Ask the Editor: Barb Goffman

For our next Ask the Expert slot, we invited independent editor Barb Goffman over to share BarbGoffmanHeadShother insights and answers to our questions. Take it away, Barb!

Area of Expertise: Crime-fiction editing

How did you get started in this business?
I discovered in high school that editing others (through my school newspaper) helped me improve my own writing. You can spot problems in other people’s writing more easily than in your own, and–at least for me–having awareness of writing issues is a key to not duplicating them. I honed my editing skills while pursuing my masters degree in journalism at Northwestern University. In the early 2000s, I moved onto fiction (writing and editing), first in critique groups, then as a co-editor of the multiple award-winning Chesapeake Crimes series. Last year I decided to put my editorial skills to work full time, and I opened my own editing business, focusing on crime fiction.

What are three things we should know about your area of expertise?
A good editor will help an author: (1) make her story sparkle through enriched characters, setting, and plot; (2) improve her writing without impinging on her style; and (3) spot plot problems, such as holes, unanswered questions, and things that don’t make sense.
Is there a general characteristic that experts in this field all share?
Good copy editors value precision. Good line and developmental editors love a good story and enjoy helping authors prune and shape their manuscripts so they stand out from the crowd.

What are the top five errors that you see?
The top five errors, in no specific order:
1) Including too much back story too early in the book. With back story, it’s best to dole it out a little at a time, with each bit being shared only when it’s necessary to enable the story to proceed.
2) Providing too little information so that the reader is left confused. If a name is mentioned, for instance, some information should accompany that name so the reader Confusedunderstands who that person is. For instance, if your main character and her husband are arguing, and he storms out, saying, “I’m going to spend the night at Jane’s,” it’s important for the reader to know if Jane is his sister or his ex-girlfriend. (Unless your main character doesn’t know who Jane is, in which case she should yell something like, “Who the heck is Jane?”)
3) Riding the plot train, so determined to get to the story’s end that the author forgets to stop and let her characters react to events. Real characters react to things, through dialogue and/or internal monologue. Doing so brings them to life and lets them grow.
4) Telling too much. Writing “he looked angry” doesn’t let the reader picture what’s actually happening. Is his face red? Are his fists clenched? Have his eyes popped open so wide you’d think toothpicks must be holding them open? Take the time to show important things.
5) Having events happen or characters do things that don’t ultimately make sense. Sometimes authors write things because they’re exciting, such as having a business burn down or having the main character’s house be burglarized. But when you reach the end of the story, you realize that there was no reason the bad guy would have burned down that Red_Herringbusiness. As to the burglary, even if it was designed to be a red herring, the person who committed the burglary needed a good reason to have done it. Everything must happen for a reason. Everything that happens must be believable.

Is there a great idea you’d love to share?
If you’re copy editing or line editing your own work, you can easily get caught up in the story and miss problems on the page (typos, the use of wrong words, the overuse of certain words, unclear sentences, etc.). One way to avoid this problem is to take a chapter and throw the pages into the air. Then pick them up in random order and edit them in that order. Not only is throwing paper fun, but reading pages out of order allows you to focus on the words, not the story.

Readers: Ask Barb an editing question. Anything is fair game!

dontgetmadgetevenBarb Goffman likes her crime short and sweet. Well, maybe not that sweet. She’s the author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Even, a short-story collection published last year by Wildside Press. Barb won the Macavity Award last fall for best short story, and she’s been nominated multiple times for the Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards for her short fiction. Her next story to be published, “The Shadow Knows,” will appear in Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Homicidal Holidays coverHolidays, due for release on October 7th. Barb’s stories run from funny to dark, and from amateur sleuth to police procedural. To support her short-story habit, Barb runs a freelance editing service, specializing in crime fiction. She also serves as secretary of the mid-Atlantic chapter of Mystery Writers of America. You can reach her at GoffmanEditing <<at>> gmail {{{dot}}} com. Learn more at

So Proud of My Wicked Cozys!

by Barb, on the Jersey shore in a house with ten adults and two toddlers

Today, I’m celebrating the Wicked Cozy Authors. Yes, I am one, but nonetheless, I’m stunned by the group’s accomplishments and want to celebrate them.

In early June, 2012, four of us gathered for the first time in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Over the previous winter, Jessie, Edith, Liz and I had all signed with agent John Talbot and sold our first mystery series. We all had deadlines looming, and were excited and happy and scared out of our minds.


At that time, Jessie and I had published one book each with a small press. Mine was The Death of an Ambitious Woman, published in August, 2010. Jessie’s was Live Free or Die, also published in August, 2010. In case you didn’t know about Jessie’s first book, Live Free or Die has sold almost 100,000 ebooks and won the 2011 Mainstream Daphne DuMaurier Award for Excellence in Mystery. It’s currently being translated into German and will be available in that language in time for the holidays. So check it out, yo!

But anyway, we were four terrified, but hopeful people.

By the next retreat, in June of 2013, we’d added Sherry and Julie to our ranks and started this blog (at Sherry’s instigation). Sherry had also signed with John Talbot, and sold her Sarah Winston Garage Sales Mystery series. Julie had a proposal out with John.


Note that in the photo above we’re all in sweatshirts and a year later, same weekend, in this photo, we’re in short sleeves. This is normal in New England.

Liz and Edith’s first books in their new series, Kneading to Die and A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die, were out, as was the first book in Edith’s second series (as Tace Baker), Speaking of Murder. Jessie and I were still awaiting our series debuts and we were all writing like crazy.

This is us at this year’s retreat, in April 2014.


Picture by Meg Manion Silliker

And, as of July 15, when Jessie’s second Sugar Grove Mystery, Maple Mayhem, was released, here are our accomplishments.

Wicked Cozy Accomplishments from June, 2012 to July, 2014

  • 9 books published
  • 5 books submitted, awaiting publication
  • 4 manuscripts currently being completed for deadline
  • 2 new series sold (Sherry’s Garage Sale Mysteries and Julie’s Clock Shop Mysteries, written as Julianne Holmes)
  • 7 proposals awaiting decisions by publishers (4 for continuing series, 3 new–WATCH THIS SPACE FOR UPDATES. Shhhh, we can’t tell. BUT WE REALLY WANNA TELL. But we can’t.)
  • 3 Agatha nominations–for Kneading to Die, Clammed Up and “Bread Baby
  • 330+ blog posts.

No wonder we all look so happy!

Wicked Wednesday – Who’s Off Limits for Murder?

It’s Wicked Wednesday again, where we all weigh in on a topic. Continuing our theme this PersonProhibitedmonth on characters, we’re talking about who we just couldn’t kill off in our series without serious consequence (or who we’d just miss too much!).

Liz: I could never, ever kill off an animal in my books. Doesn’t matter if it’s a “main character,” like Scruffy or Nutty, or a walk-on four-legged friend. I have never been able to read books where animals are killed (I’ve been known to simply stop in the middle) and I would not cross that line. For people? Jake and Char. I’ve gotten attached to them.

Edith: I have broken a rule three times (so far) and written characters who are based on Speakingsomeone I love in real life. So they’re never going to be candidates for murder. Neither are children (following the animal rule), which includes fourteen-year-old Ellie and seventeen-year-old Vince, or Cam’s great uncle Albert. But I suppose a supporting character like Felicity, or Elise (from Speaking of Murder), could need to die to move the story along. I sure don’t have that planned, though, and Elise already nearly died once, in Speaking of Murder. Shouldn’t that be enough?


Jessie: At this point I can’t say for certain there are any characters I wouldn’t ever write as a victim. I know I don’t choose to read books with children as victims and I’m not sure I could write one. I’m a little superstitious about it, actually. Oddly, every time I’ve written a book, soon after I end up meeting a person in real life who is very much like one of the characters. I’d be so terribly upset to meet a child who ends up as a victim.

Barb: I don’t like to think about anything being off limits. That being said, Julia’s my point of view character in the Maine Clambake Mysteries, which are written in first person, so if she was gone it would shake things up a LOT. I do have one child character, Julia’s beloved niece, and if she was killed it would take the books way out of the realm of the cozy. But I have thought about killing off every other secondary character, particularly if they’re being illusive or misbehaving. However, so far I’ve focused on killing off random strangers.

Readers, what characters do you think are off limits for murder?

Secrets with Martha Cooley

Sherry: We are so happy to welcome Martha Cooley today. Happy Book Birthday, Martha. I was lucky enough to get a copy of Ice Shear at Left Coast Crime. It’s a wonderful book.

Martha_Cooley-31-retouched_web_(2)Martha: Thanks to Sherry Harris and the rest of the Wicked Cozy crew for inviting me to do a guest blog!

If I had my way, my books would consist of nothing but backstory.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than writing long explanations about whether characters preferred to ride the yellow duck or the white rabbit at the playground, why they have an aversion to peanut butter, what those five years of college were like and why they had six different majors, and that time they watched five seasons of The Wire in slightly under two weeks.  Needless to say, this sort of description would result in a plot that would bore readers to tears.  But there is another reason I keep some of this information to myself: I like for my characters to have secrets.

These secrets can be big or small.  In Ice Shear there is a murderer with a destructive secret:  “That woman was a monster who deserved to die.”  Officer June Lyons chases that person until the very end.  Along the way June uncovers secrets being held close by others.  One is in love with the wrong person.  A second can’t escape their past.  A third hates being poor, especially when they see the murder victim throwing opportunity away.

ice_shearIt’s not just the murder suspects who have secrets.  The secrets I keep from my readers don’t need to be life changing, and they don’t need to be bad. In fact, these small details are often the thing that fixes a character in my mind in a way that knowing their entire backstory doesn’t.   For example, I’ll let you in on something:  June’s father thinks of himself as an excellent dancer.  This is something that this grumpy divorced ex-police chief would go to his grave before telling anyone, but I know (and now you do, too!). He tamps down that side of himself because it doesn’t fit his tough guy image, but inside he’s a bit of a romantic.

Other not-so-exciting secrets include a person who has eaten cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches for lunch every day for the last three years; a church-going pillar of the community who ran cockfights with his outlaw brothers when he was young (and who is now a vegetarian); and a millionaire who irons his own shirts because the cleaners don’t get the creases right.  These details don’t give me every facet of their personality, but are a brief snapshot of who they are and what they value.

These secrets can also help with developing characters in the series.  The mother of one of my series characters was a destructive alcoholic.  Her behavior made him who he is—a peacemaker and a people pleaser who has the smallest streak of his mother’s rebellion. Who he is is revealed in book one.  How he got that way is revealed in book two.  My hope is that when people in book two find out the secrets he carries, that it will feel like something they knew all along.

The last type of secrets I have in my book are those I keep from my characters.  Like people, my characters try to hide their weaknesses, appear as they think they should, or live of life of lowered expectations because they’ve given up hope for more.  They keep up these appearances to the point where they begin to believe it themselves.  June Lyons is one of those people.  She thinks that she has left behind heroics, presenting safety lectures at schools and handing out parking tickets all there is to life.  But when a crisis comes, the real truth comes out.  Others may crumple, their bluster fallen away, but for June her innate heroism and strength surprise everyone, including herself.  Me?  I knew it all along.

Readers: What secret have you discovered in a book that surprised you? Have you ever read one, or written one, that you thought should have stayed secret? And what questions do you have for M. P. Cooley? Ask away.

M. P. Cooley’s debut crime novel ICE SHEAR (William Morrow) is one of O, The Oprah Magazine’s Best Books of Summer 2014 and was called “an excellent debut” by Publishers Weekly in their starred review. A native of upstate New York, she currently lives in Campbell, California. She studied literature at Barnard College, and went on to work in tax and law publishing, acquiring business, accounting, and economics books. Currently, she works in administration at a nonprofit organization in Silicon Valley.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Jessie: Thinking about the past while at the seaside in Maine

photo-11Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending Books in Boothbay with many talented and charming writers including our very own Barb Ross. Because the event was being held an hour and a half from my house and the route was taking us north along the Maine coast on a Saturday we left early. Extra early. So early in fact, that we had time to stop at an antiques shop for a look around. There were many lovely things to peruse including two beautiful old typewriters I had trouble leaving in the shop. The one thing I couldn’t leave without was a copy of a magazine, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, June 1899.

The magazine featured articles on the Navy, women as travelers and the story of vanilla, as well as a serialized novel and a number of poems. But what really captured my attention were the advertisements.

photo-9Some ads were disturbing like one hawking a Home Rupture Cure which calls itself “A Marvelous Blessing for Those who are Ruptured”. The ad never stated exactly what was ruptured. My husband thought it referred to eardrums. I voted for back troubles because I don’t want to think about a home hernia cure.

Bicycles were big business in 1899, as were cameras and watches. You could purchase a printing press for just $5.00 or a newspaper press for $18.00. I spotted a handsome roll top desk I would love to own, complete with pigeon holes and free shipping for $19.85.

Travel ads filled several pages. I found myself wondering what it would have been like to take a fourteen day cruise from NYC to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland for only $60.00. Or to enjoy “Summer’s Paradise in Lake Erie” which claims to be “Just Far Enough North”.

There were ads for cancer cures, insomnia aids and work-at-home schemes. Weight loss medications, exercise equipment guaranteed to turn weaklings into Olympians and baldness solutions filled the back quarter of the magazine. Foot powders, dandruff solutions and aids to digestion were all enthusiastically endorsed by earnest sounding doctors and housewives who assured readers they too were skeptical until they tried the products for themselves.

As I leafed through the magazine I was struck at which things change and which do not. The people in the photographs and drawings sport hairstyles and clothing that would be out of place today but their worries, concerns and cravings wouldn’t be. We still want to save time in the kitchen with convenience foods and we worry about teething pain in babies. People still search for more effective headache treatments and soaps with superior cleaning power.

All those ads made me feel like maybe the world isn’t changing as quickly as it sometimes seems to be. Maybe a hundred years from now someone will happen upon a magazine and chuckle at our interest in organic foods, time saving devices and beauty products. And maybe they’ll be struck at how they are still fighting the battle of the bulge, worrying about their children and falling for get-rich-quick schemes. I just hope no one is still suffering from ruptures of any kind!

Readers, which types of products and pastimes do you think will still be around in a hundred years? Which ones do you hope won’t be?


Excel-Pivot-Tables2On Wednesday this week I learned how to use pivot tables in Excel. My life has been changed, for the better. What, you ask, are pivot tables? Suppose you have a large spreadsheet of data. But you only want to see a small part of it–for the month of June, how many apples did I sell out of the back of my car? Provided you are tracking all of that, you can get a smaller table of information sucked out of the massive data table. You can also “pivot” the rows and the columns to let the data be seen differently.

Some of you are intrigued. Others are worried there is a Wicked Cozy breakdown going on–what does this have to do with writing cozies?

1344341870Let me explain. First, some context. I am in the middle of editing my manuscript. First draft is done. Read through is done. Now the editing is underway. In some places, I need to layer in details. In others, I need to make sure there is consistency throughout. But there are other scenes where the lessons of the pivot table come in very handy.

First, with pivot tables, you need to think about the overall sort of the data. In writing, you need to think about what you need to pull out of the data/scene. What is the point of the scene? Is everything serving that?

Second, in pivot tables you can keep narrowing or widening the data until you learn exactly what you want to learn. In writing, you need to keep working until you get it right. Can you add elements, or take some out? When is the scene doing exactly what you need it to do?

Third, in pivot tables you can literally say “make the rows columns and the columns rows: and make it so. In writing, does a pivot help? Should you change point of view? Add a character? Layer in a red herring? Change the dialogue, or the subtext?

And lastly, details matter. With a pivot table, you can change formatting, add totals or subtotals, add colors, and more. In a scene, can the reader smell, see, taste, hear, feel elements in the scene? Is the dialogue polished? Are all the boring bits gone?

I love learning new things, and suspect that pivot tables are going to change the way I work with data. But as importantly? They are going to help me edit my manuscript. Looking forward to updating you on that soon.

**Note: Do you live near Newburyport, MA? Tonight I am going to be moderating a panel with three of the Wicked Cozy Authors, Liz Mugavero, Edith Maxwell, and Jessie Crockett! Hope to see some of you there!**


A Book’s Exact Right Moment with Lori Rader-Day

Black_Hour_cover_webSherry: Lori thanks so much for joining us today. I meet Lori at Left Coast Crime last March. We were co-panelist on Deadly New Voices. Her book The Black Hour debuted last week to great reviews.

Lori: Let me get this part out of the way: I hated Anne of Green Gables.

Oh, and A Wrinkle in Time.

Are you still here? What if I say that I only got up to the front door of Mr. Rochester’s house in Jane Eyre before I fell asleep, dropped the book, and never picked it up again.

Don’t get me wrong. I love kid books. I side with #teamYA in the recent kerfuffle over whether adults should be ashamed to read books written for young people. (Ashamed? Really?)

The problem with these books is that I didn’t try to read any of them until far into my adulthood—and it was too late. I’ve found that if I didn’t come to love a book at the proper time of my life, it might not be possible to go back and right the wrong.

There’s no time limit on these books. They’re classics. But they are classics meant for girls of a certain age, a certain age I haven’t been in a long (long) time.

By the time I read Anne of Green Gables, Anne struck me as a hyperactive goody-goody. I didn’t even understand A Wrinkle in Time. It was about…time? It just ended abruptly, I noticed. Leaving room for the sequels, thought my jaded, adult self. As for Jane Eyre: Oh, Jane. He has a crazy wife in the attic. Girlfriend, you can do better.

On the other hand, books that I read and loved as a kid still hold sway over me. I’ve re-read some of them as an adult and you know what? They’re just as awesome as they always were. These are books like A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories, on which my childhood was built and in which as an adult I found some sage writing advice. Or E.L. Konigsberg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Sure, the kids running away from home gave me more pause than it once did, but I still rooted for them to get away with it. Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphin—check, except now I kind of want a summer house on that cove instead of being rescued from it. Alice in Wonderland? This book was probably never for children anyway, but that’s beside the point—I read it as a kid, loved it, and have read it as an adult. It holds up.

Except it’s not the book holding up to some standard. It’s the reader. It’s us. It’s me. I’m the one who comes to the pages different than I was last time. I’m the variable that changes over time. The words on the page say what they’ve said my entire life and either they resonate with me or they don’t.  The difference is me—did I read this book long ago and leave a piece of myself in the text? For the books I never read when I was supposed to, the question is different. Can I find something in the text to latch onto now?

Now that I’m a writer with deadlines, I get less reading done. Combine that with the vast number of great mysteries I encounter at every conference I attend, where I’m meeting great new authors I want to support, and we have a problem of supply and demand. Supply, supply, and demand. I’ll never read everything I want to. (Thanks a lot, mortality.) I have to be more selective with my reading time.

More than that—I hope I have left something of myself on the pages I’ve written for someone else to find at the exact right time. And, someday, they can tear my Winnie-the-Pooh out of my cold, dead hands. I’m not ashamed to say it.

Readers: Did you read any books that just weren’t “in the moment”?

Rader_Day_Lori_2Lori Rader-Day is the author of the mystery The Black Hour (Seventh Street Books, 2014). Born and raised in central Indiana, she now lives in Chicago with her husband and dog. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Time Out Chicago, and others. Visit her at