Writerly Ramblings

Last week, I shared an article about what makes a bestseller.  The authors did research and believe that no matter the genre, tapping into the human condition–dealing with two themes we struggle with–(more gets to be too much)–helps readers relate to our stories. They also thought that showing characters react with each other, maybe sitting over a cup of coffee and talking, makes them more real.

A friend of mine came for lunch on Thursday, and we yakked even more writing.  We talked about some of our favorite books before we started to write.  It surprised us how much writing styles have changed from then to now.  We both were drawn to books with lots of details and description.  Sometimes, we read the first chapter and still had no idea where the story was going.  A lot of those books were told by a narrator or an omniscient author, putting distance between the writer and the reader.  Today, people like faster paced stories that are more immediate.  We like internal dialogue.  We want to live inside our protagonist’s skin, to feel what she feels.

When I first tried to write mysteries, I patterned them after my favorites, written by Agatha Christie. I got many a rejection letter that said, “Love your writing, but not what we’re looking for.”  Cozies were out of style.  But now that I think back, there was more to it than that.  I was using a writer’s style that wasn’t current.  How well did we know Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot?  They were both clever and fun to follow, and I loved trying to solve the elaborate puzzles Christie laid out, but her characters’ lives remained vague.   It wasn’t until I read Nancy Pickard and Carolyn Hart that it occurred to me that the detective’s life should be as interesing and demanding as whatever mystery she was trying to solve.  The authors gave their characters jobs they cared about, romances that hit highs and lows.  They made their characters have bad hair days.  Made them feel real.

One of my favorite series to write, and the series I got the most feedback on–was my Babet and Prosper urban fantasy novellas.  Babet felt real.  So did Prosper and his partner Hatchet.  So did their supernatural friends.    Eventually, I want to try my hand at another mystery, but this time, I want my characters to feel as real as Babet and Prosper.  I want their personal stories to matter just as much as whatever crime they have to solve.  I’m not holding my breath that I’ll end up with a bestseller, but I think it will make my story stronger.  I can’t wait to give it a try.


I wrote a blog earlier to post for this week.  I knew my brain would be dead today.  Holly (my daughter) came to stay with us last Sunday between jobs.  She’s a travelling nurse, and she wanted some time off before she started a new job in a new location.  We always love it when we can spend some time with her.  Then John’s brother, Jim, who lives in Oakland, CA., came to stay with us on Thursday.  On Friday, at noon, we picked up my sister, Mary, so that all of us could drive to Bloomington for my grandson’s graduation from college.  I can’t tell you how fast the four years he was at I.U. went.

The graduation was an event.  Ty’s recognition ceremony, from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs was on Friday night.  It was heart stopping to watch Ty cross the stage to be honored.  Getting up at five-thirty on Saturday in Indy to drive to Bloomington (which had NO hotel rooms, so many people flooded the city) was hard for someone like me, who’s a night owl, but we made it to the stadium by eight a.m. to get good seats.  Which was worth it.  Accidentally, and with good Karma, we were in seats directly in line with Ty’s row in the stadium.  After the ten a.m. ceremony, we met all of Ty’s friends and their families, and we all went out to eat.  We were dead by the time we got back to our hotel in Indy, but it was a happy tired.  We didn’t return home until this afternoon, a little shopworn for Mother’s Day.  But what a wonderful weekend!

Anyway, none of this makes you a better writer.  It does make you a happier person, but here’s the post I wrote ahead of time.  Happy Mother’s Day and Happy Writing!

Writing:  Everyone Needs a Friend

I’ve written a few different genres through the years.  Each one of them has a different focus.  Urban fantasy deals with good vs. evil.  The two duke it out, and if you want a happy ending, good wins.  In mysteries, the focus is on justice.  It prevails.  It might not always work that way in real life, but it does in a mystery.  The bad guy gets caught and pays for his sins.  Order is restored.  In romance, boy meets girl, everything goes wrong, but true love conquers all.

No matter what genre you write, the characters have to come to life.  The more real your characters, the more compelling your story.  We learn about our characters through their actions.  What people say and what they do are two different things.  A character might tell us he’s brave, but if he runs at the first sign of trouble, we don’t believe him.  He might tell us he’s a coward, but if he shakes in his boots, and still goes out to meet his biggest fear, we admire him.  So actions speak volumes.  Internal dialogue helps, too.  We get to share what the protagonist thinks and feels.  But to get the quirky dirt on the person you choose to follow through a novel, there’s nothing better than how he interacts with a friend.

A friend has stuck with you through thick and thin, when you’re at your best and at your worst.  He KNOWS you.  He knows that you douse your mashed potatoes with ketchup and think that’s gourmet.  He knows that you drank too much beer at your last birthday party and hugged the basketball post in your back yard until someone came to rescue you.  And he doesn’t care.  He loves you anyway.  And vice versa.

When I first started writing, I wrote mysteries, and someone gave me a list of all of the type of characters that a writer could draw upon.  The detective/crime solver.  The assistant.  Witnesses.  Suspects.  Killer/criminal.  Antagonist—anyone who gives the main character grief—like a journalist who disagrees with him, a cop who’s tired of him interfering, etc.  Romantic interest.  I think the list went on, but I don’t remember.  One of the main things I do remember, though, is the Confidante/friend.  That’s the person the protagonist talks to, bounces ideas off of, trusts.

I haven’t found one genre where a friend couldn’t add more depth to a protagonist.  A friend sees a side of him that few people are allowed to see.  Occasionally, a friend can become a pivotal person in a story.  He can tell the protagonist that he’s being an idiot and it’s time to get his crap together.  He can tell the protagonist things no one else would get away with.

When I start a novel, I always know who the protagonist will be.  I know if there will be a romantic interest (they’re pretty common), who the antagonist is, and I ALWAYS include a friend.  In my first romance, Grams was the voice of reason for Tessa.  She pushed and prodded Tessa, teased her, and was there for her.  In Love On Tap, my third romance, Tyne is always there for Paula.  And in the romance I’m working on now—my fourth, Miriam is there for Daphne.  And just like before, Miriam brings life to every page she walks on.

I’m writing a series, and Miriam is so much fun to write, that she’s going to be the main character in my fifth book.  She’s almost six-feet tall, thin, with tight, curly, brown hair, and an acid tongue.  I love her already.  I have no idea what I’m going to do with her yet, but she’s such a strong character, I know writing her journey will be fun.  I hope your characters come to life for you, and happy writing!




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!




Every writer has to find what works for him.  I was on a writing panel a while ago, and one of the authors said that he always works on three projects at a time, because when he gets bored with one and runs out of ideas, he can pick up the next story until the first one tugs him back.  Another friend of mine always rotates between two novels.  Me, I’m a one-at-a- time type writer.  I might start a new story while I let a draft sit, to let it “cool” and gain some objectivity before I polish it, but I don’t jump back and forth between chapters and scenes.  Come to think of it, though, I can’t multi-task all that well either.  Just saying….

My friends and I have different approaches to rewrites too.  Paula writes these deep, layered,  power house scenes, then does rewrites to connect them.  Two of my friends think BIG and words flow from their fingertips.  They use rewrites to cut and shape “too much” into order.  I tend to write sparely–if I get the basics of the scene right, I’m happy.  My rewrites are adding all  of the things I didn’t put in the first time around.  Don’t get me wrong.  I still think about word choice–did I use the exact word I needed where I needed it?–and verb choice–did I use active instead of passive?  I look at grammar and sequence, but those are the basics.  After those, I hit the things I’ve been known to overlook.

Did I set the scene?  And I don’t mean does the reader know where my characters are standing or sitting.  I want the reader to feel like he’s standing there too.  I want him to be able to picture the room he’s in or the field he’s crossing.  I want him to squint his eyes because the sun’s too bright and inhale the scent of crisp air and freshly turned earth.  If my character’s cooking, I want my reader to smell onions sauteeing and the spices on the sizzling meat.  Not every scene, of course, but enough that my reader is grounded in place.

Did I deliver emotion?  Tension?  By this, I mean–why is this scene important to my POV character?  It’s not enough to just have things happening in my story.  Those things have to impact my character.  Why does she care?  What difference does it make?  To do this, I often use internal dialogue or deep POV.  So many times, I look at a scene and everything’s right, but it just doesn’t work.  It should–important things are happening, but it’s flat.  Then I know that it’s not what’s there, it’s what’s NOT there that’s tripping me up.  And that’s almost always my character’s emotions.  What does she think about what’s happening around her?  Does it make her happy, sad, or frustrated?  What’s her take on it?  That’s when internal dialogue can make a scene significant.

And finally, for me and my rewrites, I check my story for transitions.  Did I jump from one place to another too abruptly?  Did I leave out a scene that would add to the story?  And lastly, the dreaded “show, don’t tell.”  Did I gloss over something, tell the reader what happened, when I could let him experience it along with my character?

This is my list of things I look for when I rewrite a story.  They’re things I know I tend to rush over or forget on my first draft of getting things on paper.   Each author has his own style and habits, so I thought I’d add a link that probably gives better information than mine on critiquing (for me, that includes how I critique my own stories to make them stronger).

When I first started writing, I dreaded rewrites.  Now, I recognize them as the difference between a good story and a great one.  I hope this link gives you even more ideas to make your stories better: http://www.crayne.com/howcrit.html

Writing: Fast and Furious

I can’t write fast.  I know some people do, and they’re good at it.  Not me.  The reason I’m thinking about this is because some of my friends are gearing up for Nano writing in November–50,000 words in 30 days.  It’s so tempting!  Live, eat, and breathe word count.  But I’ve tried it before, and it wasn’t pretty.

When I put my first novel, Fallen Angels, online, I wanted to have a follow-up, in case readers liked it and wanted a series.  I typed my little fingers thin for two months until I had a second novel.  And then I gave it to my true, blue friends and beta readers, and the consensus was pretty much the same.  What the heck did you do?

What?  In my mind, the second novel was brilliant.  It had everything–battles, romance, drama, and angst.  Thankfully, for me, my friends are brutally honest.  “We don’t care.  We got tired of the battles.  The romance didn’t grab us, and your writing wasn’t its best.”  I went back and rewrote, pitched some things, polished others.  It was better, but nothing to brag about.  By now, even I could see that.  When you first give birth to your masterpiece, all you feel is the afterglow.  Give it a minute, and it spits up with cholic and keeps you awake at night.  Then reality sets in.  This novel might be too flawed to fix.

And that’s my problem with speed writing.  I tend be the tortoise, not the hare.  My brain doesn’t work fast.  I’ll never win a debate.  I think of the perfect answer a few days after the discussion.  So for me, the plodding method works better.  I write a scene.  The next day, I rewrite that scene and write the next one.  The day after that, I rewrite the new scene and pound out another one.  I rewrite as I go.  And hopefully, after a few tries, I have all the right ingredients.   The first draft is always the plot, getting what happens right.  The next time, I might add description, some internal dialogue, more characterization.  I’m not capable of getting it all in there at one time.  I’m a bare bone writer, and it takes rewrites to flesh scenes out.

Believe me when I tell you that I know the  plot points for every novel I write.  But even when I know what I’m aiming for–the twist at the end of the first fourth, the new twist at the middle, and the final tweak at the three-fourths mark, I still write from one point to the next, and any subtleties come later.  I used to wish I could get it all right the first time.  Now, I’m grateful if the thing just comes together.  But it doesn’t for me if I rush it.  My brain gets tired.  I settle for ideas that aren’t as strong as I’d like.  I get bogged down and I don’t add the details I usually would.

I’m not trying to talk anyone out of pounding out pages.  But be aware of how you work best.  And adjust for that.  I can tell when an author I love has to rush to meet a deadline.  The writing isn’t as good.  Sometimes slow and steady does win the race.  If you pump out pages, give yourself extra time to do rewrites.  Ideas need to incubate.  So do novels.  Pop their corks and let them breathe before you taste them.  And go from there.