Category Archives: what to write?

Some Things Don’t Work

A while ago, when I had extra time to write between contracts, I decided to self-publish some supernatural mysteries because I enjoy writing them so much.  I knew it was a bit of a risk since urban fantasy is still pretty glutted, but I’d seen some paranormal witch mysteries that were doing well on Amazon and thought it was worth a try.  I had a lot of fun writing them, but I’ve given them a decent shot, and they’re still dead in the water.  I can’t get them off the ground.  So I came to a crossroads.  Do I keep writing them and hope the fifth or sixth one clicks, or do I admit defeat and try something new?

My agent loved the urban fantasies I wrote forever ago but got one rejection after another because no one was buying UF anymore.  I spent a lot of years trying to sell stories that no matter how well done, no one wanted to buy.  And I don’t want to do that again.  So this time, I’m throwing the towel in early.  Right or wrong, I’ve learned the hard way that some things are easier to sell than others.  So I felt sorry for myself, licked my wounded pride for a day, and then sat down and started to work on something different.  I don’t want to write a second cozy series.  I know a lot of writers juggle two or more of them, but I’d have too much trouble trying to keep track of which is which if they were that much alike.  I mean, cozies have some similarities.  If I’m going to do a second series, it has to be different enough from Jazzi to help me find balance between the two.

I’m sharing this, not to garner sympathy, but because when I like writing something, that’s what I want to write.  I don’t want to change or go in a different direction.  But I’ve found that I need to.  When my agent asked me to try to write a romance, I didn’t want to.  I’d never considered it.  Ever.  The plot points felt weird to me–hurt feelings and misunderstandings instead of attacks and battles.  The thing is, I learned a lot by writing the Mill Pond series.  I had to concentrate on character more than plot, and my tacklebox of writing tools grew richer for it.  I took some of those tools with me when my editor asked if I’d like to try my hand at a mystery.

This might sound crazy to you, but if you’re writing really well but your work won’t sell, maybe you should try something outside your comfort zone.  There’s so much to writing that we can’t control.  If editors decide a market is tight or dead, soon it will be, because they won’t buy anything in that genre.  If the market really is glutted, it’s even hard to find readers if you self-publish.  There are just too many things for them to choose from.  Markets come and go.  Literary fiction, I’m told, is a hard sell right now.  Sometimes, selling comes down to a current preference.  It’s harder to sell writing in present tense  now because there’s a bias against it.  Some editors prefer third person, single POV, over first person.  Some of that depends on what genre you write in, but I’ve read reviews where readers prefer third over first.  That doesn’t mean what you write won’t sell, but it means it will be harder.

For now, I’m going to try something new.  A straight mystery instead of a supernatural.  And I’m writing it in first person.  Then I’ll see what happens.  But it doesn’t hurt to flex your writing muscles and experiment a little.  You can start with something short and go from there.  Maybe try a one-hour read.  Play with a new genre, a different style.  But it’s hard to put your best into something, over and over again, know that it’s good (and I’m not just talking ego or confidence here, but comments from critique partners and editors or agents), and keep getting rejections.  When that happens, it might not have anything to do with how well you write, but a lot to do with what you write.  But let’s face it.  In writing, there’s no one right answer, and what works for one person doesn’t work for someone else.  But I’m ready to try to tilt the odds in my favor instead of against me.  So wish me luck.  And good luck to you and whatever you’re working on and Happy Writing!

 

A nice compliment

I had Scribes last Wednesday.  One of our members brought in a newspaper article about Louisa May Alcott with a few lines highlighted to share.  I never realized how hard Alcott had to work to make ends meet.  “She taught school, went out in service, sewed, and most of all, wrote.  She read all the magazines, figured out their style, and gave them what they wanted.  She wrote thrillers and mysteries, sentimental romances, modern fairy tales, and Gothic horror.”  (from Sarah Young’s column).  And then Rachel smiled and asked the group, “Does this remind you of anyone?”

I’ve never sewn, but yes, I’ve written a lot of different kinds of fiction over time.  And I appreciated Rachel’s compliment.  I’ve written a short Christmas science fiction story for a newspaper tabloid, and they bought it, but accidentally published it under another author’s name.  I’ve had short horror fiction in two anthologies.  I’ve sold dark fantasy, urban fantasy, and short mysteries.  And romances.  I like playing with genres, but I’m glad to be working on a mystery again.

Since it’s been a while since I’ve written one, my hubby and I went to the bookstore to see what kinds of mysteries are out there.  I read my old favorites, but they aren’t very helpful for research.  They already have built-in audiences.  They can break the rules and still sell books.  I haven’t kept up with new writers in the field.  I wanted to see who’s selling today and what they do.  I asked my editor what mysteries he likes, and he sent me a stack of Kensington authors, most of whom he works with.   They were all “niche” mysteries. Every book had a protagonist with a specialty of some kind–one runs a bakery and includes recipes in her books, one writes “clambake” mysteries and includes New England type recipes, another entered poodles in dog shows and gave details about that, and yet another runs an organic farm and spa.

At the bookstore, to my surprise, I found the rows of mysteries all clumped under the “mystery” title, but the first half of the shelves were filled with “niche” mysteries in alphabetical order, and the second half was filled with “serious” mysteries.  The books were kept separate from one another.  I’m assuming that means that readers who buy the niche, cozy-style mysteries rarely buy the heavier ones, and vice versa.

I’m writing the niche style.  That’s what my editor likes.  And yes, like Louisa May Alcott, I’m going to try to give him what he wants.  That also means that my agent won’t have much luck if she ever tries to sell me to a bigger publisher.  They want books with higher stakes, bigger themes, more drama–page turners.  I’m okay with that.  I like the idea I thought of for mysteries, and I’m having fun writing it.

In the meantime, Kensington sent me an AWESOME book cover for my sixth romance, due out in November.  Thought I’d share, and whatever you’re working on, happy writing!

SpecialDelivery

 

Making it personal

Experts tell you to write what you know.  That always confused me.  I started out writing mystery short stories and I didn’t know much about crime.  I went to conferences and listened to panels on poisoning, fingerprints, DNA, and serial killer profiles, etc., because I wanted to get the basics right.  And I’d read lots of mysteries to know the rhythm and format.  But I finally decided that “write what you know” meant write what you emotionally know.  I’ve never killed a person, but I’ve sure been mad as hell, felt betrayed,  or wished a person out of my life–forever.  The thing is, what we live, what we feel, is what makes our writing real.

In my third romance, the protagonist’s dad dies soon after he retires from the army.  My dad didn’t get to live long enough to retire.  After a long bout with multiple myeloma–where his blood became so thick, he was hooked up to a machine that took blood out of his left arm, used centrifugal force to “clean it,” and returned it to his right arm–he finally lost the battle.  His blood got thicker faster and faster until his heart had to work too hard to pump it.  I didn’t want to do that to the characters in my book, so Paula’s dad got a quick, unexpected death, but I know that feeling of loss and the aftermath.  Paula tries to help her mom through her grief.  That, I know, too.  So do my sisters.  Paula, herself, has lost her military husband overseas, and she has two kids to raise.  My daughter’s a single mom, and even though we helped her, I know it’s no piece of cake to raise kids without a husband.

In my fifth romance (and it’s far, far in the future before it’s released), Joel–the love interest–is raising his daughter by himself, because his wife isn’t emotionally strong enough to deal with their daughter, who has cerebral palsy and will never be mentally older than twelve.  She’ll never grow up and move away.  She’ll always live with him.  Which Joel is fine with, because, lord, what a beautiful human being she is!  But she’ll always be a child–the good and the bad of that.  My cousin has cerebral palsy, and is maybe mentally eight or nine, and I remember my grandmother and my cousin’s mother worrying about what would happen to her after they died.  My sister, bless her, took her in, but I’ve met more people with those worries.  When a child won’t grow up, will never be able to make it on her own, what happens to her when you die?

In the romance I’m working on now, Karli goes to Mill Pond to deal with her grandfather, who’s mean and uncooperative, but is reaching the point where it’s not safe for him to stay in his own home without help.  I’ve been there/done that.  My John’s mom was unstable when she didn’t take her meds, and after John’s dad died, sometimes she took them, sometimes she didn’t.  Even though we checked on her every day and brought her to our house for suppers, it didn’t work. Our two small daughters got on her nerves.  She’d wake up at two a.m. and call us.  Her doctor finally told us, “Find a place for her, or she’ll be in the hospital.”  The doctor told Harriet, too, thank goodness, and then Harriet pushed for me to find a good nursing home for her.  Those decisions are almost always messy.  They’re messy for Karli in book six, too.

You don’t have to battle witches or vampires to find the right emotions for good to battle evil.  Most of us have battled something in our lives.  We know how it feels.  A writer’s life experiences and the emotions they invoke add depth to our stories.  So use what you’ve got.  Write what you know!

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Writing: Why don’t you try . . .?

When I first started writing, I only wrote short stories, and most of them were a bit bizarre.  They didn’t quite fit any genre, so the majority of them ended up in a file cabinet in our basement.  They’re still there.  I don’t want to read them.  I don’t want to know how bad I was when I thought I was pretty good:)  I sold enough of them to small chapbooks, though, that I tried magazines and anthologies and sold to them until someone at my writers’ group finally asked, “Why don’t you try a book?”

So I did.  I was drawn to mysteries with  sturdy plot lines built into them.  I had a structure to follow,  but books are LONG.  My first attempt fizzled at 20,000 words, but Penny Paper Novels in Baltimore was buying “short novels” to print in newspaper form and sell at airports  as quick reads.  The editor bought GOURMET KILLINGS and then STING OF DEATH, at 25,000 words.  I finally learned how to do plot lines and character wheels and finished a 60,000 word mystery.

“Why don’t you try selling it?” a fellow writer asked.  So I sent to editors at every publishing house who’d take unsolicited manuscripts (they almost all did back then), and I got wonderful rejections–even though no one was buying cozies back then.  That’s what I knew how to write, though, so I wrote more until I sent one to Anna Genoese, who was at Tor at the time, and she said, “I’d love to see an urban fantasy from you.  Why don’t you try one?”

So I did.  And I sent her one she liked and wanted to buy, but someone had recently sold Tor a novel too similar to mine, so she had to pass.  And then she left Tor, but I’d been working on a paranormal mystery for her and had no idea what to do with it.  I sent it to an agent, and she liked it enough to make me a client.  I’d fiddled for so long, though, the urban fantasy market was crowded, so Lauren said, “Why don’t you try a romance?”

So I did.  And Kensington liked COOKING UP TROUBLE.  And I learned that I like writing romance.  I’m not suggesting that anyone else follow my route of trial and error, but I am suggesting that stepping outside of your comfort zone isn’t the worst thing that can happen.  I learned every time I tried something new.  I learned from writing short and concise.  I learned from writing long.  I learned every time I tried a new genre.  Whatever and however your writing journey goes, I hope you enjoy the trail.

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Writing: giving myself permission to fail

The Old Poop (my nickname for my adorable hubby) and I are driving to Bloomington tomorrow to pick up our grandson. He moved to a new apartment with his friends for their senior year at IU. He drove a U-Haul of furniture down there on Friday, and we’re bringing him back to his car in our driveway. He’ll eat a fast supper here and then hit the road for Detroit and his summer internship. It’s going to be a full day for everyone, so I thought I’d better get my blog up while I still had energy:) That’s the way summers are, though, right? You write around life, day trips, friends and family, and yard work.

It’s been a bit of a challenge to put up a new part of Ophelia’s story every Friday for five weeks, and I’m not sure that was my most brilliant idea, but it’s been worth it. I’ve had so much fun with this writing experiment that I want to try it again–with different goals–sometime soon. Anyway, Part 4 is on my webpage now. For this challenge, I wanted to write a story in five parts where the protagonist made a bad choice at the end of each section except the last. The thing is, I like smart protagonists, so I needed a reason WHY she’d make poor decisions, time and time again, without making her stupid or fickle. That took me a minute, but I’m happy with how the story played out. I wanted her to be fighting grief, but I didn’t want her to be pathetic. I’m not too into weak characters either. Not that grief is weak, but I didn’t want someone who just folded up and quit. Sometime, somehow, my protagonist had to pick up the pieces and move on. That takes time passing, and it’s hard. It took me a minute to get used to writing in first person, present tense, too. But I’m glad I did. I learned that I like writing in first person. It’s so in the character’s head that it pushed me to really “hear” Ophelia.

Just curious. Do any of you prefer first person stories? Third? Why?

At the same time I was playing with my story, I bought Chuck Wendig’s book, The Kick-Ass Writer, and I’m reading that, too. His blog’s just as awesome, and you can find it here: http://terribleminds.com/ramble/blog/ A couple of times a year, I get the urge to up my game as a writer. I read a “how to” book that I haven’t tried before. And I stretch my muscles by trying something I haven’t done before. Okay, I don’t experiment with LONG fiction. That’s too much of an investment. I test out new techniques on short stories or short-shorts. That way, if I miserably fail, (and that’s happened), I haven’t invested tons of time. The trick for me, though, is to give myself permission to fail. If I try to write a short story with an unreliable narrator, and I can’t make it gel, I can stick it in a digital cloud and come back to it some other time, when I might think of a way to make it work. If I want to try an unlikeable protagonist, same thing. I did try writing a character who built a wall around herself and came off as cold in one of my novels–and that got mixed reviews. Something I can try to do better some other time. But in a short story, if I want to experiment with language, why not? I might lose a few days of work, but usually I’ve learned something.

When I was younger, I tried writing horror. I can do dark fantasy, but I couldn’t get dark enough for horror. Now that I’m older, and life’s batted me around a bit, I might give it another try in a short story, but it would still be a stretch for me. I was a school teacher. I can hardly stand the thought that someone can’t be fixed, helped, or saved. I wrote mysteries when I started out, and justice always prevailed:) Not so much in horror. Bad things happen to good people. Ich.

Anyway, once in a while I like to push myself in my writing. What do you do to keep your writing fresh? Or are you so buried in stories, you don’t have to think about it? Or do you strive for consistency? Because let’s face it, when a reader picks up one of your stories, he/she comes with certain expectations and doesn’t want to be disappointed.

P.S. Here’s the link for Part 4 of Ophelia’s story, if you’re interested–http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/ophelias-story–part-4.html

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Writing: A Crap Shoot

One of my good writing friends, Kathy Palm, wrote a wonderful blog post recently. She signed up to judge pitches and the first 300 words of manuscripts. She’s a slushie. And she makes the point that writing is subjective. I’ve judged writing competitions before, and I can tell you, you learn a LOT from doing that. What, for you, makes a story good? What doesn’t work? Because sometimes, most times, if the writing’s clean and good, it comes down to personal taste. That’s why marketing is so important. Pick the right places to send your stuff. Kathy put it eloquently. I highly recommend her post. Hell, I highly recommend her blog:) https://findingfaeries.wordpress.com/2015/04/06/nestpitching-oh-the-words/

A long time ago, I heard Mary Higgins Clark at a mystery conference, and she said the same thing. Back then, I was writing mystery short stories to send to magazines and anthologies. That was a learning curve, too. What one editor criticized in a rejection letter, another editor might praise, and what one editor rejected, another might buy. Mary Higgins Clark told us that before she became famous, she’d send her stories to 20 editors at a time, and often what 19 editors rejected, the 20th might buy. That’s the thing about writing. Perfecting your craft is just the beginning. It’s easy to reject a writer who tells more than he shows, who uses passive voice more than active verbs, or doesn’t know grammar and sprinkles commas here and there like confetti. But those writers aren’t your competition. YOUR competition is other writers who write well. So why would someone–even a reader–choose your manuscript over other manuscripts that are done well? Now, you’re getting into personal taste. Most editors–and I think readers, too–are looking for something that’s similar to what they already read, but different. Different in a way that surprises and excites them, that keeps them turning the pages. It can be voice. An author’s voice is a compelling tool. It can be a twist on the same-old, same-old–adding dry humor to something that’s usually treated seriously. Anything that makes your writing individual. But the bottom line is–what one person loves might leave another person cold.

All you can control is trying to write a really good story. If you get everything right–a great opening hook, an awesome set-up, compelling characters, great plot, perfect pacing, voice, tone…the works, you could still be rejected. But what I’m trying to tell you is not to take it personally. There’s some fan out there who doesn’t like Stephen King. (Pretend you didn’t see that, Kathy). And as much as I love Ilona Andrews, Faith Hunter, and Patricia Briggs, some of my friends tell me that I don’t need to lend them the new books I’ve bought of theirs. Okay, let’s be honest, most of my friends don’t even want to read MY books. They’re not into urban fantasy. Some of them aren’t into romance either. Does that hurt my feelings? Um, no. Because do I like what they read? Hardly.

So, grow a thick skin. Pretend you’re an elephant or rhinoceros. When a dart of criticism hits you, let it bounce off. But do your best. Because only your best will make you competitive with the others who know their stuff. And then cross your fingers, light incense, and hope the planets are aligned for your sign of the zodiac. Because the rest is a crap shoot.

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Writing: Themes

When I was young, I drove my mom nuts by asking “Why?” I wanted to understand how things connected, the cause and effect of life’s happenings. A lot of my writing explored the meaning of life. Maybe that’s why I was so drawn to mysteries, and why I’m still so drawn to plot points. Plots use cause and effect to move from one scene to the next. Mysteries take the chaos of crime and bring the criminals to justice. It makes the world…and writing…more orderly.

Now that I’m older, I don’t expect to discover the meaning of life. It’s sort of like understanding the idea of infinity. I believe in it, because it makes sense to me. How can anyone draw a line in space and say This is where it ends? Because then, we have to ask What’s on the other side of the line? Something must continue. So even though I can’t fathom infinity, I believe in it. For the same reason, I believe there must be SOME meaning to life, but I have no idea what I think it is. I’ve heard lots of different discussions on it–that life is a classroom, and we’re here to learn, that life is a blessing and sacred, even if it stinks, and that life is a stage, and we each play a part–good or bad–for the experience it brings us. I can find flaws with each and every answer I’ve heard, but that just means that the question is possibly too big for me. Like infinity. So I can’t picture the answer.

These days, I’ve flipped the question and instead of asking, What is the meaning of Life, I ask How can I add more meaning to my life? And that’s the theme that turns up more often than not in my writing. Life experience probably paid a part.

Some people are lucky and don’t attend their first funeral until they’re older. I lost my one grandfather when I was too young to remember the funeral. I only have impressions of the man–a man with a big laugh who bounced me on his knee. I lost my second grandfather before my teens. Both men went quickly, no lingering. They were there, and then they were gone. My father believed that man’s days were numbered, like the notion of the Greek Fates, who wove a person’s thread and then cut it at the allotted time. My grandfathers had lived their days, until they’d reached their quota. I decided I’d better use my time wisely. But soon after I married, my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He died before he was sixty, and the disease took him a little at a time. When his blood clogged with too many proteins and cells, doctors attached him to a machine and took the blood out of his left arm, spun it in a machine with centrifugal force, and then put his clean blood back into his right arm. In the beginning, a treatment would last a long time. Then, several months. Then, shorter. Being the man that he was, he went through the treatments with no complaints, making the best of each visit and the time he had between them…until his time was up. I’M the one who shook my fists at the heavens and asked Why? To me, a lingering death seemed more like a punishment than a quick one. It wasn’t a matter of just cutting Dad’s threads. But then, one of my close friends, who’d been through loss of her own, asked Why not? Bad things happen. Why wouldn’t they happen to you? A sobering thought, but it made sense to me. So I waded through the experience. And it helped me with the next one.

My mom died a short while ago, and my sisters and I felt almost guilty, we were so happy for her. Mom had suffered Alzheimer’s Disease for ten years. The last year was just plain ugly. My sister Patty cared for her, and my sister Mary, constantly helped. I was only an occasional visitor. My theory was to help my sisters, because it’s no fun being a caregiver. I got the easy part of the downward slide that ended my mom being my mom. But I can assure you that out of love, all three of us felt huge relief when Mom’s struggle was finally over. And that experience, along with everything else that’s happened in my life, has affected my writing. Maybe that’s why urban fantasy appeals to me right now. Life’s struggles loom large in my mind, too big for mysteries. The concept of life and death is more complicated than it once was. A witch or a werewolf live until someone or something kills him. Is that a blessing or a curse? A fallen angel is immortal and can’t die. How desirable is immortality? And what makes living each day, every day, meaningful? What purpose makes life worth living? Those are the themes I’m drawn to now. And next week, I’ll lighten up:) Maybe I’ll talk about romance:):)

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