What Kind of Reader Are You?

First of all, I want to mention that I’m putting my novel EMPTY ALTARS on Amazon for free from Aug. 14-18. I’m hoping a promotion will bring more readers to the second novel in the series, SPINNERS OF MISFORTUNE. But I know the risk of making a first novel free. The last time I tried it, lots of people downloaded my book, but only a few wrote reviews for it and only a few bought the second book. They did what I do. They thought, “Hmmm, that sounds interesting. I might read it someday.” So they downloaded it and forgot about it. Like I often do.

I’m not a fast reader. I’m not a fast anything. I’m more like the tortoise. Slow and steady win the day. If I write ten pages a day, five days a week, eventually I have a first draft. Same goes for reading. If I read for an hour every night, eventually, I’ll finish a book. But believe me, it takes me a while. I think I’m even slower at reading than I used to be, because in the back of my mind, I’m analyzing the structure of the novel, where the plot points fall, and how the characters develop. It’s a bother! But it is what it is, and I’ve gotten used to it. The only books I don’t analyze are books that have great ideas, but poor writing. Nothing to learn from them.

Anyway, when I thought about how I read, I realized I’d be a horrible fan for most writers. I can’t read more than two books by the same author in the same series in a row, or I get way too critical of the third one. Most of my friends, when they find a new author they like, go out and read every single novel that writer has available. If you ever read one of my novels or novellas and like it, please be like my friends…and not me.

Just because I like one series an author writes doesn’t mean I’ll even try the next one. I’m a huge fan of the Mercy Thompson series, by Patricia Briggs. And I often buy anthologies that feature one of her novellas. I’ve bought some of her older series and loved them. But am I that devoted to her Alpha and Omega series? Sadly, I haven’t really given them a fair chance. And I’m probably missing out. But sometimes I like the characters and settings, the premise of one series more than another, even though I dearly love the author’s voice.

Sometimes, I just want something different. Readers seem to be enamored of series, but one of the reasons I like Sarah Addison Allen is because she writes stand-alone novels. Each book has a different set of characters and a different twist on her own special magic, but they each share the same voice. Her voice. Which I love. So, in this instance, I read her because of her writing style, which combines whimsical and magical and lyrical in some concoction that equates to happiness…at least, for me.

I tend to tire of the same genre if I read one novel after another in it. Every once in a while, I need to switch it up and read outside my usual type of fiction. That’s when I reach for a mystery or a romance or even nonfiction that interests me.

So, who do you read? Why do you like them? Where do you find them? And how do you choose new writers to try? Because those are all questions that we, as writers, need to think about. How do we bring readers to our stories? What works and what doesn’t?

And, if you do look for Empty Altars or Spinners of Misfortune, I hope you enjoy them!


Writing: Do opposites attract?

Last Wednesday, at writers’ club, three readers volunteered to share pages with us who have entirely different styles. Connie read first–a short, horror story. She has a sly, dark humor that permeates her writing. Every time she reads, I grow envious. Her wordplay reminds me a bit of my friend’s, Carl Grody–whose witty humor colors everything he writes. He can dazzle with similes and metaphors. (His book is on amazon). Me? Not so much, so when I read someone who’s mastered those styles, I notice.

Fazal read next. He has a subtle, literary style that captures characterization with quiet nuances. Again, not my strong point. Les Bock was our last reader. He writes thrillers. His books teem with insider information, a strong masculine view, and not so nice characters. (He’s on amazon, too). I looked around the table at my fellow writers. Paula, (who writes wonderful novels and has yet to share one of them with the world) has so many depths of layers to her stories, I turn green with envy. Mary Lou Rigdon and Kathy Palm can weave descriptions and details into their prose, as though braiding colorful tapestries. So can Sia Marion (who’s new and still pounding out her manuscript). Karen Lenfestey can milk angst from a rock. We call her the Queen of Conflict. And I enjoy listening to all of them, because they do what I don’t.

The things I admire about their writing are the things I’m not known for. I tend to write clean and concise. Sia told me that’s what she loves about my writing. And that’s when it hit me. We can all see the strengths in the OTHER person’s voice and style, and we can all see the warts in our own. I’ve started to think of it like houses. If a person knocks on my door, unannounced, I know each thing, in each room, that could be dusted or cleaned, but my visitors don’t seem to notice. When I knock on their doors, they apologize for messes I don’t see. And even if I did, I don’t care. We can all see our own shortcomings. I swear I’m drawn to peoples’ writing because it isn’t like my own.

When I was a kid, (and yes, this shows how old I am), Connie Stevens starred on a TV show called 77 Sunset Strip. She was short and curvy with blond hair and blue eyes–all the things I’m not. To me, she was perfection. A perfection I could never achieve. It took me a while to realize that I’m drawn to the things I’m not. But it doesn’t matter. Because all you can be, in life and in writing, is you. So be your best and go with it!

My webpage: http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/
Mary Lou Rigdon’s webpage: http://www.MLRigdon.com
Karen Lenfestey’s webpage: http://www.karensnovels.com.
Kathy Palm’s blog: http://findingfaeries.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/there-is-no-lif/
Sia Marion’s blog: http://findingfaeries.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/there-is-no-lif/
Les Bock’s book: http://www.amazon.com/French-Liaison-Bock-ebook/dp/B005FTQFGE/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404078488&sr=1-1&keywords=Les+Bock
Carl Grody’s book: http://www.amazon.com/Since-Before-You-Were-Born-ebook/dp/B00EHT3B5G/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404078540&sr=1-1&keywords=Carl+Grody

Writing: you cross lots of finish lines to reach the Derby

My husband and I just finished watching the Kentucky Derby, and when it was finished, he said, “It’s sort of like writing, isn’t it?” “How?” I asked. “It takes picking the right horse, tons of training, and crossing lots of finish lines to be a contender.”

After I thought about, he’s right. A writer has to find a niche for himself–whether it’s writing fantasy, romance, mystery, or literary–and then he has to find a way to be unique from the other writers in that niche. I write urban fantasy, and that means readers expect certain elements when they pick up my books, but each writer puts a unique twist on those elements to make the genre their own. Ilona Andrews is different than Patricia Briggs, who’s different from Jennifer Estep, who’s different from Faith Hunter. And once a writer has found how to follow the rules of the genre in his own way, he’s found a niche. It’s the horse he’s going to ride to the finish line, if he’s lucky. Of course, sometimes the niche becomes glutted or half-dead, and then a writer has to find a new horse or decide to hope for the best and stick it out.

The only way to be a good writer is to write. A person has to master the craft of writing–plotting and pacing, varying sentence structure and writing dialogue, grammar and spelling, etc–as well as finding his own voice and style. That’s where the training comes in. And it’s not just the actual act of writing he needs to learn. There’s a fine line between listening to criticism to make his writing better and listening to criticism to the point that he tries to please everyone and loses his own voice. I’ve met writers who won’t listen to anyone and they never fix their mistakes. I’ve also met writers who listen to everyone and end up with a homogenized nothing. Too far one way or the other does a writer no favors.

The last part of horse racing is crossing the finishing line. But to reach the Kentucky Derby, most horses have raced in lots of others races to hone their skills. Writers, hoping to have a career, have to cross lots of finish lines, too. First, they have to decide on their niche. Then they have to find a way for their story/book to be unique. Then they have to FINISH their story–
and that’s an accomplishment, in itself, but it’s only one finish line. Next, they have to DO something with their books. They can try for an agent, an editor, or self-publish. Whichever way they go, once they accomplish that, they’ve crossed one more finish line–a substantial one, but there are more races to go.

Even published writers have to market themselves anymore. Most authors write blogs or have webpages. A lot of them tweet and have Facebook pages. They advertise and promote. They work to “brand” themselves, so that when a reader hears their name, they think of a product. These days, marketing is a finish line almost every author needs to cross.

Not every horse reaches the Kentucky Derby. Only one horse wins it. The same is true for writers. Some of us are still working to win small races. A few have won more races and sold enough books to have earned a name and a career. Fewer still hit the jackpot. But a writer can’t win if he doesn’t race. The odds are against winning the Derby, but there are smaller victories along the way.

My big dream? Someday, I want to go to the Romantic Times convention, not as a fan, but as an author who might have fans stand in line for me to sign my books. But I have a few more finish lines to cross before that ever happens. So I’m going to keep busy until it’s off to the races! You should, too.

P.S. I put a new post on my webpage for May. http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

The 10 Commandments of Writing

A friend of mine–a while ago–asked me for writing advice.  She’d fiddled with writing, but had never done anything serious.  She wasn’t quite in the mood for full writer throttle, so I wanted to do something fun for her.  This is what I came up with–and we all know it’s scratching the surface.

I.  Thou shalt not start “At the Beginning.”  Okay, a little play on words, but it’s true.  A novel starts with a hook.  Not with back story.  Back story is for flashbacks, here and there, later in the plot.  The hook is what pulls readers into the story–the event that plunges the character into the event that turns his life upside down, topsy turvy.  It introduces the book’s big question and why the protagonist has to take it on.  If he doesn’t, he’ll never restore order to his life.  If he does, he’ll be a changed person.  His choice.  And usually, he avoids dealing with it as long as he can—or until the first fourth of the book is written.  The hook pulls the reader in and the first fourth of the book provides the set-up for the story.  (Les Edgerton has a great book on the topic:  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/index.html)

II.  Thou shalt plot Thy book with no holes or soggy middles.  Okay, this admittedly, takes some skill and balance.  You don’t want your plot to move too fast or too slow.  It’s all about conflict.  Plot is the result of cause and effect.  The protagonist wants this…. needs that….and decides this idea will solve his problem….   Except it doesn’t.  No, whatever he tries, makes it worse.   For a novel, I’ve never been able to come up with enough to fill the vast, yawning middle of a book without subplots.  Every plot is character driven.  So are subplots.  If you come up with strong, main characters whose goals/problems mirror the protagonist’s, you can weave in and out of the different scenes like a juggler who keeps all of his balls in the air.  Victory Crayne says, “Conflict is ‘The mental or moral struggle caused by incompatible desires and aims.’  It is the unsolved problems that form the chain of promises that keeps the reader interested.’–Ben Bova.  Les Edgerton, by the way, has a great blog post on plotting, too:  http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/12/normal-0-false-false-false-en-us-x-none.html    And:  http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2010/04/outlining.html.  Actually, his entire blog is worth reading.

III.  Thy pacing shall keep readers turning the pages.  Every scene in every novel has to have tension and purpose.  If a scene doesn’t advance the story in some way, it shouldn’t be there.  Something has to be at stake in EVERY scene.  And repetition–of any kind–KILLS tension.

IV.  Thy writing shall have emotional impact.  If the protagonist doesn’t react–reel with horror, laugh with joy, worry and pace with frustration–neither will the reader.  The reader lives these events through the characters.  He wants to EXPERIENCE these events through the characters.  The writer can use internal dialogue or visceral responses to react, but the reader wants to feel what the character feels.  And actions sometimes speak louder than words.  No one wants to read about a protagonist who only reacts.  We want the protagonist to dig into the problem, make plans, suffer when they fail, and pick himself up and try again.  The reader wants a happy ending to be earned, not given to the protagonist.  Or, if the protagonist tries and fails, we want to suffer the pain of defeat along with him.

V.  Thou shalt create interesting, memorable characters.  Readers want their characters to feel real–like living, breathing people.  They want to know what the character wants and why.  What will he do to get it?  He has to have a name that fits his age and personality.  He has to have Goal, Motivation, Conflict.  If different characters have different goals and motivations, that creates conflict.  Every novel needs different type of characters: the protagonist, maybe a mentor, a romantic interest, a friend or reflector, a villain and hopefully an antagonist–different from a villain, but someone who keeps getting in the protagonist’s way, and maybe an opponent, someone who’s competing with the protagonist.  Dialogue, dress, and actions have to be consistent with who the character is.  The characters drive the story.  I’m plot oriented, but no writer can make a character walk through a story and do what he’s supposed to for the plot without making the character a cardboard stick figure who’s not interesting.

VI.  Thou shalt use dialogue to advance the plot, not to fill space.  Dialogue can reveal character, create tension, and foreshadow coming events.  Be careful of tags.  “He said,” “she said,” are fine, but action tags work even better.  Fancy tags are rarely needed–“he proclaimed,” “he insisted.”  Dialogue should fit each character, and it should “feel” real.  It’s not real–not even close–but it can FEEL real if the writer avoids flowery dialogue.  People sometimes use broken sentences.  They usually don’t go on and on.  When they do, that says something about a character.  Les Edgerton has a blog post on dialogue, too, that’s pretty dang good: http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/2013/04/guest-post-at-kristen-lambs-blog-on.html

VII.  Thou shalt choose Thy setting well.  Settings are the backdrops for stories.  Some stories work better in big cities and some work better in small towns or in seclusion.  The setting needs to fit the tone of the story.  If a small town is hiding a serial killer, the town may appear innocent and inviting, but the writer gives clues that evil lurks under its surface.  Settings need to fleshed out.  They’re the foundation that helps hold the story together.   It’s the world the reader’s going to live in from page one to the the last word of the novel.  The reader needs to see the setting, to smell its scents, to know its people.

VIII.  Choose Thy POV carefully.  The character whom the reader follows should be the one who has the most at stake in the scene or story.  First person POV is more immediate.  Everything’s filtered through that character’s eyes and mind.  Third person limited creates more distance, but with internal dialogue can share insights, too, and the writer doesn’t have to try to avoid the word “I.” Multiple POV can create more tension, because the protagonist doesn’t always know what other characters are doing.

IX.  Thy voice and tone shalt suit Thy story.  Voice is a nebulous thing that’s individual to each author.  It reflects our attitudes and our take on the world.  But tone should be individual to each story.  Tone sets the mood.  If the story is humorous, every single word the author chooses should be light or lend itself to funny.  If the story’s dark, every word choice should be forbidding or brooding.   For a scary setting, the author wouldn’t describe a forest with birds chirping and squirrels scampering.  Instead, the trees’ branches should look like gnarled fingers, twisting to ensnare someone or to snag them.  It’s all about word choice.

X.  Thou shalt dedicate Thyself to good, strong writing.  A writer has to master the basics.  Sentence lengths should vary.  Word choice should be specific, not generic.  He should use active verbs, not passive.  Adjectives and adverbs should be used sparingly, opting for strong verbs and nouns instead.  Spelling and grammar should be right.  Wording should be original and unique.

We all know that keeping every commandment is hard.  So is good writing.  And I’ve probably left out a point or two, but this is a start.  The fun’s in the striving.  Enjoy!


Writing: Things to consider

I had a group of writer friends over last Wednesday for a NovelCon.  We each brought pages and spent the day, listening to parts of novels that each writer wanted feedback on.  Brainstorming with  friends always reminds me of things I know make for good writing and forces me to think about them again.

In random order, here are a few of our comments:

1.  Get rid of filter words–He thought.  He saw.  He wondered.  He felt.–Most times, if you hack them off, your sentence is stronger and you have internal dialogue.  You live inside the character’s head instead of being reminded that you’re outside of it.  It makes your writing more immediate.

2.  Get the sequence right.  Write your novel from beginning to end without jumping around.  Start at the inciting incident and use cause and effect to reach the end.  Flashbacks are fine, in moderation, but most novels benefit from “this happened, so that resulted…,” etc.

3.  Don’t play it too safe.  Take risks.  Push your characters closer to the edge.  See how they react, what they decide to do.  Make them more real.

4.  Voice matters.  “Hear” your characters so that, even if you don’t use tag lines, each character will be distinct.  Your characters shouldn’t all “sound” alike.  And let the voice of each story fit its mood, the tone for that world.

5.  First chapters are killers.  If you get one right on the first try, do a happy dance and celebrate, because you got just plain lucky.

6.  POV depends on which character has the most to lose.  Single POV and multiple POV both work.  It depends on what kind of story you want to tell.  Multiple POV can build more tension.  It can show a few different characters all working toward the same ending for different reasons, in different ways.  Together, their storylines build to a crescendo.

7.  Show, don’t tell.  Writers always hear that advice because showing is what brings a story to life, so that a reader lives the story alongside the protagonist.  How do you show instead of tell?  This is an article that might help:  http://www.dailywritingtips.com/show-dont-tell/

8.  Use active instead of passive verbs.  Every writer knows this, but we all slip into passive or weak verbs when our brain’s tired and we don’t have enough energy to be more specific and search for the strongest verb we can use to bring a scene to life.  But strong verbs make for strong scenes.

9.  Use short, punchy sentences for action scenes.  And don’t skimp on these scenes.  Most writers build to battle scenes (verbal or action), and readers feel cheated if the “pay-off” scene is rushed.

These are just some of the comments from our NovelCon–things writers have probably heard over and over again.  But one more time never hurts.  Happy writing in February!



Writing: What do you HAVE to get right?

My friends and I were talking about some of our all-time favorite books.  What I found interesting was how much we disagreed.  An author one of us loved, another person might not bother to finish.   And the very thing that elevated a book for one of us was the same thing someone else considered a flaw.  That made me wonder.  What are the essentials for a good book?

At my writers’ club, I used to cringe when a person said, “This isn’t really something I read, so I’m not sure how to critique it.”  The qualifier used to bother me, but not any more.  I’ve learned to take very seriously what type of book a person’s writing.  Because, let’s face it, each genre offers an implicit promise to deliver certain things to its readers.

One of my friends writes Regency historicals and another writes historical romances, and a lot of times when they read at Scribes, they get the comment, “There’s so much description.  Does it really matter if her gloves have buttons on them or if her gown is silk?”  And the answer is yes.  Historicals aren’t just about characters and plot, they’re about a time period.  Readers want to be transported to that part of history with its mannerisms and social nuances.  Part of why I enjoyed Pamela West’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper was due to the realistic view of how miserable life was for the lower classes during Queen Victoria’s rule.  Caleb Carr achieved the same gritty feeling in The Alienist–showing the beginning of psychology in detective work.   And Barbara Hambly’s Fever Season depicts a New Orleans riddled with diseases during flood seasons and a social stratum that teeters in a delicate balance between whites, slaves, and freed blacks.  I read those books because of great story lines and wonderful characters, along with eloquent writing, but the historical settings added to my reading pleasure.  And yes, details matter.  They whisk me from my living room to a past that, in those books, I’m glad isn’t mine.

Writers–myself included–often bemoan novels being lumped into genres, and heaven help you if you cross one or two.  But the truth is, when a reader picks up a contemporary romance, that’s what he wants.  He wants boy meets girl, obstacles keep them apart, and then boy wins girl.  He wants a happy ending.  My friend Ann writes women’s fiction/romance, and that’s why she chose it.  She wants to feel good when she finishes a book–the one she’s writing or the one she’s reading.

To me, every genre, even literary, comes with certain expectations.  And a writer strives to meet them.  So…what is the essential for a good book?  I think part of it depends on what kind of novel/genre you’re writing.  Every book needs a great story line: a hook, a problem, and a goal to fix it.  It needs characters we care about.  We don’t have to like them, but they have to hold our attention.  A novel needs clarity, so that we don’t stumble and jerk our way through the plot, and it needs a voice that we want to hear.  It needs tension and pacing with no sags that lose our interest.  But I’ve read novels with plot holes that a truck could drive through, characters that I’d like to knock on the side of the head, and pacing that stops and starts in fits, and I still liked the books.  Why?  Each novel delivered what I picked up that book to find.

I’m a Martha Grimes fan, but one of her books–I can’t remember which one–had a roundabout plot that made me too dizzy to even try to follow along.  Usually, in a mystery, that would make me put it on a shelf and move on.  But the characters were so eccentric, the clues so bizarre, I kept turning the pages.  And if it’s true, that the end of a book makes you go out and buy the next one, Grimes did something right, because I did just that.  Still, a mystery has to have something to solve, a few clues to add up, some kind of detective–be it amateur or pro–or I might as well read some other genre.  There are all kinds of mysteries, and each comes with its own special spin.  P.I.s have a certain attitude, a flavor that’s completely different from a cozy.  Thrillers have the “ticking clock,” and women in jeopardy have…well, women pitted against some evil foe.  I have to admit, I can be had by a good woman in jeopardy book as long as the woman doesn’t do contrived, stupid things to up the tension.  When I have to yell, “Don’t go in the basement,” the author’s lost me.

Horror has to scare you or make you squirm.  Fantasy has to whisk you to some new setting with different rules than we have now.  The author has to make that world come alive and establish rules that are consistent with what she’s created.   Dystopian plops us in a future world after a disaster has changed mankind or society or both.

Anyway, reading and writing are subjective.  When I pick up a book, I want to like it.  I think most readers feel the same.  When I love it, I consider it a bonus.  But when I choose a novel, I’m looking for something specific–humor, a puzzle, a scare, or a happy ever after, and I feel gypped if the writer doesn’t deliver.

What stops you when you’re reading  a book or disappoints you?

By the way, if you like serdoms and myths, I have a new novella (short, 40 page read) online now:)







Writing: Settings Can Hook Me On Series

My friend, Paula, and I are buddy-reading Julia Spencer-Fleming’s newest mystery, The Evil Days.   Fleming’s books are as much character driven as plot driven, which we both love.  For me, that’s what distinguishes a literary mystery from a straighforward mystery.  That, and the use of language.  But the other reason we love the series is Millers Kill, the location of the stories–a town in the Adirondack region of upstate New York.

In the best books, settings become integral to the storyline.  If the author picked up her characters and dropped them somewhere else, the whole tone of the story would change.  Sharyn McCrumb wrote mysteries about the Appalachia region with its folklore and traditions.  She took the same coast as Fleming, but painted it with a Southern voice and got an entirely different feel.   Martha Grimes named her novels after English pubs, and Elizabeth George nailed the tone of the English mystery and Scotland Yard.  P.I.s walk the “mean streets” of big cities–like New York, Detroit, or L.A.  When I think about V. I. Warshawski, I think about Chicago.  They’re almost synonymous to me.

Fantasy writers have always had to create a world for their characters to inhabit, and the more real the world–whether it’s dystopian or imaginary–the stronger the series.  In Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels novels, Andrews gives us a world where magic and technology clash with each other.  Sometimes, magic rules and technology goes down.  Other times, technology hums along and magic recedes.  That creates an interesting challenge for her heroine, who uses magic, but knows that sometimes, her energy will surge, and sometimes, she’d be better off with a weapon.  All urban fantasy writers take a world, much like ours, and people it with supernatural characters.  The trick is defining the rules for each supernatural and staying true to those rules.   Some writers only let vampires roam when the sun sets.  Others let them sparkle.  If they can make it believable and consistent, it doesn’t matter.

I’m always happy when a setting becomes almost a character in the stories I write.  It doesn’t always happen, but it did in the Babet/Prosper novellas.  River City is loosely based–and I do mean loosely–on a trip I made to New Orleans.  That city had an essence I haven’t experienced anywhere else.  I wanted to incorporate that feeling in my writing, especially since I wanted to have witches, voodoo, and succubi treading its nooks and crannies.  Faith Hunter cranks New Orleans up even more to give her Jane Yellowrock series its gritty feel.

Emerald Hills came alive for me in a completely different way.  In my mind, it takes place in Nashville, Indiana–with I.U. and Bloomington close by, the Brown County national park a stone’s throw away, and wineries within corking distance.  I could picture the quaint, unique tourist shops, but those can be found many places.  What makes Emerald Hills special is the magic that seeps into the bonbons, shoes, and garden gnomes that are sold.  When I write those novellas, I can almost picture Tinkerbell’s magic dust sprinkled over this shop owner or that.

Some stories are universal.  They can take place anywhere.  The characters and plots are enough to carry them.  But I always love it when a setting sticks in mind–a place so real, I want to return to see what’s happening there.  It’s something to consider when you start your next book.




Writing: Word Choice, Brush Strokes, & Clarity

It was my turn to read at our writers’ group last Wednesday.  Sometimes, I polish and edit to take in something that’s in really good shape.  It’s fun to see everyone nod their heads and tell me I’ve written a good scene.  But sometimes, I take in something that I’ve worked on, but I know isn’t quite right, because Scribes is wonderful about picking out the flaws that I’m too close to see.  Last Wednesday, I took an opening that I’d been fighting with and rewriting until I knew I was close, but I also knew I wasn’t there.  And the truth is, I’d played with it so much, I couldn’t tell if I was making it worse or better.

I wanted to open the novella with a bang–a surprise attack by a friend who apologizes before he tries to kill Ally and Dante.  They don’t know why he’s attacking them, and he can’t tell them.  They don’t want to hurt him, but they don’t know what’s going on.  When I finished reading, three-fourths of my writing buddies didn’t know what was going on either.  Bless Neil, he said, “I was listening and enjoying every bit of it, but when you got done, I realized I didn’t really know exactly what was happening.”  He wasn’t the only one.  Once I listened to their comments, though, I realized that the fixes I needed weren’t big.  I’d been working so hard on big things–creating characters, the dialogue, and action–that I didn’t fine tune the small stuff.  Some of it simply came down to word choice.  And as my friend, Paula, said, “It doesn’t need an overhaul, just brush strokes.”

I can give you an example.  Dante’s friend who attacks them is a werewolf.  When I wanted to show that he was losing control, I said Foam bubbled from his mouth.  “Too nice,” Sia said.  “Use something moodier like Foam slathered from his mouth.”  A “nice” word in a frenetic scene throws off the feel.  Word choice is important.  So is upping the ante, to make each action more vivid.  Instead of having him break his nose when he hits Ally’s shield, “have his skull split,” Sia said.  “It’s more vivid.  This is a roller coaster opening.  Make it feel like one.”

Maybe my best advice?  Paula said, “Each person’s motivation is in your head, but it’s not always on the paper.  Hint at it or put it there.”  All it took was a sentence here, a few words there.   The characters and scene worked.  They just needed tweaked.  And sometimes, I need “outside” opinions to know what to focus on.

So, I hope each one of you has at least two readers you can trust to critique your writing or a writers’ group like mine.  Someone who can tell you if your writing has clarity.  Can a reader follow it, or is it confusing?  Are the characters’ motivations clear for each and every thing they say or do?  What did you do right?  And what can you make better?

And remember that sometimes, it’s the small things that need fine-tuned.

P.S.  My fourth Emerald Hills novella went online last week.  No werewolves in this one.  Only shoes and magic.  http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/


Writing: can you do everything right, and it doesn’t work?

I just finished two books that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.  The first was, in my opinion, flawed…but I can’t wait to go out and buy the next book.  The second book had great writing, a great voice, characters that I liked, depth, surprises, tension…and I probably won’t buy the next book.  And that stopped me short.  The author had done all of the things that I list as essentials for a good book, but I felt as though I’d run a marathon before I finished the last page…and I’d barely survived.

I bugged my poor husband about it.  (He loves it when I get technical about writing–NOT.  But he loves me and tolerates my tirades pretty well).  When I finished all of my theories and questions, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “You either liked it or you didn’t.”  But that’s what I couldn’t understand.  I did like the second book.  It just made me tired.  And being the “read for fun” person that I am, maybe it demanded too much from me.

I have a wonderful writer friend at Scribes (our writers’ group) who constantly reminds the rest of us that we didn’t give her any place to “rest.”  We get so serious about plotting, pacing, and keeping the tension tight that we cram one cataclysm (emotional, physical, or action packed) after another into our stories to keep conflict on each and every page.  Her advice?  The reader needs a place to catch his breath, think things through, and gird his loins for the next drama.  And I think she’s right.

Fluff scenes don’t work.  They don’t move the plot in any way at all.  They feel like filler.  But my favorite writing advice book of all time is Jack Bickham’s Scene and Sequel.  His advice is: action/reaction.  There’s a time for the protagonist’s emotional response to what’s happening, his reaction to what’s worked or failed, and his plan for the next step to accomplish his goals.  Of course, that plan never fully realizes his goal until the end of the book, but it gives the reader a chance to follow his thoughts and feelings.  But…the second book had that, briefly, and I was still exhausted at the end of the book.  Why?

I finally decided that some authors take the advice, “Start with a problem that screws up your protagonist’s life to the point that he has to fix it to be happy.  Give him a plan to make things right, and then don’t let it work and keep making things worse for him until he hits the big, black moment,” a little too seriously.  At least, for me.  The second book got LOTS of great reviews.  TONS of readers loved it.  I’m maybe the only one who read it and raised my hands in victory that I’d made it to the end.  Because I felt too beat up.

I don’t need my protagonist to barely survive before the end of a book.  I don’t need him/her to be beat up, zapped, near death before the last page.  I’m going against conventional advice, but those scenarios feel contrived to me, most of the time, to give the reader a BIG ending.  And I’m not a fan.

I’m still not sure–and believe me, I’ll be churning it around in my little brain for a while–why a nearly perfectly written book, that’s in a genre that I enjoy, didn’t work for me.  I mean, it did.  I’m glad I read it.  But will I buy the next book?  No.  But I think part of it is that I need some light moments in a book.  A place to rest and feel good, to catch my breath, before I get hit by the next big conflict.  Or else, by the time I finish the last page, even if it’s a happy ending, it’s cost me too much psychic energy to want to put myself through that again.

(P.S.  I won’t be posting a blog next week.  Helping my grandson move into his apartment for college.  Oh, the joy:)  Sweat equity for teenagers.  But I’ll get to see him a little longer…and he’s pretty much fun to be with.)


Writers and Stray Cats

My husband (bless him) buried one of my stray cats this morning.  A neighbor called last night and said she saw one on the side of the road.  We scooped him into a trash bag and dug his grave this morning.  He wasn’t really mine.  I tried to woo him with tuna and milk, but he’d eat, and then leave.  Mostly wild, but wonderful. There used to be nine of them.  Now I’m down to five.

I’d like to think Midnight found a home.  He was the most affectionate, loved to zip into the house when the door was open and wanted petted under his chin.  Our chihuahua annoyed him.  Maybe he found a home with no dog.  The kitten with the cutest face left next.  He, too, loved kitchens, so maybe someone served him salmon instead of canned tuna and lured him to be theirs.  Glados, their mother, would glare at me as she begged for food.  I had to admire her prickly independence, but I can’t believe anyone could make her a pet.

It’s odd, but the strays made me think of fellow writers I know.  And maybe myself.  The strays come to me when I call, will wind around my ankles, but bolt if I try to touch them.  They value their independence more than they value a warm room and soft cushion.  Not many writers can claim that they’re putting words on paper to be rich.  They might start out thinking that, but that fantasy evaporates pretty quickly.  But we still write.  When we lose money, we write.  Just like the cats, we’re skittish about success.  We want it, but we want to do things our own way.

Experts give advice on how to use a formula to sell books.  Most writers aren’t interested.  We read books on how to plot, how to pace, even how to market.  We cozy up to the experts, but insist on doing it our way.  We purr about following the rules, but break the ones we decide not to follow.  For good reason.  Each writer needs to be fresh, to bring something unique to the market, and to have an individual voice.  We don’t want to play it too safe.

Just like everything else in writing, balance is the key.  There are rules that define the basics of good writing, but there are exceptions that make each story our own.  And who knows?  Maybe some day, my novels or novellas will find a big audience, and I can stretch out on a velvet sofa, secure in my sells numbers.  But in the meantime, I have to beg for scraps of attention, twittering “read me, read me,” and sauntering through the perils of no publisher, no home.   A stray.