Feedback Makes Everything Better

I’m further along in my straight mystery and read two chapters of it to my writers’ club this week. Each of us gets 15 minutes to read, and my chapters were short, so I got to read both of them. Some people read their best work when it’s their turn, and it blows us away. Honestly, getting great feedback is just what you need sometimes to keep you plowing along. Mostly, though, I like to read what I think is my WORST writing to see what kind of feedback I get. I always read my first chapter, because, let’s face it, mine usually need some serious work. And then I read chapters I’m not sure about. I worry if they do what I want them to. That’s why I love my group. I get HONEST feedback, and one of my fellow writers said, “Your chapters bounced back and forth between serial killer and cozy.” Not what I wanted to hear. But I had a deep, in my gut fear, she was absolutely right. I just wasn’t sure what to do about it.

And then I read C.S. Boyack’s blog for Story Empire last week, and even though I KNOW I need lots of tension for a straight mystery, I also knew I’d reverted back to my happy, cozy roots. I love cozies, and it’s so easy for me to fall into that pattern, and even though I don’t want to go as dark as some mysteries that I love, I also didn’t want to spend time in the kitchen, cooking and being a happy family too often in this book. Craig’s post helped me sort out what I wanted to change. There IS a big difference between suspense and tension. EVERY book needs tension, be it a romance or a serial killer. Things CAN’T go right for the protagonist or you have a soft chapter. Which is okay once in a while to give the reader a place to catch her breath. But it can’t be a regular part of the novel. Here’s Craig’s post, and it clicked for me:

I’m going back to “happy” chapters and adding conflict today. And it’s going to make my book better. It’s going to make my characters stronger, too. I don’t know who you use for feedback, but I hope you have a couple people you can trust. And if you don’t, think about tension. It’s what keeps readers turning the pages. I’m adding more to mine. I hope you have enough in yours. And happy writing!

Here’s a cover I thought of for POSED IN DEATH. It’s still in the “maybe” phase. But I didn’t want it to look like a cozy to warn readers this book is darker.

Still Life in Death

I read a lot of mysteries. I’ve narrowed down a small list of favorite authors who I know I’ll enjoy, but I’ve reached the point that I’ve read most of their backlog and now I have to wait until a new book by them comes out. Which means, I’m searching for new authors to add to my auto buys. And I’ve found some good ones. I just took a chance on P.B. Ryan’s STILL LIFE WITH MURDER, and it blew me away.

I like historical fiction. This book takes place in post Civil War Boston, 1868. The heroine is a young Irish girl who had an ugly start in life but didn’t give up and has finally worked her way into a job as a governess for a wealthy family. The matron who hires her is eccentric and suspects that Nell is no innocent and doesn’t care. She’s bound to a wheelchair and sends Nell to find information to prove that her wayward son, Will, didn’t partake of too much opium and kill a man in an alley. While Will’s mother is working to free him, his father is doing everything possible to make sure he hangs, eliminating the wealthy family of the “William Problem.”

The set-up, obviously, assures the story will have plenty of tension. If Will’s father learns that Nell is visiting opium dens and sharing information with a smart, huge Irish detective, he’ll fire her, and she’ll have no job and no respect–she could easily be worse off than before she got the job. Even if she does everything she can, the son–Will–is determined to hang and refuses to do anything to save himself.

One of the things I loved about the story is one of the things that earned it low marks with some readers. The author makes addiction all too real and depression even more realistic. William Hewitt was a surgeon when the war started. He and his brother, Robbie, joined the Union Army because of their excellent horse skills. When Robbie is wounded and can’t be moved, Will has to saw off his arm and stay with him until they’re both captured. They’re sent to Andersonville POV camp, and their lives become hell. Will refuses to give up, though, and keeps Robbie’s wounds clean–no infection, no gangrene. He digs a dip in the frozen ground to keep them from freezing when they’re forced to sleep outdoors because of overcrowding. But when he returns home, alone, the pain from the bullet wound in his leg and his memories make opium appealing.

The author didn’t pull any punches about the war and the after-effects it had on men. She didn’t glamorize poverty either, and I appreciated that. She showed the rich class with its good and its bad. Her characters were complex and well-drawn. I love reading really well-written books. They make me think about what makes them stand out, for me, above other well done books. Nell’s character is wonderful. She’s fierce, loyal, and smart with a big heart. But Will Hewitt with his easy charm, brilliant mind, and weariness of life was fascinating. So many contradictions. And for me, a character that would be hard to write. I’m so glad I read this book. It will make me think about the characters and story for a long time, but more, it will make me examine how the author accomplished what she did and how she threw two very different characters together and let them respect and challenge each other.

A Stephen King quote says that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write. If a person works, there’s not always time to do both, but most writers are or were people who love books. And reading other authors can inspire us to try harder, to write better, while always staying true to ourselves. Happy Writing!


I’m working on a new cozy mystery right now. For cozies, I write in third person, limited POV. The only things I can share with you are things my protagonist knows. We follow her through the entire book, trying to solve the crime as she stumbles on clues.

But a traditional mystery has been brewing in my head, and I’m starting to make notes and character wheels for it. When I wake up in the morning, scenes for it tease me, tempting me to write it. And this morning, instead of being in Laurel’s head, I woke up in somebody else’s. A mother’s who has two daughters–sixteen and thirteen. And she fits the profile of the type of woman my killer likes to stalk. And suddenly, I feared for her. And then–let’s face it; I’m a writer–I cheered for myself. That was exactly what I’d been struggling with–how to build suspense. And the answer came. By using multiple POVs.

I’d intended to write the book in single POV to get the feel that a Louis Kincaid mystery has. Kincaid goes from person to person, digging for information, hoping to find a killer before he strikes again. And it works. Ticking clocks make us worry. We know he’s not going to reach the next victim in time, and no matter what he does, more and more things go wrong for him, regardless of his best efforts. So I know it’s possible to build suspense without multiple POV. BUT, I also know that shifting from one person’s viewpoint to another’s works really well because the reader can learn things the protagonist can’t. We can see that he’s going in the wrong direction or that he suspects the wrong person or that he’s walking into a trap. Besides, I haven’t written in multiple POV for a while now, so it’s going to be a nice change.

It’s too soon for me to know how many POVs I’m going to use and who the key players will be, but the story’s beginning to gel for me. And it’s going to be fun writing its plot points. It’s going to be even more fun putting my characters in danger. No cozy feeling this time. I want to shake things up a little.

Hope you’re enjoying whatever you’re working on. Happy writing!

Finding Balance

I’m a Libra–the sign of the scales, so I thought my life came with some automatic balance.  Come to find out, one of my favorite astrologers explained that being a Libra meant I was constantly SEARCHING for balance.  A whole different thing entirely.  And after I thought about it, aren’t most people striving for balance, too?

The old saying “Too much work and no fun make Jack a dull boy” could apply to too much of anything.   I read a thread on twitter recently where Ilona Andrews and Jeaniene Frost (both New Times bestselling authors) worked so many hours writing their books that Jeaniene Frost ended up in the hospital and both suffered from too much stress and felt everything else in their lives got neglected.  What were they missing?  Balance.

Now, I’d love to be a bestselling author, but not enough to ONLY write.  I like seeing my husband, kids, and grandkids.  I like having family and friends over for suppers.  I enjoy cooking and gardening.  I’m not very exciting, but I’m happy.  Of course, if all I did was play, I’d feel out of sync, too.  I like checking off goals when I finish them.  They give me a sense of accomplishment.  Too much down time, and I get antsy.

As a writer, I strive for balance in my books, too.  I recently finished reading Maria V. Snyder’s POISON STUDY.  I really liked it and highly recommend it, but the book had so much action, with the heroine under constant attack from enemies on all sides, that it felt like too much of a good thing.  For me, the book’s rhythm began to feel repetitive.  She created wonderful characters, and I’d have liked to spend a little more time with them.  Valek, especially, was fascinating.  So were many of the minor characters.  On the other hand, though, I’ve read books where action would be welcome.  It feels like nothing is happening, page after page.  No character development.  No clues to add up.  The pacing’s so slow, the story barely moves forward.

I also recently finished reading Cee Cee James’s cozy mystery CHERRY PIE OR DIE.  I loved the characters, the interaction between them, and the clues sprinkled here and there that teased me to solve the murder.  The pacing took its time, taunting me with tidbits of information and red herrings, like cozies do.  And that’s one of the things I liked about the book.

Great books create a balance between action, dialogue, setting, character development, and building momentum through pacing and tension.  Not many of us get every scene, every page right.  And not all of us can even agree on what’s good and what’s not.  What excites me can make another reader close the book and toss it aside.  But for whatever you’re working on now, I hope you find a good balance.  And happy writing!

My webpage:

My author Facebook page:

Twitter:  @judypost



Writing: Can a writer be too nice?

I live in the Midwest.  Last Monday, my husband and I drove to Shipshewana, Indiana to look for  a calendar.  I know.  A long drive to find one, right?  But we take our calendars seriously.  You have to look at the picture above the numbered boxes, counting down days, for an entire month.  We’d rather look at something we like.  Last year, my daughter, who doesn’t shop ahead like we do, ended up with a calendar of birds of prey.  I cringed every time I turned my head and accidentally saw talons, ready for a kill.  Besides, Monday was an absolutely beautiful day.  Sunlight gleamed on golden, crimson, and orange leaves. Farmers were working in their fields.   Best of all, Shipshewana is Amish territory.  We drove through Topeka and saw Amish laundry drying on clotheslines, stretched in side yards.  Horses grazed in pastures.  We had a wonderful day.

It was sunny enough that I needed my sunglasses.  I viewed the world through amber, not rose-colored glasses.  But the amber made everything brighter, more striking and dramatic.  That’s sort of the way I see the world when I write.  Everything’s amplified.  One of my friends teases me and tells me that I’m never mean enough to my characters.  That I’m too nice to them.  It’s possible, but I don’t need suffering and tragedy to keep me turning pages.   I just need enough tension and conflict to make me root for the protagonist to find the solutions he needs, characters that I care about, and a plot that twists and turns enough to hold my interest.

I thought about that as I worked on plot points for the Babet and Prosper that I’m writing on my webpage (I put up chapter 3, if you’re interested).  I started with a hook that wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote the damn thing.  I kept seeing Hatchet chaining his vampire/wife to the wall of his basement.  Hatchet’s devoted to Colleen, and she’s devoted to him.  So why in the world would he lock her in silver chains?  And then the answer came to me.  To help her.  Happy day!  I liked my hook.  And I liked my villains.  Worthy antagonists make for good stories.

Now, I’ve read over and over again that most authors state the book’s “big question,” on the first page, if not the first paragraph or even the first sentence.  Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, I don’t, but it needs to be somewhere in the first chapter.  So I needed to decide what the big conflict in the book would be–what would the protagonists struggle with for the rest of the entire novel?  Once I had that, I concentrated on pacing, how I wanted to up the tension chapter by chapter.  And I was lucky enough to stumble upon K.M. Weiland’s seriously deep blog about the inciting incident and the first fourths of books.  She said–especially well–what I usually do (in a not so clear pattern).  She must divide her books into fourths, like I do.  Only she’s even better at it.  Take a read:

While plotting away, my wonderful editor–John Scognamiglio at Kensington–sent me the book cover for my very first romance novel that will come out next April.  I’m pretty excited about it, but April feels like it’s FOREVER away.  Some of my writer friends do awesome cover reveals, which I’ve never tried, so I’m trying to decide how to go about it.  No brilliant ideas yet:)  Anyway, last week was busy enough for me.  I wish you a Happy Halloween and a spectacular November!

Happy writing!

My webpage:  (chapter 3):

My author Facebook page:

Catch me on twitter: @judypost

Writing: And now it gets ugly

I usually write my blog posts on Sundays, but my sister and I are driving to Bloomington to visit my grandson tomorrow. We’re leaving at 9:30 in the morning so that Mary can take him out for lunch–his pick–and then take him shopping before we drive home. Yes, my sister is the best great aunt any boy could have. Both boys know it. My other sister’s not too shabby either. It’s going to be a great day–yakking with Mary on the way there and back–and seeing Tyler, but it’s going to be a long day. I won’t want to write a blog when I get home, so here goes.

I’ve been working on the romance novel I started. I’m always excited when I start a new book. Ideas churn away in my head, my characters clamor to do this or that, and everything’s new and different. My first chapters usually have problems, but it’s still a joy writing them. I can’t really hear my characters until I watch them act and react to things and listen in on their dialogue for a while. Usually, after the third chapter, I know them better, and then I can write plot points for them. By then, they have opinions of what they will or will not do. I’m a plot driven writer, so I have turning points they have to reach, but they tell me how they’ll manage that. It works for all of us. I’ve been sailing through my plot points, and my characters keep stretching and surprising me, and all’s going well. But now, I’ve finished the first fourth of my book. It ended with a crash–literally. Someone cut the chains of the beautiful, crystal chandeliers that Ian bought for the great room of his lodge. Someone’s sabotaging him.

Now things turn ugly. Not just for the characters. Every conflict cranks up from now on. Ian’s hit his internal and external problems, and so has Tessa. And things are only going to get worse. For me, the writing gets more serious now. There are more balls to juggle, more subplots to weave in and out. We’re past introductions and we’re going for the long haul, the nitty gritty. The longer the story goes, everything has to become more intense, have more depth. Pacing becomes more important.

I’ve never written a romance novel before. In urban fantasies, the bad guys gain momentum, and the battles grow more dangerous the longer the book goes. That’s what I like about reading and writing UF. Eventually, the stakes reach the point of live or die. In romance? There has to be the push-pull of attraction that’s frustrated by the reasons the hero and heroine can’t get together. So far, it’s been fun figuring out what brings them together and then adding things that push them apart. But now, my characters have hit the nitty-gritty. They’re past chemistry and sly looks. It’s time to up the ante. push the buttons, and add the romance. I have some great ideas. We’ll see how they go:)

Just a note: Another practical blog from Lindsay Buroker: