Writing: Does it EVER cooperate?

Okay, if you’ve written long enough, you know that the entire process can mock you. Or maybe the Muse is nicer to you. She can be a real bitch to me. It’s like if you have one easy streak, she has to remind you that you should stay humble. And she’s good at that.

I enjoyed writing my last book a little too much. It felt like it came easy. Too easy. Whenever I like a book too much, it usually means it has problems and I wasn’t tough enough on it. Blood Lust will be online this week, and I might have to hide my head under my pillow. I hope readers like it as much as I did. It has as much of a mystery plot as an urban fantasy/action feel, so who knows? But that’s what felt right to me. The romance my agent wanted came easy, too. I was starting to do a happy dance, thinking that I’d finally found the Nirvana of what worked for me. Silly me.

I like to write shorter stuff between novels to decompress. It’s my treat before I start plotting a new book and drawing up character wheels. Babet and Prosper always make me happy, so I thought I’d sit down and pound out a quick, fun novella. But I couldn’t get the damned thing to start right. I couldn’t capture the right feel. I tried to pummel it into submission with plot points, and it just stuck out its tongue at me. I hate it when stories do that. Finally, I threw up my hands in disgust and gave it to my critique partners and said “help!”

They told me it didn’t work, either. But no one knew what to do with it. Disgusted, I tossed it in the pile of “I’ll get to it someday” crap I have on my desk. (Don’t ask). And guess what? Just when I was ready to cast Babet and Prosper into the no-man’s land of pain-in-the-ass stories, they spoke to me. They told me I started in the wrong place. I started with the story’s set-up and big problem, and I should have focused on them–because that’s what I like about Babet and Prosper–the characters and their relationships. So I listened to them, rewrote it, and now, I’m happy with it.

The Muse can be evil, but she’s still my best writing friend. Hope she’s nice to you in December!

Blood Lust should be online this week.

Writing: why plotting is good for me

I’ve touched on this before.  I’m a plotter.  Not everyone is, and that’s fine.  One of my writer friends tells me that if she knows what’s going to happen in a scene, she doesn’t write it.  The surprise element is gone, and it’s too boring to bother with.  But the opposite holds true for me.  If I write by the seat of my pants (like my pantser friends), I’m always struggling to come up with new scenes and new ideas and trying to sequence them together.  I feel like I’m blindfolded and “feeling” my way from one scene to the next in my story.

When I started work on my third Fallen Angels novel, I sat down to scribble out the main idea for the story.   After that, an opening scene came to me.  Since this is a sequel, I knew the main characters, but I made character wheels for the new characters who’d be in this book.  I played with and discarded several turning points for the main plot before I settled on two major ones, and I knew the ending.  Sometimes, that’s all I’ve got when I start a book–the inciting incident, set up, two turning points, and the ending.  But when I put my fingers on the computer keys to write these basics for Enoch and Voronika, plot points just kept coming to me.

My writing muse smiled on me.  Thank you, Muse!  When I got done, I had twenty-seven plot points for the novel.  I’d write one, and the next one would pop into my mind.  The what if’s led from one scene to the next.  Awesome, because in my ideal world, I like to have one plot point for each ten pages of manuscript.  Just an average.  Some scenes or chapters are short and some are long, and sometimes I sneak two scenes into one chapter.  And usually, when I write, new scenes spring from things my characters do that I could never think of in advance.

This is NOT my typical brainstorming session, but I’ve learned that no two books are ever alike.  I fight with some books, trying to bring them to life, and others are like a gift that makes plotting them easy.  This one was a gift.

I was so happy, I told one of my writer friends about it, and she shrugged.  “That would ruin the book for me,” she said.  But one thing I’ve learned about my own writing style is that if I have a sense of direction, my characters actually surprise me more.  I look at my notes and know what needs to happen in a scene, and I think I know how I’m going to accomplish that, but then my characters whisper, “But what if I did this instead?”  And if it doesn’t change the direction of the story, and it’s better than what I came up with, I let my characters have their way.  And almost always, their way has more conflict and more interest.

For me, if I don’t have to think about the basics of writing, then I can concentrate on adding more drama and depth.  Having plot points frees my imagination to explore how to get the maximum punch from each scene.  And you’d think, with twenty-seven plot points, I wouldn’t hit snags or worry about soggy  middles.  But I’ve never found that to be true.  Somehow, somewhere, all the plot points and subplots tie themselves into knots, and what looked so neat and tidy on paper clusters into a giant mess that my mind tries to hide from.  My pacing bogs down into a morass of confusion, but I know that if I follow my guideposts, I’ll eventually slog in the right direction and hit solid ground.

Each writer has to find what works for him or her.  But I’m a champion for plot points.  I’d rather travel with a map than follow the sun and stars and hope I’m going in the right direction.

(Just want to let you know that I won’t write a blog next Sunday.  My friends are coming to my house for an Oscar Party.  I’ll be cleaning and cooking and having fun.  But I’ll be back the Sunday after that.  And if anyone has any topic they’d like me to write about, leave me a comment, and I’ll give it a shot.)




Writing: never the same

I’ve been writing a long time, and I’ve tried a lot of different methods in search of the “perfect” combination.  I’ve plotted mysteries using a calendar to keep track of the pacing of the book.  I’ve used different colored markers for different characters to see if I was getting the balance right.  I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing my antagonist so that I had a worthy adversary for my protagonist.  And each method had its good points and its bad.

Now, I keep it simple.  Before I write, I know the inciting incident, the set-up, two plot twists, and the story’s end.  I know what I want to happen, when. The rest, I leave to my characters.  Most of the time, that’s enough.  But I finished an Ally/Dante novella at the end of November, and I fought that story every inch of the way.  Nothing in that story cooperated.  When I finally got it done, I felt like I’d survived a wrestling match, and I had the bruises to prove it.

I worried when I started a new, longer Babet/Prosper novella, thinking maybe the planets and Muses weren’t aligned for inspiration.  I wanted to get it mostly finished before the boys were out of school for Christmas break, but this time, the words flew.  Just like before, I had enough plot points, but they were stretched between more pages.  No problem.  This time, ideas popped up as I went.  One scene inspired the next.

Today, the boys went out with friends, so I started plotting a new novel I want to start in January, and I couldn’t type fast enough.  True, I’d let that novel “stew” for over a month while I wrote the novellas.  I’d written notes and jotted down ideas for scenes, so the book was waiting to burst out and get the attention it thought it deserved.  But I’d thought about the Ally/Dante story before I started it, too.   So what made the difference?  The sorry truth is, books are sort of like kids.  You can love them and guide them, but each one is different.

I went to a mystery writers’ conference once and Mary Higgins Clark was the featured speaker.  I’ll never forget it.  Someone in the audience asked her, “When did writing get easy for you?”  And she said, “If you really care about your writing, it never does.”  And she went on to explain that she didn’t think she’d even be able to finish the novel she was working on at that time, she was having so many problems with it, until her daughter brainstormed with her, and she finally saw how to get from Point A to Point B.  That was an eye opening moment for me.  I’d always thought that someday, I’d master each and every ingredient of writing, and I’d know how to make each story its best.  But that just isn’t so.

Stories that look like they’ll be simple to write, aren’t.  Stories I fuss over, flow.  And it doesn’t matter if I write outlines or wing it more than usual.  No two stories ever work the same.  I was on a panel with Shirley Jump once, and she said that she’d tried to “always make things worse” for her protagonist and had written herself into a corner where she had no idea how to fix things for a happy ending.  So, she put on her running shoes and trusted her brain to figure it out.  Which it did.  And that’s the thing.  Writing pushes us to grow, to strive to make scenes and characters come to life.  And it keeps us humble:)

P.S.  I played with my website a little, hopefully made it better.  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

Writing–where do you get your ideas?

My good news is that my Death & Loralei novellas bundle went online last week, and I think it’s beautiful to behold.  The cover shows all FOUR covers for the four novellas inside the collection.  I’m biased, because I searched through lots of images before I found ones that felt right.  And then Michael took them and made them wonderful.  Thanks, Michael!

The bad news?  I finished drafts for three more novellas to post off and on for the rest of the year while I work on a novel.  I have them “in waiting.”  And since they’re written, that gave me an excuse to do another massive cover search, scrolling through hundreds of images, to find ones that spoke to me.  I’m beginning to worry that I’m an image junkie.  And the thing is, I don’t just save the ones that might work for the stories I have ready.  I find ones that inspire other ideas for other stories, so I save those, too, with notes for what I might do with them.  More ideas for stories than I’ll probably ever be able to write.

One of my friends gets ideas for stories when she reads news articles.  She writes mysteries, so when she reads about a unique crime, she cuts out the article and then plays with the idea.  What if someone else committed the murder for a different reason?  What would motivate him to stab Mr. X fifteen times?  What was the backstory that led to the fury?  And when she’s done, the crime is the same, but the story’s completely unique.   A friend of mine who writes romance asks herself what could make a really wonderful girl and an absolutely terrific guy meet, have instant chemistry, and then do everything in their power to run away from each other?  What traits would pull them together AND push them apart?

I get inspired by lots of things.  I might want a small character I used in one novella to have a bigger role in the next one.  So I ask myself, what is there about this character that could bring her grief?  It’s almost always in her backstory–which the reader might only get glimpses of, it’s only important to me–and then I do what I can to make her life miserable until she resolves her conflicts (inner and outer).   BUT the other thing that inspires me is an awesome image.

I found– cover_mockup_17 — this image when I was searching through ideas for covers one day.  And the mood of the image made me think of all sorts of story ideas.  The moon and girl suggested a witch story.  But the girl’s not on a broomstick, so what if people just THOUGHT she was a witch?  And for some reason, the colors and shadows made me think bittersweet, a tragedy of some sort.  There’s a tree.  People used to hang witches, didn’t they?  The birds made me think of Death’s ravens, that travel with him.  So I decided to make it a Death & Loralei novella.  My imagination took off from there.

Inspiration comes from all sorts of tidbits and places.  One of my friends uses music to inspire her.  Another reads a novel that she loves and asks herself What could I do with the book’s big question that would be completely different?  How could I take that character flaw and go in a totally different direction?  Another friend loves research and Regencies, so asked herself what kind of Regency romance she’d like to read, and then wrote it.  A newspaper article, a stray conversation–ideas for stories are everywhere.   May you find your inspiration, and may the Muse fill in the rest…with lots of elbow grease from you.


Messy Muses

I consider birds muses.  Not the best muses a writer could hope for, but in my case, all I’ve got.

I love birds.  I fill feeders with safflower seeds, black oilers, and mixed seeds to attract nuthatches, chickadees, tufted titmice, and cardinals.  I hang suet for the downy and hairy woodpeckers and toss peanuts out my kitchen door for the squirrels, blue jays, and red belly woodpeckers.  If I don’t, the blue jays sit in the crabapple tree and screech until I feed them.  I like that about jays.  They know what they want and pretty much demand it.

I throw out bread crumbs for the sparrows, grackles, and starlings.  They can be a nuisance, reproducing faster than rabbits, but I still worry when the hawks come.  And three different kinds of hawks visit our house.  My doves aren’t particularly fast.  The other birds take off, but the doves look around to see if they should be worried.  By then, it’s usually too late.  All that’s left is a flurry of feathers.

I get excited when I see a Carolina wren or a flock of cedar waxwings.  I sigh when I see goldfinches, but I’m not a true birdwatcher.  I don’t have a list like my friend, Neil, who travels to different state parks all over the country to find a bird he hasn’t seen before.  I just enjoy watching whatever comes to my feeders.  In the winter, once it’s dark, flying squirrels come to the shelf we nailed on our tree.  Our regular visitors are fox squirrels and raccoons, but lately, we’ve had black squirrels, too.

When I’m burrowed in my office, hunched over my keyboard, and my brain freezes, I wander into the kitchen for my umpteenth cup of coffee and look out the windows to see what birds are at the feeders.  I stall, watching them for a while, before inspiration strikes (or doesn’t), and I have to hit the keys again.   My steady companions, though, who are noisy and messy, the birds who share my writing room, are my grandson’s two parakeets, Ares and Abigail.

I had a parakeet when I was growing up.  I named him Hermes after the Greek god because he was clever and naughty.  I’ve been told that if you own one bird, it bonds with you.  If you own two, they bond with each other.  Nate’s parakeets get rowdy when they’re out of food, but other than demanding that I feed and water them, they want nothing to do with me.  They do like being spritzed with warm water, like a shower, and make happy noises, but once they have what they want, they’d rather I left them alone.  Just like the birds outside.  All I get to do is feed and watch them.

Occasionally, the parakeets annoy me.  I’ve threatened to ban them from my office, but the truth is, I’d miss them.  Some people play music while they write.  It puts them in the right mood for the scene they’re working on.  I listen to bird chirps.  I get feathers thrown around my room when the birds have a tussle.  But I like their noise, their company.  When my cat, Pywackett, was alive, he’d drape himself across my writing desk and stare at me with yellow eyes while I worked.  If I ignored him too long, he’d jump onto my keyboard and fill my computer screen with strange signs and symbols.  When he died, my daughter got dogs.  They’re not the same.  They might be loving and loyal, but they don’t have the patience to make great muses.  They bring toys for me to throw.  They bark at the mailman.  The birds hang on the side of their cage and chirp to me.  They don’t run off when a car door slams.

I think a cat is better, but the birds–by default–have taken Pywackett’s place.  They distract me enough to let my mind wander when I’m inbetween thoughts, searching for the right word or words, the right transition or hook.  But they’re constant enough to be a steady presence.  A muse is a fickle thing.  It inspires, and then you’re on your own.  It’s your job to make the thought come to life.  The birds work well enough at that.  They bob their heads and I glance over, then it’s back to prose and plot.  Symbiosis at a very primitive level.