Mystery Musings

Okay, I’m a writer.  Which means that when I read a book, I can’t help editing in my head as I go.  That doesn’t affect how much I enjoy a story.  I separate my editing brain from my reading pleasure, probably to the point that I don’t comment on things that bother me because I know how hard it is to write a book.  I also know how subjective my tastes are.  Things that other readers love don’t always hit me the same.  So I err on the side of focusing on the positive.  But then, that’s what I do in general anyway.  It’s who I am.

I do often think about what would happen if the author I’m reading came to Scribes, my writing group, and read his manuscript there.  Our group is eclectic.  It has a Regency romance and fantasy writer, a YA fantasy/horror writer, a newspaper columnist, an ex-addict writing a memoir to unglamorize drugs, a retired cop/philosophy teacher who’s writing about his experiences, two thriller writers, two literary members who write plays and poetry, a children’s writer, and a humor writer, among others.  And they’re the toughest critics I have.  I get nervous every time it’s my turn to read, but I’m so lucky, because each of them focuses on something different.

The last time I read, I took the first chapter of a new mystery series I want to try.  Not every member was there.  We only have a few rules and attendance isn’t one of them.  I really wanted feedback, and I got it.  I can go around our table–in my mind–and remember what each person commented on, because I know what they look for, and they don’t miss much.

The YA fantasy writer:  Where are the smells?  The description?  I want to be able to place myself in the setting, to see it.  I want more internal dialogue to know how she feels about what’s happened.

The poet:  You used too many general word choices instead of specific words.  I liked the active verbs and this phrase…  I liked the tone and voice, too.

The playwright:  You introduced too many characters too soon.  I had trouble keeping them straight.  Maybe hold off to introduce a few of them later, but good job on the dialogue.  It felt real.

The Regency writer:  I got the romantic interest right away even though you kept it subtle, and I liked the interaction between the characters.  You made the story’s big question clear.  I know where the story’s going.  This isn’t exactly a cozy, though?  Won’t you have to appeal to a different market?

The ex-cop:  You made the youngest brother a drug user.  I know that’s going to be a plot complication later.  The first chapter didn’t have the big hook, but I can see it coming.

The memoir writer:  I like how all of the characters are close and care about each other.  I can tell what happens to one of them will affect all of them.

The thriller writer:  I didn’t get bored.  It held my interest, but I like a big hook at the very beginning, something that grabs me.  I can see that this might appeal to some readers, though.  I hope pretty soon, you pick up the pace, give us something juicy.  Nothing really happened in this chapter.  It’s all set-up and hints.

The newspaper columnist:  It flowed well.  Nothing too abrupt.  The transitions made the writing smooth, but I got confused with all the characters.  Make them more distinct.

I’ll stop there.  You get the idea.  But I often hear their voices when I read someone else’s book.  Or I’m writing my own:)







Critique Partners

I write this blog about wherever I am or whatever I’m working on or worrying about on my writing each week.  This week, I just finished critiquing a friend’s manuscript, so that’s what’s on my mind–the art of critiquing.

I swear, every time I read one of this friend’s books, it’s better than the last one.  That makes going through her pages a pleasure.  I gave her the marked-up manuscript today, because soon, another friend will give me a manuscript to go through.  She’s a fast writer, like I am, but I always look forward to getting her pages.  I love her voice, her characters, her story lines.  What can I say?  I usually enjoy the manuscripts my friends give me as much or more than  any books I buy–not because I’m prejudiced–but because we’ve all worked so hard to become the best writers we can be.  That said, though, I’m going to try to sneak in reading a book my brother-in-law sent me, just for the fun of it, because it looks so different than my usual reads–SWAMPLANDIA, by Karen Russell.  I read a few opening pages, and it feels offbeat enough to be a winner.

I have four people I trade manuscripts with, and that’s enough.  Any more feedback would be too much.  It would confuse me.  And critiquing for four friends keeps me plenty busy, especially if I want any fun reading time. Each of my friends is strong in a different area, both in critiquing and in their writing.  My daughter nails me on characters.  Paula tells me when I’m being too “nice.”  She looks for grit and depth, tells me to push my protagonists harder.  Ann S has a knack for noticing little details and marks them all.  And Mary Lou marks everything–like I do:  word choice, verb tense, timing, pacing, inconsistencies, and the dreaded repetition.  Each of us takes care to mark sections we like, as well as sections that confused us or slowed us down.  We tend to draw happy faces at paragraphs that made us chuckle.

I value each and every one of my critique partners.  When I’ve fixed the changes they’ve marked, I know my manuscript has to be in decent shape.  That doesn’t mean that every reader is going to love it.  I learned that truth a long time ago.  You can’t win them all.  Some readers are a lot harder on manuscripts than editors are.  But after I’ve finished my critique partners’ comments, I feel that my story’s ready to send out into the world.

I used to think a day would come when all of the lessons I’ve learned along the way would coalesce and every word I put to paper would be a gem, that I’d be self-reliant.  I know better now.  Yes, I write pretty clean.  Yes, I plot so much, the story flows pretty well.  But every writer’s too close to her own work.  In our minds, we’ve given all the information a reader needs to understand a scene or subplot or a character’s motivation, but just because that info’s floating around inside our heads doesn’t mean it’s made it to the pages.   And that’s when a critique partner saves you.

A nose ring? Who knew?

It’s been interesting how people have reacted to my romances.  I’ve read a couple of chapters to my writers’ group–Summit City Scribes.  And I sent the finished manuscripts to my critique partners and both of my daughters, Holly and Robyn, and to the girl who grew up across the street from us.  Heidi is Holly’s BFF, and spent a lot of time at our house.  We call her our “adopted” daughter, because we think of her as part of our family.

When I used to read my urban fantasies to Scribes, I got really mixed reactions.  The comments always started with “I don’t read this, but….”–which is fair, because a writer should know that a reader doesn’t know his/her genre.  Comments can be very genre specific.  My friend, Julia Donner–whose Regencies I madly love–used to get an abundance of feedback about “Why do you use so much description?  You describe the room, what the people wear–in detail.  You even mention buttons and hose.”  She’d grin and say, “That’s part of writing a Regency.  The stories are as much about social mannerisms and soirees as the romance between the protagonists.” I thought when I shifted to romance, I’d fit into what people in my group read more. The joke was on me.  When I read for my fifteen minutes, and we started around the table for critiques, almost every single person said, “I never read romance, but…”  Kathy Palm, another writer in our group who writes fantasy and horror asked, “Is there kissing?”  Lol.  She’d rather have someone mutilated.

My group might not read either urban fantasy or romance, but I still get great feedback–when I tell instead of show, when I should use more dialogue, discussions about word choice, repetition, using action tags that aren’t haggard, more internal dialogue, more emotion, etc.  I always come away a better writer when I read at Scribes. It’s especially fun when people react strongly to something I purposely added because I thought it was clever.  I love raw, gut reactions, and I’ve gotten more of those for my romances than I expected.  For instance, in my second romance, Opposites Distract, I wanted to introduce a character whom I could feature in my third romance.  I wanted a heroine who wasn’t the typical pretty girl.  Paula’s a chef whose husband died overseas in the military.  She has two young kids, and she’s Goth.

The Goth part got me in trouble.  My writer friends shrugged and said since she was from New York, they could buy into the penchant for black.  They could even overlook the stud in her cheek.  But a nose ring?  Oh, lord.  Who knew that a nose ring could get  me in so much trouble!  They liked Paula.  They just didn’t like the nose ring.  “She’s a chef.  It has to go.”  I held off on changing it for a while, and then decided what the heck?  In the big scheme of things, the ring could move to her eyebrow and still make the statement I intended it to.

My second surprise came when both my daughter Robyn and our “adopted” daughter Heidi called me to say they wanted to hit Brody in the head with a two-by-four in the beginning of Opposites Distract.  A few other people had read that manuscript, too, and they especially loved Brody, but he starts out opinionated and a little on the bossy side.  He’s a big, bad brooding hulk who takes responsibility too seriously.  That endeared him to some. Not to Robyn and Heidi. Both of those girls are Leos–independent and outspoken.  Brody might not live if he tried to bully them:)

Anyway, it’s been interesting how readers have reacted to the male/female couples in my romances.  I should have expected stronger opinions, I guess, since romances are character driven stories.  I didn’t see that coming, but it’s been a pleasant surprise.

And since I’m talking about romance–happy Valentine’s Day 2016!


My webpage:    (BTW, there are three short Mill Pond romances at the end of the left column of free, short stories).

Author Facebook page:

@judypost on twitter


Writing Feedback

Right after I first dipped my toes into the world of fiction, I was lucky enough to find a good writers’ group.  I wasn’t all that serious back then, but a lot of writers who came to Scribes were.  They pushed and prodded me into writing more than I’d intended and into sending things out when I was happy to toss them in a drawer.  They forced me to grow.

They invited me to go to writers’ conferences with them, and that was a real eye-opener. Attending panels at a conference expanded my vision.  Writing was a career for the authors who lectured us.  They were professionals–writing was a business.  I’d never seen it as that.  They talked markets and publishers, bestsellers and mid-list fiction.  They discussed how publishing was changing.  Big publishers were gobbling up little publishers, and they warned that writers would feel the pinch.  I listened and soaked it all up, but I didn’t see the big picture.  I was too naive.

After I placed short stories in several anthologies and in Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery magazine and Ellery Queen, I was one of the writers on conference panels.  And I felt outclassed again. I could talk “how to” for writing, but I still didn’t know much about selling and publishing. Even when it came to writing, there’s nothing more humbling than to have people raise their hands and ask questions when the answers, for me, were nebulous, at best, and when the writers on either side of me could prattle off answers faster than my brain could process them.  At one mystery conference, I sat on a panel with Charlaine Harris and Carolyn Hart to discuss short story writing.  I mean, really.

At home, at Scribes, some of the writers were so far ahead of me, I dreaded it when it was my turn to read at our meetings.  We met, and still do, every second and fourth Wednesday from noon to two.  Two writers and an alternate (who sometimes we get to, and sometimes we don’t–depending on how wound up we get over critiques when we go around the table) share their work with us.  Each writer gets fifteen minutes to read. After the first reader finishes, we go around the table to discuss what we thought was really good about the piece and what might make it better.  We stay supportive and positive, but we still lose people.  And I understand that.  It’s hard to listen to critiques.

We finally had to make a rule that the reader can’t comment on what people say until we’ve circled the entire table, and then it’s his/her turn to talk.  We made that rule for a reason.  First, most writers feel the need to explain why they wrote a scene the way they chose to.  They can’t help it.  They’re attached to the pages they wrote.  They’re attached to the story, the characters, their baby.  Even when we have almost all good things to say about it, the things we pick at rankle.  It’s like having someone walk up to you and say, “Cute kid, except for that wart on his nose.”  The flaw stands out.  It makes writers defensive.

Even writers who SAY that they want lots of feedback, that they don’t want only praise, that they want us to FIND something that they can make better.. crumple for a bit.  I love criticism. I want my friends to find my screw-ups before I print them.  I’m fine when those comments are on paper, and I can read through the scribbles of red ink and consider them without pressure.  But my first reaction, almost always, when the critique is vocial, is to get defensive.  It feels more threatening somehow, major instead of minor. I’ve learned that about myself, but I’m not the only one.  I watch it over and over again at Scribes.  So now, I just listen and nod and thank people for their feedback, then go home and give myself a few days to filter it all.  Then, I can appreciate what my writer friends were telling me.  That doesn’t mean I always agree with them, but I’m glad they gave me something to consider.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot by listening to the critiques of my work and others’ at Scribes.  I’ve watched people who fold under the feedback and never come back.  And I’ve watched writers who listen to every single comment, then change their manuscript to try to please everyone. Some waffle so often, they never finish a book, or else they water it down so much, it’s a weak effort when it’s finished.  It’s impossible to please everyone.  If you do, something’s wrong.  I’ve also watched writers who nod and then never change anything. Those writers are interesting.  They dig in, tell us that they like their manuscript the way it is, and then write what they please.  And sometimes, that works.  Sometimes, it doesn’t. But it’s taught me that being defensive is all right, to a point.  A writer needs to find balance.  He needs to be flexible enough to listen to and consider criticism, but also to have the confidence to believe in himself.

Hope you’ve found your balance, and happy writing!




Writers’ Groups

I read a blog post a few weeks ago, and the writer gave reasons why she thought writers’ groups weren’t very helpful. I happen to love mine. Not only have I learned a lot from the comments people give there–for my work, as well other peoples’ pages–I also come home recharged, ready to dig into my manuscript. Just being around fellow writers, talking nuts and bolts, shared successes and disappointments, news and markets, gets me excited about pounding the keys again. Some people join our group and stay. Some people join our group and run. It’s not for everyone. It’s HARD to read your work for 15 minutes and then get critiqued. After all these years, I still get nervous when I share my stuff there. Everyone works hard to give positive, helpful feedback, but we tend to be honest about what could be better. After all, that’s why we share, right? To find our flaws and make them better. But that’s not as easy as it sounds.

It took me a long time to learn to listen–really listen–to their feedback without getting defensive. Writing is personal. We pour our minds and passions into our words. It’s no fun to hear that we messed up, but I’ve finally learned that if I just leave my friends’ comments alone for a few days and let them stew, then I can look at them and decide what works for me and what doesn’t.

The blogger who found writers’ groups lacking stated that readers only share a small number of pages with each other at a time, that it’s too hard to determine story and character arcs, to feel if the pacing works. I suppose some of that depends on how often a writer gets to share. In our group, writers read consistently enough for the rest of us to remember how the chapters flow. But the blogger’s right. Reading a work in its entirety is a different thing than hearing chunks of pages at a time. But who says we have to choose between a writers’ group or critique partners? Not so. Most of us break off into smaller groups to trade manuscripts. We rely on Scribes to catch trouble spots and brainstorm ideas to make them better. And then we have critique partners who look at the entire manuscript.

Not every group is like ours. Ours is dedicated to encouraging writers and trying to make their works better, to make them publishable. So, what can we offer each other? What exactly do we look for?

1. Opening hooks. Did we start the story/novel/article at the right place? Or is there a spot 2 or 20 pages farther into the book where the story really starts?

2. Will the first chapter grab and keep a reader, or did we introduce so many characters at once, we drowned the reader and left him confused? Did we bury the book’s big question under backstory? Are we grounded in the story’s setting? Do we know what type of book it is in the first chapter, and what it’s about? Do we know what the protagonist’s problem is and how he might try to solve it?

3. Did we show, don’t tell? Did we use active verbs? Were we careful with word choice? Our group REALLY notices word choice. Did the ideas flow? Did the characters grab us? Do we CARE about them? Did the characters feel REAL? Did the dialogue feel real? Did all of the characters sound the same?

4. Did the tension build as the chapters flow and keep building all the way to the end, or did we go off on a tangent somewhere? Did the story sag? Did each scene move the story? Did each scene have tension? Did we use the right POV to tell the story or that particular scene? Did the characters stay true to themselves, or did the author try to force them to do something to move the story along?

5. And the biggie: Did the pages WORK? Did they have the right tone/mood/style for their genre? Did the tone stay consistent from one chapter to the next? Each genre implies a promise to its readers. A mystery has a crime that needs to be solved. A romance has boy meets girl and a happy ending. Did we deliver?

Our group is pretty eclectic. We write different things–YA, fantasy, Regency, espionage, mystery, urban fantasy, and literary. We even have a memoir writer and a nature writer, who specializes in articles on birding. We don’t always read each others’ genres, and we admit that, but we know what’s expected from them. So we focus on if they’re well-written, not if they’re something we’d read.

Do I value my group? That’s a big, resounding yes. Quite a few of the people who’ve moved away, though, tell me that they can’t find another group like ours, so I know that not every writers’ group is created equal. I value our group’s feedback. If you can’t find a good group, though, I recommend Victory Crayne’s advice on critiques. He gives a good, solid list of things to look at in writing.

I added a flash fiction story to my webpage. Not a “nice” story. It’s early times in River City.
There’s a reason the voodoo spirit Manette has downturned lips.

Michael finished the cover for my third Wolf’s Bane novel. I love it! Sharon’s formatting it this week, so it will be up soon. In the meantime, here’s the cover for you to see:
cover_mockup_48_1 (1)


I’ve belonged to a writers’ group for years now. Before Scribes, I wrote as a hobby, but when I wanted to get better at it, I sought out other writers who listened to my short stories and gave me feedback. Most of us were beginners back then, but thankfully, we had a few members who knew what they were doing. They’re the writers who taught me to use active verbs instead of passive, to use specific word choice to bring scenes to life and create mood. They taught me the basics, and they encouraged me.

When I decided that I wanted to write a novel, I fumbled through several failed attempts before I finally bought how-to books and learned more about plotting and pacing, but it was my fellow writers who told me that repetition of any kind kills tension, and that tension is what drives a story. I tried lots of different ways to try to make middles move instead of sag, and they shared what worked for them until I cobbled things together to find what worked for me. And while they critiqued and encouraged, I did my best to return the favor. Eventually, in my opinion, we all turned into pretty decent writers, but now we face different challenges. For many of my friends, time has become more and more precious. We worked so hard to learn our craft, we never imagined that we’d learn it and then we wouldn’t have enough time to make it happen. The older we get, it seems, the busier we become. We thought when our kids were little, when we had to write between cooking and cleaning and running kids here and there, that life would slow down once the kids got older or once they moved out on their own. Not so.

Some of my friends’ husbands have retired, and their husbands demand more time, attention. They travel more. They DO more. Some have been promoted so that their jobs are more demanding. Some help care for grandkids. They volunteer and meet friends more often. They have more family obligations–aging parents, kids who come for suppers. The list can go on and on. I listen to new and old members of our writers’ group, and I realize that if you want to write, you have to MAKE the time to do it. No matter what age you are or what stage you’re at in life, you have to make writing a priority, or it won’t happen. At first, it bothered me when someone joined Scribes and showed lots of potential, and then their writing got lost in the shuffle. But now I know that’s a possibility. So is getting discouraged. I’ve watched writers finish books, send them out, and wither under all of the rejections. Or they sell, but don’t make enough money to keep them motivated. It’s no easy feat to keep a dream alive. Success often comes one step at a time, and people can falter before they reach their goals. But if they’re lured away by a new love, a new passion, who’s to say that’s bad? So whatever calls to you, good luck with it, and enjoy.

P.S. If you’re interested, I posted a quick, round table discussion between the characters of my Wolf’s Bane novels on my webpage. It’s VERY short.

Who’d Want to be Methuselah?

Last week, I got the final comments back for my 3rd Wolf’s Bane novel. I’ve made it to the middle of the romance I’ve been working on, but I’m going to take a break now, staple my fanny to my desk chair, (ouch!), and plunge into rewrites. None of the critiques were major. All of them were good, and all of them do-able, so if I work at the manuscript for a week, I’m hoping to have it done. I’m still struggling with a title. I called the book Magicks Unleashed while I worked on it because that fits the story, but there are so many urban fantasies with “Magic” in the titles that I’d like to think of something else.

I combine a lot of different supernaturals in the Wolf’s Bane books. My female protagonist is a witch who falls for a gargoyle, one of the guardians of Bay City. The gargoyles work with a pack of werewolves to protect people from supernatural rogues. In this novel, the characters feel their ages and pasts more than usual. Wedge, the alpha of the werewolf pack, grew up in Oregon, where his father was the alpha of that pack. He’s lived a long time. Not as long as Damian, the gargoyle, who was carved from alabaster and sat atop a church in Europe for ages until the city breathed life into him. Their enemy, Morpheus, was driven away by gargoyles when he practiced the black arts in Europe. Often, the longevity of their lives weighs on them. And long lives can bring lots of baggage. The two young vampires they rescue have been kept caged and mistreated since they were infants.

Writing their stories made me think about mortality, and it didn’t seem so bad. My husband was ready to retire at sixty-five. But what if you were like Methuselah and lived to be 969? Who’d want that? Okay, the alternative is dying. That’s pretty much of a downer, but things are supposed to look up after that, right? A change of scenery is good? What would it be like to be a witch, like Reece or Hecate, and live one lifetime after another?

I found one of my favorite quotes on Jonathan Cainer’s horoscope site. It’s from a top business expert, Stephen Covey. “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.” My mind can’t wrap itself around immortality, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want it here on Earth, as it is now, century after century, even if I didn’t age. I think I’d get tired, emotionally weary. But supernaturals persevere. And good ones, like my protagonists, find meaning in life by protecting mortals who are too weak to protect themselves. If nothing else, that makes for great stories:)