Thursday, April 30, 2009

Author Sylvia Dickey Smith

Today, we welcome best-selling author, Sylvia Dickey Smith. She writes the Sidra Smart mystery series. Her series is set in Southeast Texas in the area where Sylvia herself grew up. That area of Texas is unique in its mix of people, from Cajuns to Dutch descendants to the Scots-Irish. As you might guess, her books are filled with lively characters and the area itself becomes something of a character.

She has three books out starring Sidra Smart. The first was called Dance on His Grave. The second is Deadly Sins Deadly Secrets. And her most current book is Dead Wreckoning. Sylvia says the focus of her writing is on “the strengths and weaknesses of middle-aged and older women finding their way and developing a strong identity of their own.” This is certainly true of this series. This is how Sylvia describes her protagonist:
Sidra Smart, a detective in Orange, Texas, battles wounds of her own past and learns that when the cause is just, she never retreats--despite the odds.
For her visit today on Straight From Hel, she’s agreed to answer a few questions of mine. And I agreed to answer hers. We decided to talk about the editing process. Afterward, if you have questions for either of us, ask away in the comment section.

Hello Sylvia! Welcome.

(Sylvia’s going to ask the first question, then we’ll alternate.)

Sylvia: When you first looked at DEAD WRECKONING, did you throw up your hands and say, what have I gotten myself into? :-)

Helen: It’s a good thing you put that little smiley face in your question, ‘cause that’s what I did. I smiled and said to myself, this is gonna be different and fun. Sidra gets pulled into situations she doesn’t necessarily want to be in, but once she’s involved, she goes all out. There’s mystery, a bit of humor and a touch of the paranormal, i.e. ghosts.

Helen: How about from your point of view, Sylvia -- When you decided to work with an editor on DEAD WRECKONING, what were you looking for or expecting from me?

Sylvia: When I approached you about editing DEAD WRECKONING I had a couple of things I really wanted you to address. My first two books had more typos and grammatical errors in it than made me comfortable. I know no book is totally error free. However, I wanted as many eyes looking at this manuscript before it went to press as I could get. One grammatical mistake I consistently make is comma placement. When a sentence looks like it doesn't have enough commas, I sprinkle in a few. Then, on the flip side, if it looks like it has too many I take out a few. Seriously, I know that is not the proper way to make that decision--but at times it seems that's my best shot!

I will say right up front, I am not an English major. I accept my shortcomings in that area. So why not go to someone who is skilled at doing so! It was worth what it cost me.

Second, I wanted you to check my plot lines, my red herrings, my clues sprinkled throughout. I don't write simple plots. They tend to get rather involved. I wanted you to unravel my plots and insure that I left no loose ends.

Sylvia: What did you think about the novel overall? Did you feel like I was wise in choosing to have it edited?

Helen: Your novel didn’t need a lot of line editing. I work on some manuscripts that do. Once or twice, I’ve finished an edit and felt bad because I knew once I sent it back, the writer would be shocked by all the marks. But DEAD WRECKONING was pretty polished by the time you sent it to me.

Having said that, yes, I think you were right to send it to me. What we were able to work on were things like starting the book off strong, drawing your readers into the story right away; pacing so that the momentum doesn’t drag; and catching glitches in the plot or timeline. It helps to have someone say, this is where you should begin the book, or who is this character? or the reader is going to get lost in all this technical stuff.

Helen: Did you get what you expected and how did you feel when you first opened the edited manuscript?

Sylvia: Oh yes. You did an excellent job finding my errors and giving me feedback on plot lines. As far as what I felt when I opened the edited manuscript--actually pleased that you didn't find more errors than you did! DEAD WRECKONING ended up stronger and better.

Sylvia: What advice would you give an author such as myself regarding editing, and taking the advice and make the changes suggested?

Helen: When you get your manuscript back from your editor, do NOT click “accept all changes.” Above all, this is your book.

Read the edits, taking breaks if you need to. Mark the ones you’re going to have to think about. Maybe you aren’t sure how to address them. Maybe you’re not sure you need to make a change there. Maybe it requires a major change and you’re not sure you’re ready or willing to tackle it. Accept the edits you right-away agree with. Then work on the others.

Helen: How did you decide what advice, comments, or edits to accept and what to ignore?

Sylvia: The most difficult advice you gave me, that I ending up taking, was to cut the first four or five pages of the manuscript. That scene took place out in the swamp with an old woman named Boo Murphy climbing up on a resurrected pirate schooner. Her imagination carried her back to the 1700s, riding a sailing vessel with pirate Calico Jack Rackam and her ancestor, Anne Bonny. Truly 'my darling', and I killed it! Your suggested that the strong scene and Boo's character, overshadowed my protagonist, Sidra Smart. I knew you were correct and went with your advice.

Sylvia: What advice would you give authors regarding editing and proof reading?

Helen: Do as much as you can before sending it to an editor. And if you don’t send it to an editor, do your own work before sending it to an agent, a publisher, or publishing it yourself. If you can’t afford a professional editor, then join a critique group in your local area or online - you’ll get help, you’ll help others, and you’ll learn how to edit and critique. Agents are not taking on as many clients as before. Publishers are tightening their catalog lists and looking to celebrity authors or authors with a platform. You have to have a clean, as well as unique, manuscript.

Helen: Sylvia, tell us a bit about Sidra Smart and DEAD WRECKONING. What do you think makes her unique as a PI and as a person? How does Sidra grow as a person in this latest book?

Sylvia: Sidra is not your typical private eye. For one, she started the career at fifty. Pastor's wives certainly don't normally divorce their preacher-husbands and then take on a life involved in crime and shady characters. Well, on second thought, maybe some do, but certainly not Sidra. Her adult life had been spent in the almost cloistered walls of her title and the parsonage. Before her brother died, she wasn't even aware that world existed. She doesn't dress sexy and spend half the day running around town in high heels. Tired of spending time in front of the mirror fixing her hair, she chops it off herself with a pair of pinking shears. She's a woman experiencing her teenage crisis along with a midlife crisis. Before now, she didn't know who she was or what she stood for except for those beliefs given by a controlling spouse. Now, each case brings her closer to the woman she'd buried deep inside herself so long ago.

What makes her unique as a person is her strength to walk away from a life that no longer works for her, turning her back on a world that placed her up on a pedestal but required that she live under the microscope of religious edicts and meaningless clich├ęs that turned sour in her mouth.

Thank you, Sylvia, for sharing with us today!

You can find out more about Sylvia Dickey Smith and her books, including her short story, "Divorcing God," in the anthology, The Story That Must Be Told: True Tales of Transformation, Vol. I.

Also, check out her events page to find out where you can catch her in person. Sylvia is having a Recipe Contest that you’ll want to look into while you’re there. (I’m thinking of submitting my recipe for Reindeer Droppings.) And as you browse around her site, click where you see the words “Sassy Pickles.”

Now, the Comments section is open. Ask Sylvia questions about her books, writing, or maybe Aunt Annie.
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  1. Really enjoyed this post. Such a unique twist to an interview to make it a back and forth dialog. I learned not only valuable information about Helen's editing process, but also got the "inside the author's head" stuff that a regular interview offers. Nice job, both of you.

    Sylvia's characters and plots remind me a lot of Jean Henry Mead's books - strong middle-aged women, smart and resourceful, taking things into their own hands and solving mysteries when nobody else seems to want or be able to.

    Question for Sylvia - you have wonderful book titles - they relly grab my attention. Do you have a firm title in mind when you start writing a manuscript, or does it sort of "come to you" as the story evolves?

  2. This was great! I love the editing process and to hear her speak about what she did with what came back to her was helpful!

  3. Sylvia, Can you tell us about using ghosts in your novels. How did you develop them as characters? How did the living people react to them?

    Also, is your genre considered mystery or paranormal?


  4. Morning! Thanks for your comments!

    Marvin, regarding book titles. The first book had its name before I wrote it--since the story was inspired by true events, that title jumped out at me years before I wrote the book.

    Deadly Sins Deadly Secrets--my editor and I struggled with that one, tossing ideas. Throughout the course of writing the book I changed the dang thing a dozen time or more. Finally, when the book was done, my editor, Lisa Smith asked me to send her a list of ideas. On the list were Deadly Sins and second, Deadly Secrets. It was her idea to use both of those, just combining. It worked--and also continued the use of the letter "D", as begun with the first.

    Again, book three went right down to the finish line. I had toyed with a bunch but none of them seemed just right. I had Dead Reckoning, but wasn't quite satisfied. Then someone commented about the book centering on a ship wreck. That did it! I jumped on that and ran with it. Lisa liked it too, so it was a done deal!

    Now, what about the fourth? Gotta think of one with another D! Maybe Dewey Louie! LOL

  5. Thanks, Terri. This process turned into fun for both Helen and me. Glad it worked for you as well!

    And Lara, to me, the ghosts ARE characters--not breathing, but with their own distinct personalities, and I treat them as such.

    Also, my ghosts are based on historical figures--except for Mary Ann Radcliff in DW. She is a fictional descendant of a true female pirate that lived in the 1700s. I researched enough about the ancestor until I felt like I knew the descendant just as well.

    Sort of "like mother, like daughter!" The older I get the more I become my mother. So I followed that path!

    Sid is the only one who sees ghosts and she doesn't believe they exist! But she's getting there!

    I consider my books mystery with a hint of the paranormal. Yeah, I know, bookstores don't normally have that category! I suspect they shelve them in mystery. Personally, they can put♦ them anywhere they want, just as long as the books don't stay there. I prefer they fly off the shelves! (Don't we all!)

    Thanks for asking!

  6. What a helpful, interesting and fun interview. Thanks!

    Jane Kennedy Sutton

  7. Helen,

    This was a great idea. I know for my first edit, I was surprised - and pleased - to learn that editors looked at more than spelling and grammar. A good editor strengthens the telling of the tale.

  8. Thanks, ladies! I liked the unique style of the questioning today.

    L. Diane Wolfe

  9. Hi Helen, interesting interview, great blog.
    I called by to invite you along to the Bookroast where my UK crime thriller, Cut Short, is featured today. I'd be very interested to read your critique of my extract and perhaps you'd consider interviewing me on your blog?
    You might like to join in my Virtual Book Launch - details on my blog. You're very welcome.

  10. Hello all. I had great fun doing this interview. It was tense waiting to see what questions Sylvia would throw at me, but she was, as always, a sweetheart.

  11. Likewise, I'm sure! LOL Thanks to all who commented. Certainly make it more fun!

  12. Helen and Sylvia,

    Enjoyed the unusual interview format and your conversation about your work together.

  13. It's been a fun day, thanks to all of you who stopped by!

  14. I enjoyed the "back and forth" between author and editor. Good advice to, not only edit grammar and punctuation, but content as well.

    Always best to have a fresh pair of eyes.


  15. I use the AutoCrit Editing Wizard as part of my editing process. I love it, and I'm wondering whether there are any other handy tools out there that people use.

    I know it can't replace a human editor, but it sure helps tidy up all those embarrassing things I SHOULD have seen :-)

  16. Thanks for sharing the unique interview, Helen and Sylvia. It was quite enjoyable!

  17. Thanks to all who commented! It was great fun and a new twist on interview. Janine, I'd love to learn more about the autocrit. I've not heard of it before. I'll google it and see what I can learn. If you have any info on it, please feel free to send.

  18. Glad I caught up with you. Interesting interview, having read the book, this gave me some insights to the book itself. I could picture the scene of Boo aboard the ship and I agree that it needed to be gone, but wish it could have stayed. I'm sure it was a great scene.

    You can find my review of Dead Wreckoning at

  19. So glad you stopped by, Linda!


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