Betty May: Exploring the Struggles of Women Behind Bars

When I was a child, I had the incredible good fortune to meet a woman who would shape the person I became, whose energy and belief in others helped me bettyevolve from a shy little girl who cried in the bathroom to a singing and dancing young woman who went after her dreams. That was Betty May, director of Onstage Productions, the theater group I was involved with for over ten years.

To anyone who knew her, it was no surprise that Betty continued to use her theatrical gifts to reach out to others after our theater closed. She’s been a high school teacher, a circus coach, and a clown. She went to Central America and founded a children’s theater company in a Guatemalan squatters’ settlement. And then, in 2008, she responded to an invitation to work with female prisoners serving life sentences to create a play about their experiences.

untitledNow, she has written a book about these women’s experiences: Faces: Imprisoned Women and Their Struggle with the Criminal Justice System (CreateSpace, 2014). The book also follows Betty’s own journey through the criminal justice system as she directed their original play warning young people about the consequences of bad choices. That work led to the Kennedy Center tapping Betty to write and direct a production featuring plays by prison inmates performed by professional actors.

Faces is an inspiring, eye-opening, and at times difficult and upsetting, read. Betty May invites us to examine our criminal justice system and the ways it often penalizes those it was designed to protect. She takes the reader along with her as she enters the prison gates and meets the real people behind the headlines.

Read the first chapter of Faces: Imprisoned Women and Their Struggle with the Criminal Justice System here.

Betty is a dynamic, passionate speaker and is available for speaking engagements at schools, libraries, and other community groups. Find out more at



Spreadsheets, Microediting, and a Gratuitous Cat Picture

20150409_112136Last week I turned in what I hope is the last major revision of Sword and Verse. The file name said “Draft 3″, but this is misleading; the book has actually been through at least ten major rounds of revision, first me working individually, then with betareaders, then with my agent, and finally with my editor (though my peerless betareaders, most notably the amazingly dedicated Manuela Bernardi, have been involved in every round too).

I can say with all confidence that this book has gotten better with every iteration. I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – no doubt some people will hate it, and even more will be indifferent to it – but I know that in its current state it is the most true version of the story I want to put out into the world.

My editorial assistant, Pancake.

My editorial assistant, Pancake.

My writing process has always been to write massive quantities and then trim and shape upon subsequent revisions. I have great admiration for writers who create an outline and follow it, and I truly wish I could work that way – it has enormous appeal for my Type A personality. But the characters and relationships always show up first in my stories, and then the plot sprawls out from there, sometimes not really revealing itself until several drafts in. Which leads to some really loooong early drafts.

Fortunately, I write fantasy, so longer stories are okay…but I still routinely have to cut thousands of words before I turn in a draft. That’s why, once I do all the structural revisions and deal with the line edit suggestions, I go back and do a micro-edit – I make each and every word defend its right to be there. I set a target word count, figure out how many words I need to cut per page, and then keep a running total as I edit.  Each day when I start working again, I go back over the previous day’s work, and it always amazes me how many more words and sentences can be cut the next day.

The key is the journal keeping – it’s accountability. If I see the number I need to get to by the end of page right there in black and white, it’s harder to justify moving on until I reach that goal. In this latest round of microediting, I decided to let my Type A personality run wild, and made a spreadsheet checklist. I mean, why do something without a spreadsheet when you could do something WITH a spreadsheet?


The great part about this spreadsheet is that you can use it with any writing project – simply fill in your current and target wordcounts and the starting number of pages in the yellow boxes, and the sheet automatically calculates how many words you need to cut per page and fills in the target word count for the end of each page of editing.  Then you can print it out and check off each micro-goal as you go. (You may also want to allow yourself a cookie for each check mark.  I won’t judge.)  I figured that there are probably other writers out there who might be interested, so here’s my spreadsheet  (in Microsoft Excel) for your downloading convenience:

Microediting Spreadsheet

Here are some other great articles about micro-editing:

7 Key Elements of Micro-editing by Laura Hale Brockway

Micro-editing Your Work by John Davidson

The Manuscript Manicure – Part II: Micro-Editing


A Chance to Uncover the Past

20131115_151532Periodically on this blog I have mentioned a long-term work-in-progress, COLD IRON, the first book in a trilogy set in the Catoctin region of Maryland.  In the process of researching for the book, I was lucky enough to meet archeologist Elizabeth Anderson Comer, who has answered my questions with grace no matter how ridiculous they seemed.  (“Is there enough iron left in the ruins of the Catoctin iron Furnace to melt a fairy?” led to a particularly interesting discussion…)

Elizabeth edited Catoctin Furnace: Portrait of an Iron-Making Village, which was written by her mother, Elizabeth Yourtree Anderson, and she has kept her mother’s legacy of historical preservation alive through her own involvement with the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society.


So when I heard about the society’s newest initiative, I had to donate and help spread the word!   I’ll let Elizabeth take it from here:

The iron furnace at Catoctin Furnace, which made cannonballs used during the Revolution and so on, was first worked by enslaved Africans and African Americans, but this first wave of workers all left the area by the 1840s. As it goes with power imbalances, no one wrote down much about their lives, and, with one possible exception, the whereabouts of their descendants are unknown. Yet their story is integral to the story of early industry, labor in America, and African American history – using bioarchaeology, we can find out what their lives were like, where they were from, and (possibly) where their descendants are. Consider throwing your charity dollars at this IndieGoGo campaign, and, if you can’t do that, share this link as far and wide as you can. I think we can find enough people to crowdfund $14,000 to tell this unknown story – what do you think? Thank you so much in advance for your help!
Here is the link to our campaign:

Fantasy vs. Reality

Things that I irrationally believe will help me get writing done:

  1. Finding the perfect time of day to write
  2. Lighting a candle (in the perfect scent to match my story, of course)
  3. Complete silence
  4. The perfect music at the perfect volume
  5. Writing at my desk at home
  6. Writing at the perfect table in a coffee shop – away from drafts, speakers, and overly loud conversations
  7. Just the right flavor of tea
  8. My cat purring in my lap
  9. My cat anywhere but my lap
  10. The perfect pair of headphones
  11. Complete solitude
  12. The exciting bustle of people around me
  13. Setting a time limit for myself
  14. Setting a word quota for myself
  15. Searching the internet for images to inspire me
  16. Shutting off the internet altogether
  17. Posting about my progress on Twitter
  18. Avoiding social media entirely
  19. Warm, cozy slippers
  20. A cold drink
  21. Envisioning my book as a bestseller
  22. Writing just for myself and not worrying about what anyone else thinks


Things that actually help me get writing done:

  1. Sitting down at my computer and not getting up until words are written


(Ironically, I procrastinated actually writing by writing this post. Back to work now.)

A Debut Author Photo Shoot in 10 Easy Steps

There’s one piece of this whole publishing a book thing that has caused me an inordinate amount of stress, and that’s getting my author photo taken care of.  I wanted it to be lovely and professional and fun and full of personality, but also look like me.  And the problem is that I am not terribly photogenic.  Animated, yes.  But animated, I have learned, usually translates to weird facial expressions in photographs.  So here’s how I did the author photo shoot thing:

1) Research!  Read the many great articles online to help debut authors, like this one from Mary Robinette Kowal,  or this one from Jennifer Miller, or this one from Heather Hummel .

2) Schedule a session with a great photographer.  This was the easiest step.  I am fortunate to be friends with the incredibly talented Kristin Brown (who did all the photos in my nonfiction book Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together and is responsible for almost every presentable picture of me that exists).  I am pretty sure Kristin would never speak to me again if I had someone else take my author photo.  (Not that I would want anyone else to!)

3) Find examples of author photos you like.  I pulled together some of my favorites and Kristin and I discussed what I liked about them: they all gave a real sense of the author’s personality.  We talked about which settings would give my photo the same feeling.

4) Obsess over what you will wear.  For me this was a real struggle.  As an ASL interpreter, I mostly wear plain, dark colors, so my personal rule is that if I have a non-interpreting day, I wear prints or plaids or stripes.  But those patterns don’t photograph well.  I brought along several options, with the green flowered top my favorite.  And there had to be an engraved necklace to go with it, because both the green and the necklace related to my story.

5) Take care of the hair and makeup.  Probably should have done something fancier, but for me this meant a trip to Hair Cuttery and actually wearing eye makeup for once.

5a) Laugh politely when your 9-year-old son notices your makeup and asks why your eyes look so weird. 

6) Follow directions.  I let the genius behind the camera take the lead.  In this case, that meant driving all over Loudoun County, Virginia, and when she said to get out and stand near a rusty old gate or in a certain patch of sunlight in the middle of the road, I did it.  It also meant waiting out the two women at the good table in the coffee shop so we could get pictures in the beam of sunlight by the window.  Kristin has strict requirements when it comes to photo lighting.

7) Only look at the good pictures.  Let the photographer sift out the bad.

8) If you can’t decide which photo to pick, send your favorites to your editor or agent and get their input.  Then let it go when the picture that is everyone’s favorite has you wearing a plain black top, dressed like an interpreter.

9) Try not to think too much about the fact that this photo is how readers will envision you, and that they will judge you and your book by the impression that one photo gives them.

10) Share the results of your photo shoot and let those beautiful images become your internal self-portrait.  You’re going to need all the confidence boosters you can get in the next year, dear debut author.

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Books That Made Me: The Queen’s Thief Series

Welcome to the fourth and final installment of my “Books That Made Me” series, part of the #SixteensBlogAbout series featuring The Sweet Sixteens’ favorite books and authors.  So far in this little series, I have written about the book that made me evangelical about reading, that books that enthralled me, and the books that launched me into a community of readers.  Today I get to talk about a series of books that is close to my heart – the series that made me want to be a writer: The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner.

TheThiefAug05   QueenOfAttoliaAug05   KoA404x612   CoK133x201

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