is a bit down as well, you will experience thicker folds. It sounds like a lower gravelly voice OR it can also sound similar to the vocal fry that girls speak with these days. Always look out for young girls — they are the change in the vocal patterns across North America!

To make folds thin you would put your larynx higher up and use less voice through them, creating an airy sound. Also when you hear a singer using that singer songwriter-y voice that we have become accustomed to hearing, that is a thinner folds sound.

Tell us more about yourself.

I am originally from Brooklyn, New York, and lived there for about 26 years. I am a true New Yorker through and through :) You can take the girl outta Brooklyn….

In addition to narrating audio books, I teach pronunciation, accents, and dialects to actors. I give many workshops in pronunciation.

I also do an English as a Second Language podcast called Culips and we introduce ESL learners to cultural and slang material, as well as grammar that is more advanced and used everyday like phrasal verbs in natural conversation.

Phrasal Verbs?

That’s when two words come together to make a compound verb, such as pick up, put down, break out, etc. We use these so often in English and many learners are so confused by them. It’s usually an action coupled with a direction. We have a lot of fun with that. You can check it out on iTunes.

I also sing in a rock band called Small Foreign Faction.

All of these things keep me pretty busy!

Your voice is your livelihood. How do you take care of it?

Good question! I sing some pretty hard blues and rock, so I have to drink a ton of tea with lemon, and I make sure I do a very good vocal warm-up before practice and performances. I do a ten minute physical warm-up and a 30-45 minute vocal warm-up based in Fitzmaurice work and Estil vocal work.

How did you become a voice actor?

I think being a voice actor has always been sort of my destiny. I met an agent, happened to have a demo on me by mistake, and she called me in the next day. I booked my second audition. I booked consistently after that.

I work with innovative artists in NYC and have done many voice-overs for radio and national TV ads and campaigns. It’s just something I always loved doing and I think I really was in the right place at the right time with the right material.

Have you ever acted on stage and/or screen?

Yes. My training is very much based in theatre. I have a BFA in acting from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and have done plays in NYC off Broadway, as well as some TV (“Law and Order,” of course) and films as well.

What films have you been in?

The last film I did was produced by my friend’s production company called Before the Door productions and it was “The Most Violent Year” with Jessica Chastain. I also did a film that won a Sundance award called “Puccini for Beginners” with Gretchen Moll.

I have done a lot more theatre, though. In NYC theatre is king :) Although now, there are a good amount of TV shows being taped there. More than there was before!

What advice do you have for writers who want to create audio books?

It’s like writing a play. Once it is written and out there (make sure to have the latest edited and clean copy for your narrator, as it’s extremely annoying to have to guess and edit typos as you read) it is no longer your child. It is a walking, living thing that is being put to voice by a professional actor.

It’s important to allow the process to happen and to trust your actors. Some authors want to nitpick at the timbre of how you say one line, but that is not their call. It would be like a writer of a TV show stopping every time the actor doesn’t say the line exactly as it sounded in the writer’s head. It slows down the process and undercuts the actor’s job.

So, my advice: do your best writing. When it’s done, trust your actors. Set it free. You may get more than you expected in return!

What advice do you have for people who are thinking of becoming voice actors?

It depends on what you want to do, meaning video games, narration, commercials, dubbing, etc. They are all different animals. The best thing is to practice first! Listen to commercials (if you want to do those), and see if you can find your sound. Then make a demo and start sending it out.

For narration, read and record yourself out loud and listen. What can you change? What is effective? Then, begin submitting to different publishers, look at acx.com, and just start!

Tell us about your other projects.

I have about thirty books out now and three more coming down the pipe very soon.

I will be collaborating writing some theatre and possibly a screenplay in the next few months, so very excited about that!

Also, my website is getting an overhaul and will be showcasing online accent and dialect classes and resources.

Lastly, my Masters thesis research is in review, but we are hoping it gets published by the end of this year [2017] in the Journal of Second Language Pronunciation.

Bullet in the Chamber is now available as an audio book. Click here to order yours: http://johndedakis.com/my-books.html

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Beating Writer’s Block: Some Suggestions

You know the feeling:

You’re on a deadline. You don’t have much time to craft the perfect story.

You sit and stare at a blank computer screen while it stares back at the blank expression on your face. With each tick of the clock, your blood pressure ratchets up a notch. Panic grasps you by the throat.

Ever been there? Of course you have.

During my 25 years at CNN, I worked with some of the best writers in television news. I marvel at how they repeatedly – and rapidly – transformed blank screens into solid, readable copy. Yet every now and then, someone got stuck and needed a little help.

Whether your challenge is to write a news story, a novel, a term paper or an e-mail, here are some suggestions on how to beat writer’s block:

1. RELAX! – Nothing paralyzes more than trying to be perfect. The writers I know always aspire to do their best and that means nothing less than perfect. But it’s an elusive goal, so, rule number one: Relax. Take the pressure off yourself. It doesn’t have to be perfect – at least not the first time.

2. What Are You Trying to Say? – When a writer would come to me with that familiar blank stare, it was usually accompanied by the statement, “I’m having trouble getting started.” I’d simply ask, “What are you trying to say?” Amazingly, when detached from the keyboard, the writer usually had no trouble telling me in his or her own words what the story was about. “Okay,” I’d respond, “now go and write that.” Once the mental logjam was broken, the words would flow through their fingers.

3. Listen to What You Hear in Your Head – Ah, but exactly what words? And in what order? The answers are already in your head. Listen to that voice inside you. Or, if you’re one of those whose head has many voices clamoring for attention, zero in on the voice you hear the clearest, then write down what it’s saying. (By the way, having all those voices in your head doesn’t necessarily mean you’re crazy; it means you’re creative.) Once you’ve written the first sentence, the others will follow logically as the momentum builds.

4. Take a Hike – Bob Slosser and Ken Gilliam are two of the best writers I ever worked with (may they rest in peace). Ken was a CNN writer who loved to craft the perfect sentence. He agonized as he searched for just the right words to turn an original phrase. He told me what worked best for him was first to think about the story. That was usually best done while taking a walk to the break room, the coffee urn, or the bathroom. When he returned to his computer, he’d make the keys clatter a bit, then he’d take another hike while his copy simmered. Finally, he’d return to take a fresh look at what he’d written, then buff, polish, tweak and revise before he was satisfied – or the clock ran out. Bob Slosser, a former New York Times editor and author of several nonfiction books, had an approach to writer’s block that was similar to Ken’s. Bob was a pacer. He once told me he wore out the carpet in his den as he walked back and forth in his quest to find the right words. Bob said each of his books “went through the typewriter” 25 times. That’s a lot of pacing. But you see, ruminating is simply another way of writing.

5. Write something. ANYthing! – Ruminating, thinking, and pacing are fine, but there comes a time when you must take action. So, just do it. You can always loop back and make it better.

These are just a few suggestions. The list is not meant to be exhaustive. What works for you?

~John DeDakis is a novelist, writing coach, and former Senior Copy Editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.” John’s fourth and newest novel in the Lark Chadwick mystery-suspense series is “Bullet in the Chamber.” Visit his web site at www.johndedakis.com

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Take Off Your Straitjacket

Perhaps the biggest impediment to successfully finishing your novel is the hectoring voice in your head that’s critical of every single word you choose. You know the feeling. It’s like trying to write while you’re tightly cocooned inside a straitjacket.

Make no mistake: word choice is certainly of the utmost importance. That’s why you’re reading this. There’s a time and place for being preoccupied with finding the perfect word, but when you’re writing those first pages is not that time.

Why not? It seems counterintuitive to neglect nitpickiness right from the start.

All too often we start our novel with the highest of hopes. Then, by page fifty, the writing bogs down. The voices in our head are telling us the story is rubbish, the characters are cardboard cutouts, and those inner voices bully us into believing our writing is uninspired. So, we loop back to the beginning to do some triage. And the patient dies.

But writing is not brain surgery, so try this instead: Before you write the first words of your manuscript, do your spade work — lock in your setting, get to know your characters, build your plot. But hold off for as long as you can before you write anything. Why? You’re building up a head of steam.

Then, when you can’t stand it anymore, let yourself go. Fling off the straitjacket. Turn off your inner editor. Just write. Tell your mother who’s sitting on your shoulder judging you to zip it. Let your writing run free – all the way to the end. That’s right. Don’t stop to buff and polish.

Why? Because when you get to the end, you will have a finished your novel.

If you hit a wall and you’re stumped, just keep writing. You’ll be thinking with your fingers. Trust me. Pretty soon your story will gain traction again. When you get to the end of the journey, then circle back to the beginning.

When you look with a fresh pair of eyes at what you’ve written, you’ll be amazed at what burbled up unfiltered from your subconscious. Of course you’ll see all the flaws, too. But this time when you do all the nit-pick rewriting, you’ll be propelled by the self-confidence that comes from knowing you’ve already written your novel. Now you’re just making it better.

John DeDakis, a former editor on CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer,” is a writing coach and novelist living in Baltimore. His fourth mystery-suspense novel, “Bullet in the Chamber,” will be published by Strategic Media Books this fall.
www.johndedakis.com

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I’m Afraid to Write!

“I’m afraid to write.” I hear that lament a lot. And, to be honest, I’ve felt that way myself. To be afraid is to be human. To admit you’re afraid is to be brave – and true to yourself. Facing our fears is the first step toward overcoming them. So, let’s look at some of the possible reasons for our writing fears – and their antidotes:

1. I’m Afraid I’ll Be Judged
2. I’m Afraid I’ll Be Rejected
3. I’m Afraid I’m Not Good Enough
4. I’m Afraid I’ll Be Misunderstood
5. I’m Afraid I’ll Fail

The common thread here is that all of those fears are realistic. Every writer – successful or wannabe – has been judged, rejected, isn’t as good as someone else, has been misunderstood, and has failed. Congratulations. Your fears will come true.

That leaves you with two choices:

1. Give in to your fears and let them win, or:
2. Get over your fears and get on with your writing

Let’s assume that from time to time you’ve given in to your fears and your writing has ground to a stop. Chances are, however, that you still have a strong desire – perhaps even a need – to write. Do you? Let that sense of inner urgency be the engine that propels you forward.

Yes, fear can be a crippler, but here are some suggestions on how you can overcome your writing fears:

1. Admit to yourself that you are afraid
2. Identify the fear or fears holding you back
3. Do what you can to address those fears. If, for example, you’re afraid your writing isn’t as good as good as someone whose work you admire, then figure out what they do that impresses you and try to emulate them.
4. Accept that you will fall short, but don’t let it become an excuse not to try anyway.
5. Keep trying. Don’t give up. Giving up assures failure; trying is an act of faith.

Fear is the common denominator between courage and cowardice. Cowardice is fearful inaction, but courage is fear in action. Even the soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day were afraid. But going forward in spite of their fears became an act of bravery.

Consider writing as a metaphor for living. To write is to risk. And it’s in taking calculated risks that we – and our writing – come alive. Do it. Write! It’s only then that you’ll see your writing – and yourself — get stronger.

~John DeDakis teaches journalism at the University of Maryland – College Park. He is an author, writing coach, and former CNN Senior Copy Editor (“The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”). “Troubled Water,” John’s third novel in the Lark Chadwick mystery-suspense series, is available now at: http://amzn.to/1eQXCBC

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Advice on Writing a Novel

I got an email from a woman today asking for my advice about writing a novel.

Here’s what she wants to know:

“I have wanted to write a novel for some time about my college experience, but I haven’t figured out how to tell the story in a way that would be interesting to other people. Some [news] events of the past week have cleared my blocks and, I think, given me a good story…. I think for this to sell, it would need to come out fairly quickly. I’ve got a good outline, and I think I can write a chapter or two a day, so the first draft would be finished in three to four weeks. Do you think I could start shopping it around before it’s finished based on the content? Or would I need to go through several drafts and get it perfect before I tried to shop it around?”

My answer to her might be useful to you, too:

1. As you will soon find out, writing a novel isn’t as easy as it seems. To write a really good one takes more than a few weeks and will probably require much rewriting.

2. There’s no need to rush your book onto the market because most book production takes a year from getting an agent and book deal to actual publication. It can go faster, of course, if you self publish, but you will have to do ALL of the promoting, and you won’t be able to get into most book stores because they have a bias against self-published books.

3. Even though the events prompting you to write are fresh and in the news now, the story you’re writing will, no doubt, contain universal truths that will continue to be relevant long after the news story fades from memory.

4. Don’t start shopping your manuscript until it’s finished. For works of fiction, the manuscript has to be completed. That’s because not all “great ideas” are well executed, so no one is going to want to take a chance on an unknown writer.

5. I mentioned rewriting. One mistake new writers make is that they try shopping their manuscript too soon. They wrongly assume the first draft is “good enough.” A wiser approach is to accept that your first draft will suck. Then loop back and read it fresh — and critically — after it’s had a chance to marinate. Once you’ve reworked the manuscript, give it to a few people who will give you honest feedback about what works and — more importantly — what doesn’t. You may think you’ve written clearly, but you won’t know for sure until someone objective tells you that you haven’t.

6. Only when it’s as good as you can get it will it be time to look for an agent. And it’s the agent route that I suggest because agents have relationships with publishers and can get a publisher to read your manuscript. Approaching a publisher directly is usually futile because they don’t have time to read it — and they probably won’t.

All that said, I don’t want to discourage you. I think it’s wise to take something that really happened to you and fictionalize it because it will be a much more compelling story and you’ll be able to delve more deeply into the psyches of your various characters.

One thing I’m doing with my new-found freedom from CNN is being a writing coach. I do one-hour one-on-one tutorials via Skype on the writing process. One session is “How to Write a Novel in 15 Steps.” I’m also a manuscript editor. I do nit-pick copy editing, plus assess the story and how it’s being told.

So…… even if you don’t utilize any of my services, I really want to encourage you to run with your idea. Run hard and strong with it and, most importantly: Have fun with it!

JD
www.johndedakis.com Continue reading

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My Callanwolde Experience


I’ve just completed a two-month stint as Writer in Residence teaching fiction writing at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta. What an amazing place!

The serendipitous opportunity came in an email from Peggy Still Johnson, Callanwolde’s new Executive Director, within 24 hours of my retirement from CNN. She needed someone fast to fill an unexpected vacancy just days before the beginning of the spring term. She sent me a link to a YouTube video showing the splendid 1920s mansion that had once been home to the Candler family of Coca-Cola fame, but is now a site for all sorts of artistic pursuits including dance, pottery, weaving, photography, and writing. I watched the video with my choral conductor wife Cindy and we were both mesmerized by the place.

Within minutes, I was on the phone with Peggy to let her know of my interest. But she’d been under the mistaken impression that I still lived in Atlanta. She gulped when I told her I now live in Washington, DC. To her credit, however, the gulp gave way to enthusiasm. Peggy told me that my presence would give her the opportunity to put into place her vision of an Artist in Residence program for Callanwolde.

The only thing missing was the residence — that’s many months and a capital campaign away from becoming a reality. So, Peggy and I cobbled together what amounted to a Writer in Itinerance program. During my stay in Atlanta, several people graciously put me up (or put up with me): Lynn McGill, Tommie and Frank Nichols, Andrew and Judy Keenan, Glenn and Sheri Emery, and Bruce and BJ Crabtree. Their selfless generosity – and Peggy’s nimble flexibility – made it possible for me to come to Callanwolde. A hearty thank you to you all.

I taught two fiction writing classes. Students learned the basics about how to write a novel, how to write scenes, revise, get an agent and market their work. And they bravely shared their works-in-progress with one another and received helpful feedback. I come away humbled and impressed with the creative talent that a place like Callanwolde attracts. One student, Callanwolde employee Christina Bray, had never considered writing fiction before taking my class. By the end of my stay, she confidently read an engaging excerpt from her novel-in-progress to a room full of about fifty people attending a reception for me in the Callanwolde library.

Thank you to Peggy Johnson, the Callanwolde staff, and my students for making my Callanwolde experience fulfilling beyond measure.

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THE NEXT BIG THING BLOG HOP

What is a blog hop? Basically, it’s a way for readers to discover authors new to them.  I hope you’ll find new-to-you authors whose works you enjoy.  On this stop on the blog hop, you’ll find a bit of information on me and one of my books and links to three other authors you can explore!

My gratitude to fellow author Thomas Kaufman for inviting me to participate in this event.  You can click the following link to learn more about Thomas and his work.  Website:  http://thomaskaufman.com

In this blog hop, I and my fellow authors, in their respective blogs, have answered ten questions about our book or work-in–progress (giving you a sneak peek).  We’ve also included some behind-the-scenes information about how and why we write what we write–the characters, inspirations, plotting and other choices we make. I hope you enjoy it!

Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts and questions. Here is my Next Big Thing!

1. What is the working title of your book?

TROUBLED WATER.  I’m putting the finishing touches on it now before sending it off to my agent.  We’re hoping for a publication date in early 2014.

2. Is your book self-published, published by an independent publisher, or represented by an agency?

I’ve been represented by The Barbara Casey Literary Agency since 2004.  Here’s a link to her Web site:  http://www.barbaracaseyagency.com/

3. Where did the idea come from for Troubled Water?

A friend of mine was sent to prison a few years ago.  This book will explore some of the issues raised by his experience.

4. What genre do your books come under?

Mystery-suspense

5. “Troubled Water” is book three in the Lark Chadwick series.  Tell us about the first two.

FAST TRACK:  In book one of the series, we meet Lark Chadwick, 25, vexed because she can’t figure out what to do with her life.  When the book begins, Lark is a waitress and victim of a sexual assault that caused her to drop out of college a semester short of graduation.  The trauma of coming home from work late one night to find the body of the aunt who raised her from infancy launches Lark on a search to find out more about her past.  She goes to the small town in southern Wisconsin where her parents were killed in a car accident.  At the office of the weekly newspaper, Lark discovers a newspaper clipping that describes the accident that killed her parents.  To her astonishment, the accident was a car-train collision – and she’s the “miracle baby” who survived.  She wonders why no one ever told her these things.  She convinces Lionel Stone, the irascible editor of the paper (a former New York Times editor), to let her do a follow-up story on “The Miracle Baby” story.  Two of her sources are the mayor and sheriff, they’re in the closing days of a race against each other for Congress, and each of them has a secret that will unravel the mystery of the deaths of Lark’s parents.

BLUFF:  Book two of the series begins six months after Fast Track ends.  Lark, now a reporter at Lionel Stone’s newspaper, discovers the real reason Lionel’s daughter Holly died in a fall off a cliff while hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru.  To research the novel, I hiked the trail in 2007.

TROUBLED WATER:  In book three, Lark is about to begin her first day on the job as a cops and courts reporter at a daily newspaper in Georgia, when she discovers the body of what turns out to be a serial killer’s first victim.  In this tale, Lark gets caught up in deadly office politics at a newspaper in trouble because of tumultuous changes within journalism.

Although my novels are a progression of Lark’s life, I purposely wrote each one so that it can stand alone without having to be read in order.

Just in case you’re interested in knowing more about my books – and maybe even buying one (he hinted strongly) — here’s a link to them:  http://www.johndedakis.com/my-books.html

6. You write in the first person as a woman.  What’s your secret?

There’s nothing mysterious about it, really.  I started doing it nearly twenty years ago when I first began writing fiction.  Someone suggested I should write in a way that “stretches” me because it’s different than the voice in which I usually write.  So, writing as a woman seemed like it would be a big stretch.  But it actually wasn’t because I discovered that emotions aren’t gender-specific, it’s just that women are (in general!!) better and more nuanced at expressing what they’re feeling.

As I became more serious about my writing, I enlisted the aid of my women friends – many of whom are in their mid-twenties.  They read early drafts of my manuscripts and gave me invaluable critical feedback.  Their encouragement – supplemented by the positive reviews I’ve gotten from many female readers — spurs me on.  The “secret” (if there is one): listen to the women in your life (or, if you’re a woman trying to write a male character, listen to your men friends).  The better we understand each other, the more effective we’ll be at bringing those characters to life on paper.

7. What are you working on now?

In addition to “Troubled Water,” I’m working in collaboration with Pittsburgh psychologist and writer Joyce Wilde on a self-help memoir (working title: “Grief and Recovery: A Conversation”). We’re still in the early stages of the project, so I don’t want to say too much just yet, other than it stems from the sudden death of my 22-year-old son Stephen in August 2011 and the death of Joyce’s sister in a drunken driving accident a quarter century ago.

8. How much does personal experience influence your writing?

A LOT!  The first scene in Fast Track, for example, is based on the suicide of my sister in 1980.  Writing it was a catharsis, yet the actual plot for the book is something I made up.  Like most writers, I write what I know.  I know journalism; it’s been my profession for the past 40+ years (25 years at CNN). So, journalism is the backdrop for my stories.  I give the reader a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what journalists do.

9. In your experience, what’s the biggest obstacle facing a person who has a desire to write a book?

The biggest obstacle is getting started, followed closely by the obstacle of getting discouraged and quitting.  Based on the conversations I’ve had with many aspiring novelists, the two main reasons writers get discouraged and quit is because 1.) they haven’t mapped out where they intend to go with the story, and 2). Not staying organized.  Much of this can be overcome by doing the necessary spade work before actually writing the story: getting to know the main characters, what they want, and what’s standing in the way of getting their goals fulfilled. There’s a third reason for discouragement:  believing that the first draft is the final draft.  Good writing is REwriting.  I tell writers to turn off their inner editor and write the first draft straight through.  Doing so gives you a sense of accomplishment.  You’ve written the novel.  That’s the hardest part.  The rest is going back over the manuscript and making it better.  I cover all this – and much more – in my writing workshops.  To find out more about how to bring me to your city to lead a workshop, go to the Services tab at the top of my home page and then click on workshops in the drop-down menu.

10. Who’s next on the NEXT BIG THING BLOG HOP?

So glad you asked!

Below you will find authors who will be joining me by blog, next Wednesday. Do be sure to bookmark and add them to your calendars for updates on Works in Progress and New Releases! Happy Writing and Reading!

Barbara Casey’s blog:  http://www.barbaracaseyagency.com/

Scott James’ blog:  http://scottandrewjames.com

Dixon Rice’s blog:  http://wredhead.blogspot.com/

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Metro Girl

A poem for the girl who got away

It’s been eight months now since my 22-year-old son Stephen died. The other day I came across a scrap of something he wrote.

First, some background: During one of my “girls-and-relationships” conversations with Stephen, he told me about a beautiful young woman he met at a subway stop on the D.C. Metro. She’d been listening to her iPod and they got to talking about music. Stephen told me they had major clickage. At the time, he was a cook at Black’s restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland; she was working in an office building nearby.

As Stephen and I talked, he was lamenting that all he wanted was to have someone in his life he could love. He said he thought Metro Girl might be that person, but he didn’t know how to connect with her.

“Why not?” I asked. “Didn’t you get her digits? Her email?”

“Naw,” he replied, shaking his head sadly.

“Dude! You should have gotten her email.”

“Dad! I’m sorry. I thought I’d see her again, okay?” He was clearly annoyed with himself — and with me for pointing out his egregious strategic error. But he agreed with me and resolved that if he ever saw her again, he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

Six months after he died, I found something he’d scrawled on a scrap of paper, undated, with only a few cross-outs. I think it might have been a rough draft of his updated strategy in case he ever met the girl of his dreams again. It’s uniquely Stephen. I figure his plan was to carry it around and give it to her the next time they met — if ever. It’s a little fumbly-awkward, but charming, nonetheless. He wrote it as prose, but it feels poetic, so I’ve kept his words, but poeticized the format.

Here it is:

Before we had even exchanged words, you stood out,
Your beauty radiating with the essence of an angel
Whose light was a beacon to what was good.
In a cold wasteland of drifting souls,
You were a warm shot of whiskey.

It was a one in a million chance of us meeting,
And you are a woman who comes every million years,
Your warm eyes can tell no lies.
So many connections are lost in passing,
So why should this be one of them?
Perhaps we could meet again,
But I’ll make it a little easier this time….

Sincerely,
Stephen
[Here he inserted his phone number]

As far as I know, he never saw her again. So, Metro Girl, this is for you — wherever, and who ever, you are.

In Memory of Stephen John DeDakis

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Metro Tableau

Three young children on a subway — and the memories they inspire

I’d been riding on the subway for just a few minutes when I spotted them a couple rows ahead of me: three children – a tableau of what could have been my kids twenty-five years earlier. My focus landed first on the youngest, an alert, sandy-haired boy of about two, lounging in a stroller. Not the rickety kind of stroller we put up with when our three were little. This one had all the bells and whistles — cup and snack-holders, padded dash, shock absorbers. The works.

The tot’s “big” brother fidgeted in one of the aisle-facing side seats next to the train door, scissoring his yellow boots that didn’t even come close to touching the floor. He coughed and I noticed he covered his mouth – with his sleeve. Pretty grown up, I thought, for what looked to me to be only a six year old.

Across the aisle, a dark-haired little girl of about ten kept leaning her face close to the tyke in the stroller, repeatedly planting kisses on his cheek. The little guy didn’t seem to mind – he just took it all in, his dark eyes roving back and forth between his two older sibs as our train careened through the dark tunnel, pitching, yawing, groaning, screeching.

A young pony-tailed woman stood behind the stroller – one hand gripping its push-bar, the other clutching a metal pole. In spite of being in charge of three youngsters on a speeding and crowded Metro train at the end of the morning rush, she seemed serene as she attended to each child while also fielding compliments from some of her fellow riders.

As I watched the big sister and her two little brothers, I remembered back to the days when mine were that young and wondered what would become of those three little ones. Would they be able to overcome life’s obstacles? My oldest, a daughter, is thirty now, a vivacious struggling writer; my middle boy, 28, is a musician, doing what he loves – when he can get a gig; my youngest – once a little boy in a stroller – dead, now, five months.

The train pulled into Union Station. My stop. I stood, forcing myself to put a lid on my emotional incontinence. The two older children were now sitting next to each other, quietly reading books – just like mine used to do. The boy in the stroller happily munched on a cookie, strategically slipped to him by the woman, just as he was growing bored.

“Very cute kids,” I said to the woman as I got to the door.

“Thank you,” she smiled, “but I’m just the nanny.”

“Well, you’re doing a great job.”

“Thank you.”

The doors slid open and I walked off the train and toward the escalator. The doors closed and the train began to move. I paused on the platform, hoping for one last glimpse. But I was too late. The train quickly picked up speed and, in seconds, my Metro tableau became a blur of metal and light rocketing into a tunnel – and into their future.

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Whittling it Down: What to Do When a Manuscript is too Long

As usual, my thoughts about the writing process might also be relevant to living.

Case in point: What to do when a manuscript is too long (or a life is too cluttered)?

Answer: Whittle it down.

(These comments will be about writing; you decide how to apply them to your life.)

I recently got a manuscript to edit that was a whopping 141,000 words. The writer obviously had a lot to say. But, sadly, too much to say. An agent or a publisher would not be impressed.

Publishing is a business and most of us are unknowns with no track record of book sales. Some 170,000 books are published every year in the U.S. alone (more in the U.K.). That comes to about 475 books a DAY. Many (if not most) don’t earn back the money a publisher spends to produce them. Therefore, it’s highly unlikely a publisher will agree to buy a bloated manuscript because its prospects of making money are too uncertain – but the certainty it will LOSE money goes up the longer the book.

Your goal should be to trim your manuscript to about 75,000 words. This doesn’t necessarily mean that what you cut will go onto the scrap heap. This is because publishers, if they like a manuscript (and the author), will want to know if you have any more stories up your sleeve. You’ll be able to say, “Why, yes. I do!”

Remember: Publishing is a business.

My first novel “Fast Track” went through 14 major revisions. At one point, it was a 150,000-word mishmash. One publisher rejected it because it didn’t fit into an easily identifiable niche – it wasn’t literary, it wasn’t a romance, it wasn’t a mystery. He said he didn’t know how to market it.

So, I took the manuscript to the book review club that met in my neighborhood. The women in the club read the story and then let me sit in on their critique. By listening to their comments, I realized I had three subplots I could easily jettison. That was the tipping point. I whittled it down to a lean 75,000 word-mystery that netted me an agent and a publisher — and some very enthusiastic readers.

So…..whittling really can pay off. See for yourself by clicking here: Fast Track

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