The Art of Writing Reviews

Why write a review?

The first answer is that authors love reviews, most of a little more than we should. Good or bad, they show that someone read our book and cared enough to write down their thoughts.

The second answer is that it will make you a better writer for your own books. Reviewing requires you think critically about what you read. More than whether or not you liked it, but why. Answering that why will help you spot issues in your stories. Also learning what makes you like or dislike a book will help you write a book you like.

So here’s an article I wrote for a review blog:

I’m Alex McGilvery and I used to be a book reviewer. Celticfrogreviews has reviews of hundreds of books of many genres. Sadly, I’ve had to give it up after three decades, mostly because the reading and writing cut into my own work as author and editor.

This is my process for writing a book review. There are probably as many ways to write reviews as there are reviewers. The blogs (aside from mine) I wrote for liked between 250 and 350 words, but you don’t have to worry too much about length as long as the information is there.

First and most importantly, be honest. If you don’t like a book, say that, but to be useful to the reader you need to say why you didn’t like it. Was it the characters? The plot? The way the book was written? You should answer the same questions if you do like the book.  This could be a one sentence starter to the review to grab the reader’s interest.

The actual review for me starts with a brief summary of the plot of the first part of the book. Spoilers are bad for the author and the reader. Unless Joe dies in the first quarter of the book, don’t talk about how Joe’s death ruined the book for you. If the book is part of a series and Joe was a major character in earlier books, you might want to think about mentioning it at all. The purpose of the summary is not to give detailed information about the book in any case. It does a couple of things. It lets the person reading your review know you read the book, and it shows your take on the early going of the plot. Some people just quote the back matter, but I like using my own words.

Once you’ve got that snippet of where the book is going, I suggest you talk about the writing. Were the characters strong and believable? Was the plot a tired old trope, or something more interesting? Did the author’s writing style/voice enhance or get in the way of the story? This is a paragraph, not a detailed analysis of the book. I give just enough to support the conclusion I made at the beginning of the review. If you want to gush a bit about the book, here’s the place.

Now, I close off the review with my recommendation. Who will like this book? Even if I didn’t enjoy it, is there a group which might? I didn’t give stars on my blog, but I did on Amazon. It’s important to pay attention to what the stars mean. 5 stars is an extraordinary book. One which stands well above the crowd. 4 stars is an excellent book. 3 is good, 2 is not so good, 1 is a disaster.

In my opinion there is too much fuss made about having high reviews, 4 or 5 stars. If the average number of stars given to books generally is higher than 4, the meaning and purpose of the stars is destroyed. As a statistics professor said to me once, you can’t have more than half the population being above average.  So when you give out the stars, refer back to the first bit of advice. Be honest.

One last point, giving an honest low star review is not a catastrophe for the author. All books have poor reviews, because not every book will appeal to every person. If I’ve done my work as an author properly, there will be people who don’t like my book. This is a good thing. Those low reviews give credibility to the high reviews.

There you have it. Feel free to find your own style and voice in reviews, but most importantly, have fun.

Hello, may I present…

Introducing a character to the reader is a bit like introducing that special someone to your parents. The temptation is to tell everything you know about them so the reader will love them as much as you do. 

The problem is that page and some of extolling the character’s looks, virtue, smarts and tough background story has derailed your plot. At the end of it the reader knows lots about the character, but they’ve lost the connection between character and story.

Here’s an example from a book I have in progress:

Frederick groaned as the cobbles dug into his back and looked up into Katerin’s brown eyes. She was not the delicate beauty of the other nobles in Lexburgh, her gown didn’t have nearly as many frills. Perhaps it was due to her, like him, being a scholarship student at her Academy. Katerin had appeared every time Vassily tortured him. He couldn’t guess at her reasoning, she risked her reputation each time she healed him. Yet here she was, again, that crooked smile on her face, as if she herself didn’t quite know why she was bending over him.

What have we learned about the plot of the story? Frederick is lying on the street, we know why since that is the prequel to this introduction. At the end of the introduction we’ve learned nothing new about Frederick. Even Katrin is mostly a sketch. Is she kind? Does she like Frederick?  We don’t know, but expanding on the paragraph to tell the reader how kind she is, and how she doesn’t really like Frederick but is somehow fascinated by him won’t do much more than delay further any revelation of plot.

Here’s what I wrote:

“Why do you let him do that?” Katerin crouched beside Frederick and put her hand on his chest sending warmth through to his battered heart. It beat more regularly and he could breathe normally.

“Why do you keep showing up to help me?” Frederick took Katerin’s offered hand and she pulled him to his feet.

“Let’s say, I’m not a fan of the Harnchev family.” She frowned, her deep brown eyes clouded before she shook her head and let go of his hand. “You need to move if you’re going to keep to your schedule.”

“You know about my schedule?” Frederick’s heart banged in his chest for a different reason.

“How long have I been stopping to help you?” She patted the same cheek Vassily slapped and walked briskly away. Frederick had followed her one time to watch her enter the girl’s version of the Academy on the far side of the huge green space which formed the center of Lexburg. The punishment for missing the first class was severe – ten soft lashes and then he had to run laps of the campus until he collapsed.

Now what have we learned from this introduction? We don’t know she’s on scholarship, but do we need that knowledge yet? Not really. We also get the bit on how she dresses, that may or may not be important to the plot. I’m somewhat infamous with my editors for not describing characters. So maybe the dress could find its way into the revision, but probably not.

The reason for that is I want show her emotional conflict. Note she doesn’t directly answer his question, instead she responds that she doesn’t like Vassily’s family. What we do get is she’s a healer of some kind. Her touch helps his heart and breathing.

She is familiar with Frederick’s schedule even if she doesn’t want to explain why. Perhaps her reason is not one Frederick would like, thus her walking away instead of answering directly.

As a bonus we learn some things about Frederick too. He is attracted to Katerin at some level. He appreciates her help, even as he doesn’t understand it. Katerin fascinates him enough to make him late for school, once.

At the same time we learn the schools are separated by a large green space, and at Frederick’s at least punishment is harsh. 

It could be argued that the bit about him following her is exposition, and I’d agree, but it also fits as immediate reflection by Frederick. He tried to learn more and it resulted in a painful lesson. So I’ll probably keep it in revision, but edit it to reveal more setting without taking anymore space.

The trick is to weave information into the story, make it part of the story. Not only do we meet Katerin, but we find out there is some conflict about what she is doing. I try to use dialogue as part of most of my character introductions. Even in the snippet before this one, Vassily gets lines to say to show us his character. (He’s a jerk.)

Now when I want to show more about Katerin, maybe about her relationship with her Academy, or her classmates, I’ll put her into another scene with more action and dialogue. The reader sees her and a bit more is revealed, but only as it is needed.

The same process works for setting, not that the character talks to the setting, but they can talk about it, or interact with it. Those cobbles under Frederick tell us a lot about Lexburgh. (I have them in a slightly different place in the revision)

Interaction with the setting could include a character shivering in the wind, pulling their collar up to try to stay dry in the rain, him tripping on holes in the road. The smell of horse manure, or the scent of blossoms. The sight of the Academy, the sounds of other students chattering. 

Because these are part of the character’s experience, the reader experiences them too, and the story keeps moving forward.

Now, what happens if we need more information right from the start? We make the scene longer and weave it in. Action, thought, dialogue all can show us what characters are like. Past actions of the character may affect the present moment of the POV character. Perhaps a memory of a mentor brought out by the experience. 

We do need to be careful with the reflection on character as it can turn into exposition disguised as thought. The litmus test to decide if we are writing reflection or exposition is the emotional weight. The memory means something, it changes the emotional state of the person remembering. 

That brings us to the crux of the matter. If anything we’ve write does not move the story forward, either revealing plot or characters interacting with the plot, we need to cut it or rewrite it. That means a lot more work from us as storytellers, but our reader will thank us.

Testimonial from Rebekah Lee Jenkins

I hired Alex for my second book, Hope in Oakland, because his work is meticulous.

If you are looking for a fantastic content editor, you found him and you should hire him immediately.

I learned early that your book is not your baby, it is your business. That means you want to release the best manuscript you are capable of writing.  The content edit is like the foundation of a house, skimp on this step, the whole structure will collapse. You can paint it any pretty colour you want but people will notice if the roof caves in and they will step away. Once you lose that reader they are gone forever. Not just them but everyone they would recommend your work to. This step is not something you skimp on. I wouldn’t dream of publishing a book without him.

Read on if you would like to know what he did for my books and my career.

In my first book he pointed out that my opening line for the novel was buried in the middle of chapter five. Yes. Chapter Five. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had released that book without his hard work. I should also mention my first book already had a content edit before I sent it to him to sort out the whole sorry mess. He restructured it and pointed out missing key scenes. That book, The Night They Came For Til, launched me into a writing career I am thrilled with, stunned by and desperately trying to keep up with.

Because I believe in giving credit where credit is due, I never, ever do an author night/interview without pointing out that Alex McGilvery is my editor and how to hire him. Ever. Because I know, every review that says “I could not put this book down” is a review we should share. I would have lost those readers somewhere in chapter three with a long flashback that didn’t drive the plot forward if he hadn’t restructured the entire thing! I had a good story that would have bored my readers to tears without his hard work.  Alex will pace your novel to be something people can’t put down. Of all the gifts he brings to the table that is the most invaluable.

The second book we finished, Hope in Oakland, was no exception. I had about 40 pages of repetition that I didn’t notice until he pointed it out and I was again missing key scenes.

As I said in my previous testimonial, this edit process will be exactly like a very detailed, very personal writing course. I learned a lot with my first book and I learned a lot with this book too. I appreciate that he tells you what you are doing wrong and what you are doing right. This has created more confidence in me and makes me excited to tackle a new project.

I can tell you from experience. If you chose to work with Alex you will be well on your way to producing the best book you can write and launching a very successful writing career. Don’t delay.

Happy editing!

Styles and Formatting

Book Template

The link above will download an updated .docx file with paragraph styles I use most often defined. I’ve set them now so the proper style follows automatically so you don’t need to remember to change them. The advantage is you don’t have to wade through the dozens on the list to get what you want. You don’t need to preserve the text. Simply type, select the style and away you go. The article tells you how to customize the styles to suit your book and mood. If you need a style which isn’t on there, say for sub-sections in a chapter, select the styles pane on the far right of the Home Ribbon, then scroll down to find a style you want. Chose modify style and select ‘add to style ribbon’ for ease of access while working.

I’ve also set the margins and headers for what I use for most books going to print, for smaller books you may want slightly smaller margins.

Creating Styles for a template:

Create a paragraph, format it in the way you want, font, size, indent, spacing. Highlight it. Right click on the Style you want to modify, the select “modify from selection”.  Everything in that style will change to reflect your highlighted paragraph.

From this menu, you can control all the formatting for the style. Here’s where you check that your Headings aren’t bulleted lists.

I create the styles and formats I want for the book first, then I write the book in that format, so I don’t have to go back and change it. From here, you can format for both print and e-book, depending on what you do.

You need at least two styles, one for the body of your writing, called ‘body’ ‘default’ or ‘normal’. I like using ‘body’ and rename the modified style to that name. Then I know it’s my format, not the computer’s. If you already have a ‘body’ in your menu, modify from the Selection.

Make sure you don’t have any stray lines on the page which will stay in a different style if you click on them. This is so you don’t find your font etc. changed and you need to go back and fix it.

The other style you must have is ‘Heading 1’ which you will use for chapter headings. In Kindle, the software looks for Heading 1 to create the Table of Contents (TOC) You can have more control creating your own TOC, but we’ll get there if we have time.

Using styles, you can change your entire document from double spaced to single spaced, change the font, font size, margins, indent from one menu.

If you’ve already got the book written. Make a copy of the file, open the copy.

Your writing is probably in ‘body’ ‘normal’ or ‘default’ Clicking on a paragraph will highlight which style you’re in up in that style menu. From there you can format a sample paragraph, and modify the style of everything in that style the same as if you created the styles first.

Beware! Some word processors will overwrite italics or bold with regular text when you change the font. Double check. This is why you work on a copy at all times.

There are some issues we need to look at with already written text.

First is tabs. Ebooks do not work with tabs, so you need to take them all out. First in your ‘View’ Menu click on ‘show non-printing characters’ or ‘show invisibles’ You’ll see your document full of blue arrows and dots etc. The tab is a straight blue arrow pointing right. Highlight it, control ‘c’ to copy, then open the search and replace menu.

That’s the one that says ‘replace’. Advanced find and replace will work, but the extra options can be confusing.  Paste (control ‘v’) the tab into the ‘find’ bar. Leave the ‘replace’ bar empty. Click on ‘Replace All’. This should delete all the tabs from your document. Now you use styles to set the indent.

If you are a double space after period typer. You can do the same thing with the spaces. Select two blue dots, copy and paste into ‘find’ then into ‘replace’ backspace over one dot to delete it. ‘Replace All’ and all your double spaces will be single spaces.

Ebooks don’t play well with too many hard returns in a row. Those are the right angle arrows pointing left. If you’ve double hard returned between paragraphs, you may want to use Search and Replace to fix it.

If you use ellipsis … You’ll want to select an ellipsis, then replace it with an ellipsis you type in the replace bar. This will make sure the software doesn’t split them between lines. Same with n-dashes and m-dashes. N-dash is one hyphen, m-dash is two. Word will ask you which you want when you type so it makes it easier.

Now you’ve done all the formatting scroll through the entire document quickly to look for odd looking paragraphs. Make sure they are given the proper ‘body style’. Put page breaks before each chapter heading if you haven’t already.

Now you’re ready to upload to kindle.

Each site has its own formatting requirements. It is a good idea to look at them.  You will be guided through each step, and will have a chance to check your book before you click the ‘publish’ button.

Testimonial from Laurence O’Brien

“I definitely recommend Alex’s editing service. I have had three books published by Harper Collins around the world and Alex’s service is equal to the structural edits I have received from them. Do not release a book without a structural edit of the type Alex provides. You need Alex McGilvery to get this necessary job done without taking out a second mortgage. It was a pleasure to work with Alex and see a new novel growing and becoming stronger.”
Laurence O’Bryan author of The Istanbul Puzzle & other novels available on Amazon and in book stores.

Laurence O’Bryan

Author & Founder: 

Founder:                 The Dublin Writers Conference

Tense Situations – Past, Present or Future?


We don’t pay a lot of attention to tense when we talk. It feels natural and easy to slot our words into past, present or future. In writing it can be more complicated. If we are writing in past tense, the past is our ‘present’ in the story. To write something in the past we may need something different than simple past.

To start out, there are four kinds of verb tense, each in past, present and future.





The clowns chased me. The clowns chase me. The clowns will chase me.


The clowns were chasing me when I ran into you. The clowns are chasing me. The clowns will be chasing me before you get here.


The clowns had chased me out of town before you came. The clowns have chased me all over town. The clowns will have chased me away by the time you get here.

Perfect Continuous

The clowns had been chasing me all day before you saved me. The clowns have been chasing me all day. The clowns will have been chasing me all day by the time you arrive.


When we read through the chart it is easy to see the subtle differences in meaning.

Simple indicates an action in past, present or future. There are more nuances than that, but for the moment that will do.

Continuous, as its name suggests indicates ongoing action. In the Past, it shows an action which is interrupted by another action, or an ongoing action. Many writers have a habit of using Continuous more than Simple which has two effects. The first is the writing feels static as Continuous suggests something which doesn’t change. The other is the confusion when they want to show interrupted action, and it looks the same as everything else.

Perfect, is for completed action. In Past Perfect the action has started and stopped before another action. In some cases, the second action can be unwritten. Flashbacks are Past Perfect, though one doesn’t need to write the entire scene Past Perfect. Introducing the flashback in Past Perfect, then using Simple Past for the rest makes it easier to read.

Perfect Continuous is for an action which started in the past and continues to a specific time. The important difference between Continuous and Perfect Continuous is the emphasis on that specific time in Continuous.

There are many charts on the internet with more examples and greater detail about the nuances of the verb tenses. It is important to keep the basics of tense clear so in our writing the reader is clear about the nature and time of the action.

There are a couple of other things which can confuse us in our use of tense. One is Passive versus Active Voice. In some ways it may look like a tense issue:

Bob tied the donkey to the fence. Active Voice.

The donkey was tied to the fence. Passive Voice.

Note both sentences are in simple past. The verb is ‘tied’. ‘Was’ here acts to indicate an action performed on the subject of the sentence. The uses and abuse of voice is the subject for another article.

The other confusion is the Conditional. As the name suggests, the Conditional tells us about actions which may occur if the conditions are right. Bob could have tied the donkey if he’d had some rope.

Or actions which didn’t happen but ought to have.  Bob should have tied the donkey to the fence. The important information being that Bob didn’t in fact tie the donkey.

The last is about intent. Bob would have tied the donkey if he’d had rope. The difference between this and the first example, is this sentence shows Bob wanted to tie the donkey, but something prevented him. The first example makes no indication of Bob’s intent.

Like Voice, the Conditional is not about tense. One can use both Voice and Conditional in any of the tenses, but it is easy to mistake it for tense. It is important to use Conditional properly and not to overdo it. Again, a subject for another article.

This will get you started thinking about tense in your writing, but a few final notes to consider. Whether you write in Past or Present, you need to stay consistent in your use of tense. Moving from Past to Present and back is confusing for the reader.  There are a couple of exceptions. If you are writing in Past tense, dialog and direct thought are written in present tense. The reason is the characters are moving through their present, so they talk and think in the present tense. We need to be careful with our policing of tense we don’t unintentionally muddy the water.

The other exception is esoteric and I’ve only seen it done well a couple of times. This is where the narrator has been describing past action, then the story arrives at the point in time at which the narrator dwells in the story. So, say a narrator is tell us about a murder mystery, and most of the story is about how the narrator arrived at a specific time. Maybe stuck under the ice in a river. When we get to the point where we’re stuck under the ice, the story become present tense because we are now in the same time frame as the narrator. What has happened is most of the book is a flashback bringing the reader to this moment in time.

So, there we are, you can relax and work more comfortably with tenses. If you have questions, or things to add etc. please comment.

When to Deep Six that story.

Writing may be a hobby, but if you’re publishing your books or stories, you have a responsibility to produce a quality story. I’ve got lots of articles on how to do that. What I want to address today is what to do when a story is awful.

I’m not talking normal first draft awful, but awful in the way that makes you stare at the screen and wonder What am I writing?

Now I know most authors go through this point somewhere in their story, mostly in what I call the swamp. That’s the hardest part of the book to write. No flashy battles, no introduction of interesting characters. The swamp is about the character flailing around in the final efforts to chase the LIE before they give in to the truth.

So how do you know if you’re stuck in the swamp or your story is awful?

I ask myself a few questions.

First and foremost – is the concept solid? The idea of basing a story on La Traviata featuring telepathic aliens and vampires might have looked great when you started. But can it carry an entire story or is it an extended gimmick? The easiest way to check is imagine your story without the characters being aliens or vampires. Will it still work? If it does, you’re writing a gimmick not a story. The way to fix this, if you want to is to make sure that being alien or vampire is essential to the plot, not in a side show way, but as it is involved in a major plot point way.

Second – Maybe you’re working the wrong character. The sidekick is a lot more interesting than the MC. You sigh every time you bring the MC on stage.  Maybe you’re secretly rooting for the villain. Examine your protagonist. Are they really the right person for the job?

The fix, and KM Weiland deals with this brilliantly, is simple. So go have a look and come back, please. 3 Ways to Choose the Right Protagonist

Third – do you have all the pieces of the plot in place? I’ve seen authors miss the inciting incident, or have it right at the beginning. Plot points out of order or missing entirely. Outline your story, just hitting the major points. Even ending the story before the mid-point. Have you covered each point? Have you made the scene do the right work? Again, KM Weiland talks about structure in great detail, so if you haven’t bookmarked her blog, you might want to.

Lastly – are you writing only one story? This might seem to be a strange question, but I’ve seen it happen. The author was creating two perfectly fine stories, but tried to cram them into one book. Not all melodies work together, and if your story is feeling like two bands playing different tunes. Look at your structure again. Have you doubled up on any of the parts of the structure? There should be only one inciting incident. The fix is to go through the story and separate them. Put one aside, work on the other, then go back. Let each breathe on its own. It can be a lot of work, but in the end, you have two books not one.

I’m going to give you a case study. I’m working on a short story where the main character is a troll. It also needs to show him as fair, generous, and kind. It was fun to write, but the further I got into the story, the worse it got. I was changing scenes so much I had trouble remembering everyone’s place. Then I got stuck and had no idea what had gone wrong.

The concept still intrigued me. Part of the story told of the troll’s coming to understand himself and his place in the world. Making him the antithesis of trolldom worked, and was necessary for the story to work. He’d learn and move toward a more complete view of the people around him. Particularly compassion for the trolls.

The troll needed to be the main character, it was the entire point of the story. But I had two other characters I really liked with very cool backstories. Their interaction got in the way of showing the troll’s character. I needed to move away from them. This is a short story, not a novel, there’s no room for two more strong characters and their story.

I outlined the story, refocusing on the troll as the one who acted at each of the plot points. The other characters had their part, but I’d severely cut them back. I expect they will show up in another story, or the short will become a novel and I’ll have time to develop them the way they deserve.

I ended up renaming the first version with Deep Six in the file name, and rewrote the story following the outline and keeping a laser focus on the main character. I’ve arrived at the point where I’d given up in the first run. I’d thrown the MC off a cliff. But the reason this time moved the story forward and it became a turning point in the story. More importantly, it no longer functioned as just a fun thing to do to my character.

The second run at the story is flowing much better and I know how I’m going to get from where I am to where I need to be for the finale. The story has been rescued from the drawer and given new life.

In summary, a story may be truly awful, but only if you go through these three steps, and it’s still awful, should you give up on it entirely. Even then, don’t delete, you never know when some chunk of that awfulness will be exactly what you need in a new setting.

I never throw anything out. Words don’t take up a lot of space on your hard-drive, and there is no worse feeling than wanting that snippet and finding you no longer have it.


Preparing your manuscript for editing

Preparing your Manuscript for Editing Workshop

This the outline I used for a workshop to help prepare writers to make the most effective use out of an editorl

What is editing?

  • Content/Structural Editing
    • Foundational issues: Plot, character, tone, structure, world building
  • Copy/Line Editing
    • Prose, sentences, paragraphs, pacing. Word use and over use.
  • Proofreading
    • Grammar and spelling


Foundational Self Edit

  • Using an outline as an editing tool.
    • Lots of people will talk about writing with an outline, but they can be great tools for editing. If you aren’t sure about your structure and arcs, putting the bones down in an outline will help you check things, and balance the space between major points.
  • How technical with story structure do you need to get?
    • There are countless books and blogs dedicated to story structure, KM Weiland’s Helping Writers become Authors is one of the best with lots of examples.
    • If you are an outliner, you’ll want to mark the major points of your plot arc and character arcs so you have that going from the start.
    • Don’t get focused on structure to the detriment of your story. I’ve seen people warp their story trying to make it fit a structure they’ve read about. The story needs to come first. If you work on telling the story well, most of the structure will take care of itself.
  • Are your characters well rounded, heroes with flaws, villains with good sides?
    • Another popular tool for writers is character sheets where we fill out their favourite colour and what they like in their coffee. The problem is once we have that information, we want to include it all. What is important is what makes your characters human. Does your hero make mistakes, get angry, hurt people? Why not? Perfect characters are boring. Ones who struggle internally as well as externally will hold the reader’s attention. The same is true of villains. Too many times the villain is all bad, which makes it easy to cheer for their downfall, but doesn’t add much tension to the narrative. Make your villain a hero with an opposing goal to the MC’s and you have a gripping story.
  • Does everyone have sufficient motivation for their actions?
    • I say everyone, but most important is the villain’s motivation. Why are they opposing the hero? What will they get out of it? I read somewhere there are several classes of villain. The greedy villain, the power-hungry villain, the insane villain, and the scariest, the saintly villain.
    • Knowing the motivation doesn’t mean explaining it, but letting it come out in action and dialogue.

Copy Self Edit

  • Does each scene have its own internal structure?
    • Just as stories have a three act structure, your scenes should begin somewhere, move through some conflict to a resolution.
  • Do fights/love scenes/chases etc have their own plot?
    • Like scenes, these events need their own structure. Also each fight etc needs to increase the stakes leading up to the finale.
  • Does each scene move the story forward?
    • If a scene doesn’t move the plot or character forward. Rewrite it or chuck it.
  • Pacing with paragraph and sentence length.
    • Pacing is important. The length of chapter, paragraph, sentence will either speed up or slow down the story.
  • Beats vs Speech tags
    • Do your dialogues become talking heads? If a reader were to read only the dialogue scene, would they know about the setting, mood, etc?
    • Beats are snippets of description or action or thought which highlight and enhance the words being spoken.


Using Search to look for overused words.

  • Control F is one of your best friends. It will help you find out that you’ve used ‘really’ 149 times in your book. Make a list of the most commonly over used words: just, only, that, really, actually, was, were

Using grammar programs

  • There are a number of grammar programs out there, from the grammar checker in Word to Grammarly to They have their place, but like spellcheckers, they don’t replace careful reading. What they can do is point out where you have too many pronoun starts, or consecutive sentences which start with the same word. They will help with the overused words and to a greater or lesser extent with sentence structure and length. All of them have free versions and they are worth trying.


  • Reading out loud.
  • Reading backwards.

Why you still may want to hire an editor.

  • After all this work, why hire an editor?
    • Editors aren’t attached to the story, so they will see things you miss. They may also spot your habits and point them out so you are aware of them.
    • Editors will know story structure and point out where it needs work, and how you might fix the problems
    • Editors are enthralled by darlings.
    • Working with an editor will make you a better writer.


How to hire and editor and work with them.

  • Just as there are publishers who are scams, there are editors who will take your money and give little or nothing back.
  • Not every editor is the same. You need to be able to work with this person and trust their advice.
  • Get a test edit, preferably get several editors to do test edits on the same section of work. I prefer the first 5k (which is a huge test edit but I have my reasons). This test edit should be free and no obligation. Read through all the comments and pick the person who is going to grow your story. I’ve had more than one client tell me they picked me because I made them cry. Not that I was mean, but I saw so much more in the story than the people who told them everything was brilliant.
  • Negotiate a schedule and process. If you have deadlines, tell your editor up front.
  • Ask questions, argue. The editor is not always right. This is your book, and in the end, you decide. The editor should be able to adjust their work to fit your vision of the book. You want your book, only refined, not your book the way the editor would write it.
  • Pay for the work. This person is taking hours of their time to work through your book. They deserve to be paid on time and without griping. If they are too expensive, you are better to find someone else than try to talk them down.



Pain and Writing

Over the years I’ve dealt with being fired, poor, homeless, not to mention  time as a single parent after my wife’s accident left her unable to parent for the better part of a year. There’ve been some real highlights too, the resurrection of our marriage, the continuing joy of being a parent and now a grandparent. Through all that and more I have been an author and reviewer. None of it stopped me from writing though some caused more turmoil for my characters.

The first thing to slow the flow of words is the literal pain in the neck which I carry around as a daily challenge. Think of a mild migraine headache which started some five years ago and hasn’t let up since. If I listed all the things I’ve tried in that time I would double the word count for this post. Let’s just say, if you’ve thought of it, I have tried it.

So what does this have to do with writing? Imagine my capacity to get through the day as an eight ounce glass of water. In a normal day I might use four to six ounces to do the things I do, including being a loving husband and an author/editor. The left over goes into a reserve which I can draw on during family crises or NaNoWriMo.

Dealing with the effects of the pain takes about two or three ounces. Not too bad, I’m over some days and under others. Problem is I don’t sleep well, so my total capacity is lowered to five or six ounces. On a good day I have nothing left, on a bad day, I’m overdrawn.

What happens now is I take the part of the day between the cracks and I write. Mostly working on my client’s books to not fall too far behind. That’s important, as I need the editing money to pay the bills, not to mention my commitment to help those authors with their craft.

In the remaining cracks, in the car or grocery line, at a coffee shop waiting, in the wee hours of the night when sleep is scarce, I write my stories in my head. Over and over and over so I won’t forget them. Then with five minutes here or ten minutes there I type them into the computer.

I’m a writer, I write. That sounds trite until you’ve spent ten minutes staring at the screen trying to remember what you blocked out at the store. Yet the words build up, the story takes shape. I achieve a few victories, book are published, reviews suggest people like them. Also I take new blows which threaten to knock me down. I’m on long term disability for the pain and depression. It’s not only hard to move, but hard to care. I’m single again as after seventeen years, my wife has decided again, she doesn’t get what she needs from our marriage. All of it goes into the stories to be transformed.

I’m a writer so I write, even when it is impossible to write I write. I’ve typed pages with my eyes closed because of the pain. Because I’m a writer.

When I die, my heirs will find unfinished stories on my computer.

One last thing about writing and pain, I believe my writing is richer, has more depth. I know pain so I can write pain, my characters can be twisted by life and still be whole. And one more blessing yet, they may find their way free.

And in that second, that moment of transported joy, I become free too.

I am not made out of my pain, but out of the stories I’ve been given to tell.


Alex McGilvery   visit me at

How to Annoy your Critique Group: Using Third Person Omniscient

In all the critique groups I’ve been members of, the writers have been quick to accuse authors of head hopping. This is not necessary an automatic reality when you show the thoughts and feelings of more than one character in a scene.

Third omniscient has a long history, it was much more popular in years past, especially in children’s’ literature. Though it is an older style, that doesn’t mean no one uses it today. Stephen King has written in Third Omni, The Lemony Snicket Books are in Third Omni as are others.

Like every other aspect of writing, you don’t want the reader to stop and think, ‘Wow, this is in Third Omni.’ The purpose of Point of View is to frame the story for the reader and pull them into the story. Third Omni can do that as well as any other POV.

Having said this, one can’t simply dive into a multiplicity of character’s head and call it Third Omni. Let’s back up a bit and define what we’re talking about here. Third Person Omniscient is a point of view in which the narrator knows everything, what everyone is thinking, feeling, no matter where they are. They also know how the story ends, and what comes before. However, there are shades between Third Person Limited and Third Omni. The author can show thoughts and feelings just within the scene and setting. You can have a narrator who doesn’t know how things turn out and so on. It is important to pick what the narrator knows and what they don’t, then be consistent with that level of knowledge.

I keep talking about the narrator. The narrator can be a character like the one in Lemony Snicket, or barely visible as Stephen King’s tend to be. The important thing is to establish your narrator and keep them in front of the reader. The easiest way I’ve found to manage the narrator is to use description as a way to remind the reader of the narrator’s presence.

Say you have a scene in a coffee shop, in third limited you’d show the coffee shop through the eyes of your POV character, the smells, sounds, sights etc. With a narrator you step back and move to a wide angle view to show the coffee shop as the character moves through it. Instead of riding on the character’s shoulder we’re watching them. We may see what the cook is thinking, or feel the waitress’s painful feet. Once you’ve done this you can zoom in closer to the characters and their dialogue/thoughts/feelings. Since you’ve reminded the reader of the presence of the narrator, they’ll take in the extra information without getting confused.

Even in Third Omni, you want to work hard on showing feelings etc., not just labelling them. Think of writing from the narrator’s POV, and that narrator can cut from one place to another like camera angles in the movies.

The challenge of Third Omni is getting your reader to attach to your characters. This is why the narrator is so important. If the narrator cares about the characters, the reader will. Narrative voice and whether they are trustworthy is vitally important to a good story, even more so in Omni than in other POV’s.

Next time you’re in a critique group, shock the group by not complaining about head hopping, but suggest how the author might more effectively work in Third Omni.