1 Comment

When I first started writing, I heard a "rule" whispered throughout writers' circles:

Never kill a pet in your book.

It sounded like good advice at the time, though it did tweak my sense of authorial autonomy. Why shouldn't I be able to kill a pet in fiction? Pets are just as important as sources of motivation, plot and twists as any human character, and they're certainly just as human as any biped, with their own distinct personalities. Sometimes, they're the greatest source of comfort for the characters, becoming full members of the family. I argue that in order to tell a story, authors must sometimes make the difficult choice to kill off a pet.

Unfortunately, the fan backlash to pet deaths can be quite passionate—some writers and artists have even lost fans over it—which is how I imagine this "rule" came to pass. But as writers, it is our duty to tell the truth—the emotional truth, the literary truth and, the truth that lies in humanity's relationships with all creatures great and small.

I started thinking about the stories I'd read or seen over the years and wondered how a family pet or animal friend could be sympathetically and effectively killed off. Here are a few examples, and how and what they did right and wrong.


Family Guy (TV show)

A couple of weeks ago, the animated show Family Guy suddenly killed off main cast member and fan favorite family dog, Brian. Viewers were shocked, saddened and angry. But it turns out their ire may be short-lived: Family Guy may resurrect Brian. 

While this episode was quite moving and addressed the loss of a family pet in a unique and humorous way, returning to status quo rings false with what should be a life-changing event. Of course, we've yet to see how his "death" will affect the rest of the season, or any future seasons. But if Brian is brought back, even on a semi-permanent basis or in flashback form, it might undermine his importance in the family structure. He risks becoming a running joke, like South Park's Kenny ("Oh my God! They killed Kenny! You bastards!"). Viewers will feel cheated of their one true moment in what is otherwise an often subversive, trite and absurd show (which I still enjoy for exactly those reasons).

One thing is for certain: fans of Brian and of the show have been given an important glimpse at the tenuous threads we have on life, and how easily they can be cut. It's really a blessing this is a cartoon, which allows for the impossible, including the return of a beloved family member, no matter how they bring him back.

For Better or For Worse (comic strip) by Lynn Johnston

In 1995, comic strip writer and artist Lynn Johnston killed off her cartoon family's aging sheepdog, Farley. According to an interview in Wikipedia, Johnston received 2,500 letters, many of them negative.

I remember reading an interview with her where she said people swore never to read her comics again. I remember being equally shocked and depressed by Farley's death, perhaps because like so many families who read For Better or For Worse together, my family grew up with the Pattersons, and Farley was as much our dog as theirs.

Importantly, Johnston managed to make Farley's death meaningful. He not only continued his legacy (he bore offspring who lived on with the Patterson family) but he also died a heroic death, saving the youngest Patterson child from drowning.

It's clear from the interviews that Johnston had known Farley was getting on in years; but Farley didn't just get old and sick and shuffle off the mortal coil while suffering or in pain. None of us want to read about that—it's an unfortunate reality most pet owners don't want to face, especially when our goal while reading a comic strip is to escape. Instead, Johnston treated us to one last hurrah, showing us the aftermath and all that comes with losing a loved one. Despite her medium, which could have kept Farley young and spry forever, Johnston's always been true to her characters, to time and change and life and all that comes with it, for better or for worse.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (book) by J. K. Rowling

In Rowling's final Harry Potter book, the first to die is Hedwig, Harry's snowy owl. When I read it, I actually screamed "Noooooo!" What did Hedwig ever do to deserve her ignoble death, trapped in a cage, at the hands of a killing curse meant for The Boy Who Lived? She didn't even get a chance to fight back, to protect her master, to earn a death worthy of a great wizard's familiar.

Here's why Hedwig had to die: her death served as a stark foreshadowing of the many violent and senseless deaths to come. She couldn't be given a fight of her own in this battle because, like the rest of the wizarding world, she was hopelessly outmatched, trapped in the cage Harry thought would keep her safe--a cage paralleled by the final battle at Hogwarts. She wasn't even given a proper burial, which made the whole situation that much more heartbreaking.

On a more practical level, Hedwig is an extraneous character, and when animals and pet sidekicks are relegated the same function as furniture—or, in Hedwig's case, inconveniently easy-to-recognize messenger owl—they are hard to keep track of. An author needs to account for every character's whereabouts in every scene, and frankly, I think Rowling made a wise decision to get rid of the excess baggage Hedwig would have been while using her as an important literary device.

Still, I'm mad she killed her off. Because Hedwig!

The NeverEnding Story (film)

The death of Artax the horse has to be one of the most traumatic animal companion deaths ever in the history of movies. He comes to a slow, heartbreaking and horrific demise by sinking into the Swamp of Sadness, and Atreyu's pathetic, desperate cries for help tell us nothing and no one is going to save that horse.

My issue with this particular death—aside from lasting over an agonizing minute and half—is that Artax's death doesn't serve much purpose in the movie except to make Atreyu's journey more difficult. He doesn't have a steed for the rest of the trek until he meets Falkor, who is arguably a way better means of conveyance, being able to fly and talk and all.

Fans of the film might argue that the boy and horse are, in fact, the closest of companions. There's no doubt they have a connection—we're told Artax can communicate with his boy and serves as a guide on his journey. From a hero's journey point of view, that makes Artax Atreyu's mentor figure. And by the rules of the hero's journey, the mentor must be lost. It's supposed to garner sympathy from the viewers or something, but frankly, I found Atreyu's inability to save his best friend painted him as an unworthy hero. I mean, pulling on his lead and screaming at him clearly wasn't working. A sharp rap on the butt, maybe.

Like Hedwig, Artax is the victim of archetypal story structure, a tool to carry the story and plot forward. But unlike Harry Potter's owl, we resent the hero for letting his friend die in the pursuit of his cause. I might have sympathized more with Atreyu if Artax were a motorcycle or ATV or a tauntaun, because in this instance, making it worse didn't make the story any better. Also, I wouldn't have had to watch a horse slowly drown.

The kicker is that Artax is "resurrected" at the end of the film, which is relieving, but also aggravating for the reasons stated above. Sure, The NeverEnding Story is supposed to be a meta fantasy that revives itself in the fertile minds and imaginations of kids of who read (moralizing! Read and horses won't die, kids!), but when Bastian is soaring over Fantasia on Falkor's back and he spots Atreyu galloping across the plains on Artax, didn't you feel a little cheated?


Were you ever affected by the death of a fictional animal or pet? Did you agree with the author's decision to kill it off? Was it effective or did it turn you off the author's work? Let me know in the comments below!


Over the past five years or so that I've been seriously writing, along with the more than six years I've worked at the company as a proofreader, I've been asked several times how one goes about writing for Harlequin.

Let me preface this by making it clear that I do not speak for the company. This has been gleaned from my own personal experience.

Let's explore, first the reasons you are asking this question.

Why do you want to write for Harlequin? This is a very simple question. If the answer is "because they'll publish anything and I hear I can make easy money writing trashy romances," then stop. Just stop. Writing is not easy, and getting published by the world's largest publisher of women's fiction is even more difficult. Any belief that this will be easy and that you'll become a millionaire overnight needs to be put down right now. (See my About Me page.)

If, on the other hand, the answer is "I want to write for Harlequin because I've got a great idea/completed romance manuscript that would be terrific for their (insert series here) line," then you, my friend, are on the right track.

But what if all you have is a vague idea and a glimmer of hope in your eyes? How do you sell your book to Harlequin?

Boromir should know. His Aragorn/Legolas slashfics were rejected.


1. If you want to write for Harlequin, read Harlequin books. Two or three is not a sampling. Ten is not a sampling. I daresay, 100 probably isn't a sampling, either, but it's closer to some kind of representation (as of this date, I have read more than 670 Harlequin books over +6 years). Harlequin produces tons of different series ranging from contemporary to paranormal. Go to and study the enormous range of series they have. Understanding what you like and where your story will fit within the Harlequin family is vital.

2a. Write, write, WRITE. Don't just sit and plan and outline and dream. You have to have words to edit before you even consider who you'll sell to or what agent you want. The only way you'll become a published author is to write. Period. A book is not going to magically appear in your hands. Finish writing a book and you'll be that much closer to being a published author.

2b. Edit, edit, EDIT. Your manuscript should be the best it can possibly be. Polish it to a high gloss before you start handing it out...and expect to edit it some more even after you've sold it!

3. Get help. Learn about the romance publishing industry. There are tons of resources out there for the would-be Harlequin author to help you sharpen your writing and learn about the publishing business. The Harlequin website has an entire online community devoted to the craft of writing.

Another resource: The Romance Writers of America is the primary nonprofit organization created to foster the careers of aspiring and published romance authors, and it can give you lots of great perspective about the industry overall.

Go to your local RWA chapter meetings. Find a critique partner or critique group of like-minded writers who work in your genre. And unless she's a book editor, your mom probably doesn't count. Listen to what people have to say about your writing. Seek out resources on the internet and in books. You can never learn enough.

4. Submit your manuscript for consideration. You can't get published by Harlequin unless you stick your neck out there and submit. Check out the submission guidelines on the Harlequin website and, for the love of all that is holy, FOLLOW THOSE GUIDELINES. Nothing will get you rejected faster than flaunting the rules...except maybe dissing the line you want to write for in your query letter. (Note: Don't do that.)

5. Accept rejection. It'll happen. But don't let it discourage you! Learn from your rejection letters. Go back to step 3. Edit.

6. Repeat steps 1-5 until you are published by Harlequin. Writing to get published is not easy. I don't know how often I have to say this. I have 5 books I completed that are sitting on my hard drive, rejected or unpublishable. I've learned from every one of them. And though they'll never see the light of day, at least I can say I wrote those books.

For more tips (helpful or otherwise) check out my So You Want To Be A Writer page for all my posts on the craft and on getting published.


1 Comment

Michael Mandarano is a freelance copyeditor, proofreader and formatter, and (full disclosure) a former colleague of mine from Harlequin Enterprises. Last year, Michael proofread Her Son's Hero and also helped Wynne Channing format her book What Kills Me. I've asked him to tell us about what a copy editor can do, especially for authors looking to self-publish.

So you’ve downed that eighth cup of coffee, pulled an all-nighter and finally completed your work in progress. Your baby is complete. So what now?

Well…you could run a spell-check, close the file and start figuring out how to get your masterpiece into the hands of readers. Yes, you could do that. But therein lies the most common mistake made by indie or self-published authors and, in my opinion, the most damaging one to make.

The manuscript you’ve just poured your heart and soul into may very well be the next Fifty Shades of Grey or Beautiful Disaster, but without a trained and focused eye (and one that’s a bit more removed than yours), it’s bound to contain typos, inconsistencies and other errors that have slipped through the spell-check cracks.

In short, you need a copy editor.

As a copy editor, my job is to take a completed manuscript and smooth out the wrinkles. By this stage, you and your editor (make sure you have one of those, too) will have worked out the major issues in your story: plot and character development, proper use of dialogue, showing versus telling, and so on. Focusing on these top-line elements is extremely important, but it also leaves lots of room for smaller errors to remain undetected. In fact, often the editing process itself inserts errors into the manuscript that weren’t there before.

A good copy editor will go through your work and catch errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, inconsistency and awkward phrasing. It’s what we do. Some like to call us detail-oriented, while others prefer the term anal. I prefer the first! 🙂 A good copy editor will do all these things while ensuring your author voice remains strong at all times. It’s your book; we’re here to give it that polished and professional look that readers have come to expect.

So once you’ve made the smart decision to hire a copy editor, what can you expect?

First off, I usually ask for the completed manuscript to get an idea of what level of copyediting is required, and to give an estimate of the total cost. I provide competitive per-hour rates and complete honesty when pricing projects. No one likes invoice shock!

Depending on the length of your book, my standard turnaround is usually one to two weeks. At the outset, we’ll discuss your preferences regarding spelling (American, British, Canadian) and whether you prefer any particular dictionary or style guide.

I copyedit most often in Microsoft Word using the Track Changes feature. It’s the easiest way to edit a manuscript with complete transparency and, combined with the Comments feature, allows me to explain any changes I make, as well as add suggestions here and there. For those using Word alternatives (e.g., OpenOffice or Pages for Mac), no worries — they’re compatible!

When you receive the marked-up file, you’ll go through the manuscript and choose to either accept or reject my edits and read the comments throughout. If you have any questions at that point, send them along!

And that’s it! You’ll have a polished, ready-to-be-published manuscript that you’ll be proud to present to readers.

Next up: formatting and producing an ebook. Stay tuned for my upcoming post on this topic…

For a limited time, I’m offering discounted copyediting rates to authors in need of my services. Drop me a line for details, and be sure to mention this post. And stop by if you’d like more information about me and my work.

Best of luck!

Why yes, this is my car.

Editing your work is like detailing a car. Wikipedia says it best:

Auto detailing (UK: Car valeting), is the performance of an extremely thorough cleaning, polishing and waxing of an automobile, both inside and out, to produce a show-quality level of detail. Besides improving appearance, detailing helps to preserve resale value of a car.

Sure, you've probably gone over your work a hundred times to make sure your character arcs are completed, you plot makes sense, the timeline is accurate. You've probably run spell check a hundred times since you started. So what's left?

Plenty. As car detailing implies, in order to get the best performance out of your vehicle, you have to take your writing apart paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word. The goal is to ensure every single word has a purpose and isn't gumming up the works.

A good way to do this is to isolate chunks of text so you can focus on the words rather than the flow, which you're likely so used to by now, you can't imagine how it'd sound without that loose, weak sentence in there. There are lots of different ways to do this. For example:

  1. Read your work backwards.
  2. Randomly select pages and read through them, but do not read sequential pages.
  3. Search for particular words, symbols or phrases that you may have overused.

I like the third method because my word processor can count and highlight all times I've used a search term in a book. This is especially good for spotting a word that appears more than once on a page—something your editor will immediately pick up on and will likely want to fix. Everyone has different words they overuse, so it might be easier to ask a critique partner to point them out to you.

A few search terms I've used and overused:

suddenly: I've not known many things to happen suddenly, and I've found there are better ways to surprise the reader. Suddenly only prepares them for it when allowing the event to happen is much stronger. A monkey attacks you and you scream!

rather, very, little, pretty: Strunk and White advises that you avoid these qualifiers as they suck the life out of prose.

seem: this is a weak verb and prone to overuse when simply stating a fact is better. See my post on Seeming and Feeling.

just: I'm just not sure where I picked up this habit. It just seemed to sneak up on me pretty suddenly.

!: According to Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, you should eliminate as many exclamation points as possible, limiting yourself to only 3 per 100,000 words. I caught myself with 101 instance in my most recent work.

smil*: for smile, smiling, smileyness, etc. I tend to focus too much on characters' faces, and will sometimes limit their reactions to what happens in the head and shoulders. Being more specific when something makes someone happy, or even eliminating the smile and letting the dialog speak for them will sharpen things up. A good resource to check out is The Emotion Thesaurus from the Bookshelf Muse.

Eliminating, replacing and rewriting will get your work to a buffed shine and have your writing performing at its peak.

What words do you overuse? How do you do your nitty-gritty editing? Tell me in the comments below!


1 Comment

It's NaNoWriMo, and while the name of the game is writing and getting 50,000 words down by the end of the month, I'm going to blog about something a little different: creative commitment.

What is commitment? According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary:

com·mit·ment noun \k?-?mit-m?nt\

Definition of COMMITMENT

1 a : an act of committing to a charge or trust: as (1) : a consignment to a penal or mental institution (2) : an act of referring a matter to a legislative committee
b : mittimus
2 a : an agreement or pledge to do something in the future; especially : an engagement to assume a financial obligation at a future date
b : something pledged
c : the state or an instance of being obligated or emotionally impelled

Notice that very first definition. There's a certain amount of crazy that comes with a personal avowal to a particular course of action. It's crazy to other people, anyhow, when you pledge to fly to the moon, climb Mount Everest, journey to Antarctica, run that marathon, or write that book. The reason's it's called a commitment is that most people will think you're mad to dedicate your time, energy, and resources to a venture they wouldn't undertake themselves and one that, in their minds, is doomed to failure.

But we know those insane adventures into the unknown weren't so crazy because people have done them. And there are still more challenges to claim victory over if we decide to commit ourselves.

Take this example: Kina Grannis had this stop-motion music video made entirely of jelly beans. The production was filmed over 2 years using 288,000 jelly beans.

Watch the video here, then check out the making of the video.


Did you go "Wow. That's insane. Why would anyone do this? It's genius!"?

That is the product of commitment. Awe. Shock. Bewilderment. Inspiration. It takes you going the extra mile, you going to greater lengths than can you'd imagined, you having the balls to say, "No, that's not good enough for me" and doing something about it.

I admit that when I first saw this video, I was like, "Huh, that's really neat." But it didn't occur to me just how much work went into it until I watched the making of.

And that's part of the irony of creative commitment. As the creators/directors/writers, etc. we must brood and gnash our teeth and sweat blood over the most minute details, but the art comes in making sure no one else notices until we pull back the curtain. Just think about your favorite big-budget movie productions and how much more you appreciated them when you watch a special making-of feature, or heard an interview with the director about filming challenges.

Once we'd seen this making-of documentary, my husband and I watched this music video over and over again. The simple, cutesy song that would have likely fled our brains the minute we turned to something else has stuck with us day and night. Kina Grannis is now a name we know, and it's all thanks to this video.

So my lesson is this: Commitment is about more than just time and word counts. It's about a personal pledge to make your work the best it can possibly be. When NaNo is done and you have your 50,000 words, will you be going to the extra mile to edit, rewrite, and then edit some more? Will you get over your 50,000 words--even if they're complete crap--and shape your work into a masterpiece?

This is, quite literally, one of my biggest writing pet peeves of all time, so I thought I'd share.



Literally means actually, without exaggeration or inaccuracy, word for word or in the strictest sense. I'd recommend you read this XKCD comic to verify.

Figuratively is the opposite of literally, meaning metaphorically.

Avoid the use of these two adverbs whenever possible. Things are seldom literal, and if they are, there’s no real call to use this unnecessary and rather clichéd word. And if they’re figurative, it should be evident (often via hyperbole) that the phrase is meant in a non-literal sense.


Acceptable but unnecessary:

The zombie literally tore him limb from limb.

Figuratively speaking, she’s a real dog.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith are fighting for their lives—literally and figuratively!

He literally wanted to kill him.

(*For bonus points, can you rewrite these sentences so they don't use cliches?)

Confusing and incorrect:

She literally talked him off the proverbial ledge.

He was literally and figuratively blown away by the surprise party.

She screamed so loudly his eardrums literally exploded.

Figuratively speaking, she was literally shocked out of her socks.


Note: For the love of Strunk & White, putting the two together does not mean they cancel each other out!

People get this one mixed up a lot, so I'm going to clear this up once and for all.




Lay is a transitive verb (used with an object) meaning to set in a horizontal position.

I lay tiles down.

He laid his book on his lap.

He had laid the bouquet on the table.

She was laying out the napkins.


Lie is an intransitive verb (used without an object) meaning to recline or rest in a horizontal position.

I lie down on the sofa.

She lay down that afternoon.

She had lain down earlier when her migraine was bad.

She was lying down while he inspected her wound.


Still confused which to use? Ask yourself this: Is it a person or living entity who is reclining on a bed, the floor, generally getting comfy? Use lie.

Is it someone putting a thing down? Use lay.

More helpful info is here:


"So, romance has a formula, right?"

"They're all the same story over and over, after all. Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back."

Simple. Sure.

"So, what is that formula?" asks the novice writer aspiring toward their first book. "Can you send me the outline that will get me published?"

The answer comes in two very succinct and rather rude words. The shorter and more polite version of that is NO.

Because romance authors hate the word formula. "Formula" implies a rigorous set of instructions that have a magical answer at its end. The answer is "Happily Ever After", but the HEA is never the same twice. No, don't say marriage is always the same, or miracle babies with CEO sheikh cowboys are always the same.

Every story is different. Period. They may have the same-looking results, may even take similar steps along the journey, but those journeys--in essence, the story--are different for every character because every character is different.

Think of it like a long car ride with you, your sibling and your parents. Each of you has their own thoughts, feelings, experiences. Each of you perceives that car ride in a different way. I can tell you that the "formula" for your ride is taking the highway route north until the 64 exit and making a left. You'll all get there, but along the way, what is going on in your minds? What happens at the pit stop? You all end up in the same place at the very end of that ride, but you did not all get there with the exact same perceptions of that ride.

"But there has to be a formula," the novice writer says. "I learned it from my high school writer's craft class."

Oh, you mean the hero's journey? Or are you talking about the structure of a plot? Or are you talking about the different kinds of story types?

Okay, yeah, sure, I suppose those are "formulas." But Luke Skywalker and Dorothy Gale did not have the same movie, did they?

"Well, they sort of did."

Sure they did.

"Why are you being difficult?"

Because in seeking the magic "formula" you are dismissing your own ability to tell a story in search of a shortcut. You think that by putting tab A into slot B, you'll have all you need for that award-winning, New York Times bestseller. You think all you have to do is lead your character by the nose through all the hoops and your tale will be a surefire win.

It doesn't work that way. You can't write in a vacuum. I can say "approaching the innermost cave" as much as I want, but until you've made it there with your own characters, or read enough books that you can understand when the MCs have reached that point, you will probably stare at me and wonder if I'm coming on to you.

What does work is writing the way you write and then learning about "the formula" in books, workshops, classes, the internet, from your fellow writers so that you start to understand why your story meanders all over the place, or why it's so boring in the middle, or why no one's satisfied in the end, or why everyone seems to hate your hero or heroine. Read books. Watch movies. You have probably already perceived the structure. It will be easier to understand when you're trying to get through it yourself.

You can't know how to write unless you write. And no matter how much you plan and plot and outline, stories have a way of surprising you, of running off like a hyperactive three-year-old brandishing a hammer. When you get to those moments, or when that three-year-old has suddenly disappeared from sight and you start panicking, that is when you pull out your map, retrace your steps and figure out where that kid might have gone and where he's headed now.

So yes, there's a formula. There are steps every hero takes in his quest. But the formula is not on a piece of paper, or a single website. You can't recite it as though it's the formula for measuring Energy.

"So...what's the formula?"

Oh, for crying out loud...HERE. HERE IT IS. ENJOY.