Sunday, July 21, 2013


I'm excited to introduce Judy Alter whose ebook, Death Comes Home releases this week. I spent more than an hour on her food blog called Potluck with Judy, reading about genetically altered foods. Now that's something that'll scare your socks off, so let's move on to something more pleasant: do you plot or do you write like a runaway freight train? Here's what Judy has to say:

Pantsers vs. Plotters
by Judy Alter
Writing habits are individual things. I have long admired people who can plot out each chapter and each scene before they ever sit down to write. Then they have a road map to follow. Some leave room for flexibility, for the inevitable changes that occur when you write, but basically they know where they’re going. And writing a synopsis? Easy peasy—it’s all there in the outline. Some writers use storyboards or whiteboards to keep track of scenes and characters as they write. Or computer programs which allow you to move scenes around and such.

I on the other hand wander blindly about in a familiar world, since I know the settings of my series novels, but with little idea of where I’m going. My publisher now requests a synopsis before accepting a proposal. But recently after I signed a contract, the manuscript began to take a different direction and ended up nowhere near what the synopsis had indicated. When I saw this developing, maybe halfway through, I wrote the managing editor who requested a new synopsis. Fortunately, it passed muster. There’s been one intervening novel since, but now I find my mind going back to the original theme of that earlier project.

The trouble, you see, is that I’m a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants. I prefer to dash off a page of rough notes, get the first sentence, and see what happens when I go from there. Sometimes what happens is magic. Events seem to unfold of their own accord, characters tell me what’s going to happen, and the plot shapes itself, often taking turns I hadn’t expected. Many seasoned authors will tell you to listen to your characters, and they will tell you what’s going to happen. The late western novelist Elmer Kelton used to talk about two of his novels in which the characters took over his typewriter or computer. One was Buffalo Soldier, which he intended to feature a newly freed slave who becomes a buffalo soldier (one of the Negro regiments on the western frontier). But a Comanche chief kept demanding equal time, and eventually the book chronicled both their stories—the buffalo soldier’s rise in life as the Comanche’s way of life disappeared. The other was The Good Old Boys, which he wrote at his dying father’s bedside and based on all the stories his father, a longtime ranch foreman, had told him. The characters, he used to say, took over like a cold-jawed horse with a bit.

I don’t find it usually happens that easily, and sometimes I worry about what’s going to happen next. I also worry a lot if the manuscript is going to reach an acceptable word limit—I have a tendency to rush through things, so that my friend and beta reader is always telling me to slow down. He also often tells me I have too much going on in a book—which I wonder doesn’t spring from my desperate attempt to pad the length. But once I finish it, I rarely make major changes, like moving whole sections around, eliminating characters (I rejected that suggestion recently), and the like.

One trick that works for me when I settle down to write: set a goal of a thousand words a day. I wrote a novel that way earlier this year and found it worked well.

But everyone has their own methods. What’s yours?

Judy Alter is the author of two mysteries series—Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, including Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, and the just-published Danger Comes Home, and the Blue Plate Café Mysteries, which debuted this year with Murder at the Blue Plate Café, with Murder at Tremont House to come next year. Her books are available on Amazon and Smashwords. Also the author of several historical novels set in the American West, she is the recipient of Western Writers of America Owen Wister Award for  Lifetime Achievement and several other awards.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


If there's one thing I have trouble with in my writing, it's setting. I have to admit, while reading I often skip lovely, long passages, jump right to the dialogue. Now that I'm beginning to get a little attention from small presses, I've devoted more time to studying how writer's achieve a sense of place. My education comes late. My writer friend and SLR partner Jan Rider Newman has a fine eye for setting and her short stories prove it. Read what Jan has to share about Fitzgerald's setting in The Great Gatsby.

Setting: The Character We Overlook
by Jan Rider Newman
The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925, has gained renewed attention lately because of the latest movie remake. F. Scott Fitzgerald fictionalized the North Shore of Long Island into West Egg and East Egg. Tom and Daisy Buchanan live in more fashionable East Egg. Gatsby and Nick Carraway, the narrator, live in West Egg.

Setting and sense of place is so important to a story it can be one of the characters. Consider Nick Carraway’s descript 
ions of West and East Egg:

I . . . rented a house . . . on that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York — and where there are . . . two unusual formations of land . . . [A] pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. . . .

I lived at West Egg, the — well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them. My house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. The one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard — it was . . . Gatsby’s mansion. . . . My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires — all for eighty dollars a month. 

Across the courtesy bay the white palaces of fashionable East Egg glittered along the water . . .

Even if you couldn’t afford one of the “palaces” or a twelve or fifteen thousand dollar “place,” wouldn’t you really enjoy living in Nick’s little house?

The home of Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, provides jolting contrast:

About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke . . .

Could anything else offer more contrast or give a better idea of distinctions between and within classes than the descriptions of where the characters live? Tom and Daisy inhabit the ultimate circle—old-money fashionable. Gatsby is fabulously but newly rich, unfashionable in the Buchanan stratosphere. Though not especially rich, Nick is old-money fashionable and moves within both circles. Myrtle, in that village of ashes, lives above a garage, is poor and desperate.

Where is your story set? What does it say about your characters and their society, their passions and ambitions? If possible, go to your setting or one like it. What do you see? Don’t judge. Just look. See the people, the buildings, the sidewalks, streets/roads, animals, trees, and plants. What does the setting say to you? After you figure that out, ask what the setting says about your story. How can you condense the relevance of your setting the way Fitzgerald did, so it practically tells the story for you?

Good luck!

Jan Rider Newman has published short stories, nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews in competitions and anthologies, print and online literary journals. Her published short stories are collected in A Long Night’s Sing and other stories. She publishes and co-edits Swamp Lily Review, an online literary journal, and is webmaster for the Bayou Writers’ Group. Jan’s current WIP, a novel about the 1755 Acadian exile from Nova Scotia, is close to her heart because many of her ancestors fell victim to it. 
Her family, including two granddaughters, makes her world go around. They plus writing, research, genealogy, and photography keep her busy. 

A Long Night's Sing and other stories is available for Kindle and POD
Jan blogs at Beyond Acadia:  Reading, Writing & Living Well, and her website is HERE.