Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.


IWSG badgeWelcome Dear Readers,

My apologies for such an epic post, but it’s the first day of the A to Z Blogging Challenge and Insecure Writers’ Support Group day.

For the Insecure Writers’ Support Group, I’ll discuss something I’ve dealt with recently before moving on to Annabelle, the haunted doll everyone loves to hate.

Over the last year, I’ve struggled to find critique partners. My last beta reader was also my fiancé, and I could never thank him enough for continuing to read my work and offer feedback after our relationship ended. But eventually we got to a point where he couldn’t keep up and I needed a fresh pair of eyes.

I decided to ask one of my online friends if he’d be interested. I loved his blog, and we both wrote the same genre.

While his book started off strong, it quickly went downhill, and I felt terrible. I didn’t know what else to do, so I tried to help. I put on my editing hat and went to work, indicating where he’d overwritten, or used the same words and phrases over and over again, or just wasn’t making sense.

The last thing I wanted to do was hurt his feelings or make him secondguess his own writing. I had a tough choice to make: I could either not say anything at all, pretending I hadn’t read it; I could lie and say something vague about how great the concept was; or I could tell the truth, hoping he’d take it in the spirit in which it was meant.

As an editor and as a friend, I strongly felt I had to tell the truth. I didn’t think lying would help him or his book.

So I told the truth.

Bad decision.

While he seemed to take it reasonably as first, saying that others had pointed out the same issues, he soon unfollowed me on social media. Saddened, I sent an email of apology, letting him know I was only trying to help.

He didn’t respond.

Ironically, the same day I received an email from an agent. It was a detailed revise-and-resubmit request that ripped apart a book I’d been proud of.

Of course it hurt that the agent found flaws in my work, but once I got over my disappointment, I was grateful. I couldn’t use all of her suggestions, but quite a few of them will make my book stronger. It was clear she had taken a lot of time to give me valuable feedback.

The agent and I both have a blunt editing style. We’re not cruel, but we don’t sugarcoat things. We get right to the point–indicating the problems in a manuscript in the hopes of making it better.

Editors aren’t “negative” when they find problems with your work. Whether you’re paying them for a service, or they’re doing you a favour as a friend, they’re only trying to help. You may not like what they have to say, but they’re not doing it to be mean. What would be the point?

This has taught me a valuable, if difficult, lesson. I already paid close attention to negative feedback of my work, but now I will feel doubly grateful that someone cared enough to take the time to help make my novels stronger. And I will no longer edit friends’ work, unless I’ve already seen something of their prose and know I will have many positive things to say.

It’s too painful.

Have you ever lost a friend because you didn’t like his or her book? Has critical feedback ever made you angry, or has it helped? How do you respond to it?


A is for Annabelle

If you’re a horror movie fan, you’ve no doubt seen Annabelle, The Conjuring, or both.

The doll in the film is horrifying…something you’d toss out the second you received it. The real Annabelle is a cuddly Raggedy Ann doll.

You can visit her at the Warrens’ Occult Museum in Monroe, Connecticut, where she is kept in a glass case with a warning sign prominently displayed.

The real Annabelle was purchased at an antique store in the 1970s. A mother bought it for her daughter, Donna, a nursing student. Soon Donna and her two roommates Angie and Lou (Lou isn’t described as a roommate, but he always seems to be in their apartment) noticed something odd about the doll. It moved. Annabelle was never in the same room where they’d left her. She could also close doors and write messages, and the messages were on parchment paper, something Donna didn’t keep in the house.

The friends consulted a medium who told them “Annabelle” was the spirit of a girl who’d been murdered on the land where the apartment complex stood. Feeling sorry for the child, Donna agreed that the girl’s spirit could inhabit the doll and live with them.

That’s when hell really broke loose.

After Lou was attacked by the doll, Donna contacted a priest, who in turn contacted famed parapsychologists Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens concluded that “Annabelle” was not the spirit of a little girl at all, but a demon who was terrorizing Donna and her friends in order to possess one of them. An exorcist was called in, and the doll was taken to its new home at the museum. Ed claimed the doll levitated and moved from room to room while it was in his home, and even used its powers to murder a priest, who managed to escape a near-fatal car accident soon after challenging the doll.

Annabelle’s time in the museum hasn’t been quiet, either. After a young man mocked the doll and banged on the glass case, he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Do you think Annabelle is possessed, or were Donna’s friends playing a trick on her? Were the two accidents the work of Annabelle or unfortunate coincidences?

If you like stories of cursed toys, you’ll love The Bear Who Wouldn’t Leave.

1 part newsletter, 1 part unnerving updates,
2 parts sneak peeks of new projects.


  1. @6bloc9

    I don’t know how to answer your closing questions! Fascinating story, rung of urban myth about it (hope you don’t mind me saying so). I keep an open mind and if in doubt, flowers – even if only dandelions, nettles or bramble, whatever’s to hand – a bible, for sure, tho not religious … I don’t watch or read horror but I remember a circle of salt – but I’d say I’m not superstitious… tho I’d probably be throwing a little over each shoulder …my daughter would so squirm and squeam at either of the dolls, any kind of doll-phobic, can’t remember the term (she’s nr-grown-up now, still like it, but she can watch horror…) Fantastic theme, great post, can’t wait to see more. Best wishes 🙂

    • JH

      Thanks for commenting! Hope to see you back again.

  2. Samantha Bryant

    Great post! Beta reading and critique are always tricksy little monsters, aren’t they? But so important to the process! More than one person has left my critique group because they weren’t really ready to hear that their story had flaws.

    And Annabelle is one of my favorite creepy stories! I’m a sucker for haunted doll stories–dolls can be so creepy even when they’re *not* possessed.

    • JH

      Thanks for your comment, Samantha! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who’s struggled with this.

      I like haunted doll stories too…there’s definitely something creepy about dolls.

  3. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    I think knowing the real Annabelle is a regular, normal Raggedy Ann doll is even creepier! Shudder! I saw both movies but liked The Conjuring better.

    I once asked someone whose opinion I thought I valued for their general thoughts on a story I wrote. They basically said it was so bad they didn’t bother finishing it. Now, I can take constructive criticism but that was just plain mean, unnecessary and not true. Was it a perfect story? Of course not. Was it so bad as to be unreadable? Absolutely not. It occurred to me soon after that I hadn’t actually read anything written by this person. They just talked a good writing game.

    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Madeline. I agree–I liked The Conjuring better as well, but Annabelle was decent. A solid three-and-a-half stars.

      That’s part of the problem with CP. Unless you’ve read their work before, you don’t know if they’re a good fit or not. Blogs can be deceiving. I’m sorry you had such a bad experience. I have learned that I need to be more careful with my editing comments.

  4. Elle

    You’re right, that doll looks just like the Raggedy Ann doll in my spare room. I think I’ll be closing that door at night for a while.

    • JH

      Probably for the best. 😉

  5. Paul

    I have to admit I wasn’t aware of the Annabelle story before I saw The Conjuring film and when I saw they were making an Annabelle film I was excited. However, I felt let down by the stand alone film as I just didn’t feel it held its own. I think the brief glimpse we got in The Conjuring was far more frightening.

    I am really looking forward to following your A-Z challenge posts during April. I love the sound of your theme.

    • JH

      Thanks so much, Paul! I look forward to reading yours as well.

      I agree. I think the glimpses of Annabelle in The Conjuring were more frightening, but I have to say (spoiler) the human element in the Annabelle movie gave me the creeps. Not the cult part so much–that was just silly–but the deranged daughter was truly scary. Human monsters scare me so much more than dolls.

  6. Louise Barbour/Fundy Blue

    Hi JH! I’m visiting a lot of blogs today as an IWSG co-host, so I only read the IWSG part of your post. Hopefully I’ll get to come back later and read the Annabelle portion. In your post you brought up a huge and difficult point. It is very hard to offer positive constructive criticism to fellow writers who are also friends. I try to avoid it! It’s so hard for me to think of hurting or discouraging someone, especially if I know them. You’d think that with 25 years of teaching writing to 7-9 year olds, it would be easier for me. That said, an honest and knowledgeable critic, an editor, professor, or agent, can teach you so much and improve your writing. Thanks for sharing your experiences with this difficult situation and lessons!

    • JH

      Hi Louise! Thanks for stopping by, and thank you for co-hosting. It’s a huge job, and I greatly admire those who take it on.

      I’m definitely going to be avoiding it in the future. I was so positive that I’d love his book that it never occurred to me that there might be substantial problems. In hindsight, I probably should have just said nothing, as I don’t think he’ll listen to my suggestions anyway. A hard lesson to learn, but it *was* learned.

      In contrast, another writer friend took my suggestions, used them to make his work stronger, and got an offer. Sometimes it’s worth it.

  7. Julie Jordan Scott

    It is interesting – I do lose interest in people if their writing… just doesn’t work for me. There are certain pet peeves I have and lines that just musn’t be crossed. I don’t know how else to describe it.

    I am not a horror person so I haven’t seen Annabelle and I love dolls and rarely find even the creepiest creepy (they just need love! LOL) so I can’t help you with that answer… and I do so value the query!

    Great kick off post, by the way!

    • JH

      Thanks Julie, and welcome to my blog! I hope to see you here again.

      I think your feelings toward dolls are very cute. Even clown dolls and those creepy ventriloquist dummies need love? ~ Shudder ~ Well, better you than me! 🙂

  8. dolorah

    Unfortunately, there are many writers out there such as this former friend: just looking for accolades, deserved or undeserved. I am also a blunt critiquer (and reviewer). Sometimes it costs a friend, but if that person cannot take a little constructive feedback from a person trying to help, how are they to survive in the published world where everyone posts their opinions in blatantly negative ways. Writers grow with feedback.

    I have been lucky enough to be a part of writers groups, both on-line and in person. It is easier to accept negative feedback from someone you know and trust has your best interests at heart, but sometimes it is refreshing for that reality check of a perfect stranger. Strangers are who we are hoping to buy our books after all, and their opinions whether positive or negative is what is most important. Too bad that person did not understand that concept.

    • dolorah

      Oh, and Anabelle is on my list of movies to watch. I am a horror fan, but haven’t found much I like lately. Sexy and stupid is just not my idea of horror. And what is it with making 15 sequels of a movie that did well the first time, but just keeps repeating the same sequence over and over with different characters? Boring.

    • JH

      Thanks for the great comments, Dolorah! If you’re a horror fan, I hope to see you back here.

      I agree with you on both counts–when it comes to feedback and horror movies. I hate the sequel thing. They’re rarely, if ever, as good as the original. Ugh! I have high hopes for the sequels of The Conjuring and The Woman in Black, but I’m nervous too…and not because of the fear factor.

      For the very first time, I’m getting reviews of my work from strangers–people who have read my first published book. And it’s really scary. Even when I don’t agree with it at first, it makes me take a closer look at my own work and try to evaluate it through another’s eyes.

  9. Patricia Lynne

    I had a while where I struggled to find beta readers. It seemed they all fell through for me. It got very discouraging. Then, I had a couple email from online friends with offers to read. I hope I can ask them again for future works, but if not, I’m glad for the help they offered.

    ~Patricia Lynne aka Patricia Josephine~
    Member of C. Lee’s Muffin Commando Squad
    Story Dam
    Patricia Lynne, Indie Author

    • JH

      Welcome back, Patricia! Always great to see you here.

      I’ve had a difficult time getting new beta readers as well, but I found two through Twitter who are willing to read my work and give me honest feedback.

      People like that are worth their weight in gold. I hope yours help you again.

  10. Anna

    I have, and it hurts so much. Now I say straight out that I’m brutally honest, and hope that they hear what I mean.

    I also buffer my comments using third person. For example, this reader blah, blah, blah. Or The writer might want to consider… In the end I’m saying the same thing, but offering some distance. It’s helped.

    Here’s my link if you’d like to drop by 🙂

    Anna from Elements of Writing

    • JH

      Welcome back, Anna. Sorry to hear the same thing has happened to you. It’s really painful, especially when you’ve taken a lot of time to help someone else.

      The third-person idea is really great. In my case, I was using tracked changes, but I’ve learned my lesson. Never again!

  11. Chrys Fey

    I’ve gotten feedback from betas and editors that just about ripped out my guts, but after that I realized how right they were and that the changes made my stories better. He obviously doesn’t know how to take constrictive criticism. Sorry for him, but he’ll have to deal with that a lot more. And how he dealt with it in your case was over the top.

    Annabelle looks creepy. lol

    • JH

      Congratulations on being able to handle feedback like a pro, Chrys. I fully expected him to need some “cooling off” time, but I didn’t think it would go as far as it did.

      And you’re right–criticism, constructive or otherwise, is something we all have to deal with if we’re going to be professional writers.

  12. Mary Aalgaard

    That person needs to learn how to take criticism and see it as a learning experience. He might eventually come to that, but he needs to let his ego get out of the way. Many people would appreciate your candid response, and help, for their work.
    Play off the Page

    • JH

      Thanks, Mary. I wish I’d known he wasn’t one of the appreciative people beforehand. I could have saved myself a lot of time. 😉

      I appreciate the kind words.

  13. Diane Burton

    Good post for IWSG. I feel for both of you–the critiquee and the critiquer. He needs to develop a thicker skin. I’ve been where you are with an editor ripping my work. The pain was awful. But then I took her advice and made it a better book. Good luck!

    • JH

      Thanks, Diane! I certainly wasn’t trying to be harsh…I even used humour to “lighten the mood” but that could have been taken wrong. It was (and is) a difficult situation.

      Good for you for using a strong critique as the foundation for a better book. It takes courage and strength to grow as a writer. 🙂

  14. Frank

    My friends know, do not ask for my opinion unless you want it. I’m not mean. I’m just honest. I am as gentle as I can be while still being truthful. Being known for that comes with advantages.

    First, my friends trust and value my opinion. They might not always like it but they know I’m not just telling them what they want to hear.

    Another advantage is that I don’t have people like the guy you wrote about in my life. They can’t survive here. He wasn’t looking for your opinion, he was looking for your unwavering cheer leading. The world has enough of that. You did the right thing.

    As for Annabelle, I’m going to be cursing your name as I try to sleep tonight.

    • JH

      Aw, thanks Frank. I really needed that. And because you’re you, I know you’re not just telling me what I need to hear.

      I tried my best to be gentle, but since I was using tracked changes, he still got to see a manuscript filled with red ink. I knew he might need a cooling off period, but I never experienced this strong a reaction.

      I would hope people in my life know I’m honest, but perhaps I need to drive home that point a bit more. What good is a lying editor?

      • Frank

        I don’t know how well you knew this guy but he obviously didn’t know you well enough if he thought you wouldn’t be honest. When I saw I am as nice as I can be, that doesn’t mean it’s sugar coated or that I hide anything. Often, it means I could be misunderstood as a jerk.

        When a friend asks for my opinion about something I become almost clinical about it. I separate who they are from what they are asking about as much as I can. This isn’t easy if it’s a personal matter. It’s much easier when they want my opinion on something the wrote or a photo they’ve edited.

        “I don’t like it but I can see what you were trying for. If it were me, I’d do this…..” That’s something I’ve actually written to a friend. But I also reminded them that art is subjective and the piece they showed me wasn’t something I’d naturally gravitate towards and therefore may not be the best judge.

        Wow, I’m writing a book in your comments.

        Your friend was a jerk while you were a true friend. It sucks and I’m sorry you ran into someone like that. Give me his name and I’ll make him cry with just my words, if ya like. 🙂

        • JH

          Hey again,

          You can write a book in my comments any time. Want to write tomorrow’s blog post? Because that would be awesome. 😉

          It’s the Internet, right? We can develop what we think are close friendships on here, but how well do we really know each other? I thought we were good friends, but I also thought his book would be awesome.

          I have to separate the person from the work in order to be a good editor. And sometimes, if it is too time-consuming to wade through or requires a ton of work, I’ll politely apologize and say I just couldn’t get through it. (Not for clients, though–if you’re paying me, you’ve got me till the bitter end.)

          Thanks for the kind words and reassurance. They were much needed tonight, and always appreciated.

  15. Frank

    If you don’t stop talking to me my callers tomorrow are going to be greeted by the sounds of my snores!

    I think we can know people online almost as much as in person. I say almost only because in person you can see people’s mannerisms and hear their tone but otherwise, people hide who they are just as much in real life as they do online. It’s just harder to pick up on the subtle clues in an online only interaction.

    • JH

      You should never start writing to a night owl at night if you want to get some sleep. I’m just waking up. 😉

      That’s a great point, actually. There were warning signs that this guy was quite sensitive and a tad self-involved, but I didn’t really pay attention.

      Much like real life. I think everyone’s awesome until proven otherwise.

  16. Tui Snider @TuiSnider

    Oh, yeah! The first online crit group I belonged to was small and very in-depth. We really lucked out, because we each had different strengths and weaknesses and no one took offense over critiques. I learned so much there!

    We took turns doing critiques because we understood, as you point out, that it takes time and energy to do a thoughtful one. Most of my interactions there were positive, but I had 2 negative ones.

    One person discovered that I was good at pointing out passive structure and grammatical errors. After a while, I realized she was just using me to do her first re-write for her! So I learned from this and backed off.

    The second rough patch came when a new person joined our group. I critiqued her work just as heartily as I would have anyone else’s…but – wow! – she responded with an email so vicious that I burst into tears while reading it. It caught me completely off guard. She then complained to the group about me and, thankfully, they all rushed in to my defense. What a mess!

    But I have learned since then to be very careful the first time around when someone asks me to be a beta reader. Do they want a few brief comments, or do they want the Full Monty?

    As for Annabelle… I have a silly anecdote involving me hearing that story on the radio while cleaning my kitchen late at night and being scared to piece when my breadmaker suddenly “screamed” but I’ll save that for another day!

    ~Tui, dropping by from the A to Z blog challenge

    • JH

      Welcome, Tui! Great to “see” you again. 🙂

      A screaming bread-maker? I would love to hear that story.

      Thanks for your insights and experience regarding your critique group. It is definitely something to keep in mind. I know I did way more than this guy was expecting, and perhaps that was part of the problem.

  17. Bonnie

    I’m still trying to find a critique partner. I’d offer to be yours Holli, but, frankly, I think your stories would give me nightmares.

    This Annabel legend is down right freaky. As a child I had a Barbie head on a pedestal. The idea was to style her hair. She freaked me out. I would put her in the closet and make sure she was in there every night before I went to sleep. I still had nightmares that she was watching me. I never did style her hair. I couldn’t touch her without feeling shivers. Eventually, I got brave enough to ask my dad to donate her to charity. I always felt guilty that I was sending her off to torment some other little girl.

    • JH

      No worries, Bonnie–I’ve come to the conclusion (too late, sadly) that friends shouldn’t critique friends.

      Oh, I remember those decapitated, hair-styling Barbies! Those things were freaky. I don’t blame you for giving it away. Almost as scary were the Barbie make-up kits with their garish blue eyeshadow. 😉 Brr!

  18. Djinnia

    Whoa. That’s creepy. I knew of the warrens and of the movie conjuring. I believe in ghosts and other things. When things move on their own in my own home, then yeah. Have to believe after witnessing with my own eyes.

    • JH

      I know what you mean. After witnessing some weird things myself, I still struggle with it, but I ultimately have to believe that something happens when we die beyond “the big sleep.”

      Welcome to my blog, Djinnia!

  19. Heather M. Gardner

    Wow. Does this post strike a chord. I’ve had similar issues on the receiving end. It’s never easy.
    My current editor is awesome, but I hate her with a passion. I curse her and fume at her and say terrible things about her. But, she makes my books better.
    No one likes their stuff ripped to shreds. Being a writer means we have to suck it up and get through it.
    Sometimes its not what you say, but how you say it, too.

    I hate dolls. Hate them. Almost hate them as much as clowns. I have a friend that goes to thrift shops just to find ugly dolls and post pics on FB. So creepy.

    Heather M. Gardner
    Co-host: Blogging from A to Z April Challenge
    Blog: The Waiting is the Hardest Part [http://hmgardner.blogspot.com/]

    • JH

      Yeah, when I felt there were just too many mistakes in the manuscript, I used humour to lighten the mood. I thought this guy was a good enough friend that I could do that, but apparently not. It always worked for me. My harshest editor would sometimes make a little fun of my writing, but in a clever way that made me laugh. It would keep me going, because his critiques could be brutal, but as you say, that’s how we get better.

      I’m not a big fan of dolls, either…except Monster High. They’re pretty darn cute.


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