Falling words

I am a potter. I have a wheel, I throw clay, sometimes with more success than others, and I do some hand building. It’s really my only non-physical hobby. I wish I had more time for it, but such is life. For me, potting is a Zen experience. I can lose myself in the world of damp clay while I create objects out of nothing. When I first started, I tried to make every ounce of clay count. Bits and chunks would ooze from between my fingers I would strive to pat them back into place. My teacher would laugh and say, “Let what isn’t important fall away. A good pot has only essential elements. Clay remembers everything you do to it.”

That’s a lot like writing. When I first started writing novels, I tried to keep all my words. Everything was important. How else could the reader fully know the story? Took two critique sessions to get over that idea. Probably should have taken only one, but my critique partner, who was far more experienced than I, was being kind. By the second session, she realized hints were not sufficient, this newbie needed tough love, and red pencil in hand, struck through whole pages. Killing my darlings and teaching me that the story started with the action. Readers did not care what went before. It’s best not to bore them. Although I did not know it at the time, this advice follows Elmore Leonard’s famous rule, ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.’

No one is ever going to accuse me of writing short. That’s not my style. I do like compound sentences. I believe that stories have multiple parts and storylines. Most of all, I believe that writing fiction mean telling a story. That takes lots of words. My writing style is a combination outliner pantser. I need to know a beginning and have an idea of an ending. Sometimes I even know four or five highlights in between. Then I have to tell myself the story. I work it through, twist it around, and let all my characters have at it. They often argue with me over who gets top billing, who dies, and who did it. Once, they knew my villain was innocent. They didn’t tell me until the second draft. Characters do not always play fair.

At about the end of page 100,000 – no, not really, but it feels that way – there’s a story in all those words, somewhere. That’s when the pottery knife comes out. I shave away the excess. All the superfluous words fall to the floor. Word by word, phrase by phrase, they fall away from the essence of the tale. All the things I had to tell myself leave the page. At the end of the third draft, I’m left with the essence of the story. Everything unnecessary has been cut away. Only the essentials remain, and I’m ready to polish.

How about you? Are you able to write tight from the start?

A Push, a Shove, a Fall

We’re halfway (ish, as my daughter would say) through the month, and we’ve explored so many facets of falling in two weeks. I love the themes we choose for this blog, because much like when I’m doing a crossword puzzle, my brain is forced to think in new and different ways about the same concept. It’s wonderfully challenging! This group has spent these weeks discussing falling on our faces and falling (on purpose!) out of airplanes/boats/etc. We’ve had things fall into place in a number of ways, and we’ve had our confidence fall right down to the bottom. But, we keep picking ourselves and each other back up, learn from the adventure, and move forward. It’s kind of exciting, if you think about it (although, not always in the moment).

In my post earlier this month, I talked a bit about how hard it is for me to knock my character down and make her suffer a bit, which of course helps encourage the reader to care about her. Last week, I got knocked down myself. Not physically, but nonetheless, I’m feeling a bit bruised. You see, I was laid off last week. While it was not wholly unexpected, it was quite disappointing. This isn’t my first ride through this particular rodeo, and I doubt it’s ever enjoyable. But, this time, a strange thing has happened.

I feel good. Really good. Of course, there’s stress because this impacts my family financially, but the reality is, I was overdue for a change. Like many who don’t love the process of job hunting, I procrastinated a bit, and then a bit more, and a year after first thinking about it, I was still in the same position. Until I got a push, a shove, and a fall onto my figurative butt. Here are some of the reasons that I feel so good right now:

  • It was time for a change, and now I can’t procrastinate any longer.
  • I feel lighter, like I’ve lost 20 pounds overnight, which tells me my psyche was kind of done with that place, that it wasn’t good for me any more.
  • I’ve been the incredibly surprised recipient of so many lovely, thoughtful, kind notes of encouragement from former colleagues, friends, and other loved ones.

That last one just might be the most important. It’s easy to forget how many people we can impact each day, and it was so nice to learn that I really was making a positive difference to people. I felt all warm and fuzzy inside as I read each note, and acknowledged these for the reminders they are: I’m good, really good at what I do. I worked with some great, smart, fun people. This isn’t the end of the world. Those notes made me excited to seek out my next opportunity, and hopefully they will serve as important reminders when I experience the set-backs that come with a job search.

There’s also a valuable lesson here in just how carefully I should think about my characters, how well I need to know them. What characters in the story do the main ones impact, and how? Do they realize it (do I?!?)? What would change if they did/didn’t? This experience is fodder for adding depth and dimension to my story, and to my characters, which is exciting, too. I’ve been developing the book review side of my writing, recently, and I’m being asked to do more reviews. In addition, I’ve been working on improvements to my personal writing blog, and those activities bring me joy. Now, I’ve got a renewed perspective on my fiction writing. Really, things are looking pretty bright–even if I’m a little bruised today.

Tell me readers, experienced any good falls lately?

Guest Post: Judy Alter

Sidekicks and Minor Characters

Remember The Lone Ranger and Tonto? Roy Rogers and Cookie (Andy Devine)? Almost all legendary heroes had their sidekicks who are useful foils to their brave adventures, providing a bit of comic relief sometimes. Sidekicks—or minor characters who steal the spotlight—show up in mysteries today too.

cover.jpg2The main characters in two of my mystery series have sidekicks who are their polar opposites, and what strikes me as funny is that both sidekicks have thee sixth sense or psychic abilities to some extent. I don’t write paranormal, but I’m not ready to say I don’t believe in instinct, sixth sense or psychics. I’m sort of on the fence about the whole subject. But these two are probably as close as I’ll ever come to writing paranormal.

Keisha, Kelly’s office assistant in the Kelly O’Connell Series, has the sixth sense, talks about it all the time, and has used it to save Kelly more than once. There was, for instance, the time she made boyfriend José leave the zoo in mid-trip with Kelly’s daughters because she suddenly knew Kelly was in trouble. They arrived to find Kelly and her husband, Mike, held hostage by a crazed gunman who planned to take Kelly on a one-way trip to Mexico.

Mike scoffs at Keisha’s sixth sense, though he has to admit that it’s come in handy sometimes; Kelly is more willing to believe but tires of hearing Keisha talk about it all the time. When Keisha announces someone is trying to kill neighborhood reclusive diva, Ms. Lorna, Kelly asks sarcastically, “You know this how? Don’t tell me it’s your sixth sense.” But in the newest Kelly O’Connell, Deception in Strange Places, someone is indeed trying to kill Ms. Lorna.

In the first book in my new Oak Grove Mystery Series, The Perfect Coed, Susan’s Hogan’s sidekick is Aunt Jenny, the beloved spinster aunt who raised Susan. Aunt Jenny is everything Susan tries not to be—dithery, easily flustered, impractical, a bit naïve. But she has almost telepathic powers. Dining in a restaurant with her beau, Judge John Jackson, Jenny announces during the salad course that they have to leave because Susan is in terrible danger. The judge protests that they haven’t had their dinners, but no matter. Jenny insists. The waitress asks if they received a phone call, and the Judge drily replies, “You might say that.” Of course, Susan is in a life-threatening situation. (No spoilers here!)

Sidekicks with psychic abilities may be an old plot device, but they are handy for moving the plot ahead and often for providing a light laugh. Maybe we all need sidekicks in our lives.

How about you? Do you believe in superpowers or whatever you want to call it? I always claim I research cars and houses carefully before purchasing—but I know in the long run I buy on instinct. And I believe in my instincts about people. Perhaps my belief in instinct is why I’m a pantser, not a plotter, but that’s another subject.

Kelly O’Connell Mysteries:
Skeleton in a Dead Space
No Neighborhood for Old Women
Trouble in a Big Box
Danger Comes Home
Deception in Strange Places
Sixth to launch mid-winter, tentatively titled Death by Desperation

Oak Grove Mysteries:
The Perfect Coed
Second as yet untitled and unscheduled and mostly unwritten but coming.


An award-winning novelist, Judy Alter is the author of five books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, and Deception in Strange Places. She also writes the Blue Plate Café Mysteries—Murder at the Blue Plate Café and Murder at the Tremont House. New in October 2014 is The Perfect Coed, the start of a new series.

Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame.

Judy is retired as director of TCU Press, the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of seven. She and her Bordoodle, Sophie, live in Fort Worth, Texas.

Find Judy at:
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Judy-Alter/e/B001H6NMU6/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1377217817&sr=1-2-ent

Turquoise Morning Press: http://www.turquoisemorningpressbookstore.com/search?q=Judy+Alter

Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/462168

Web page: http://www.judyalter.com

Blogs: http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com; http://potluckwithjudy.blogspot.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Judy-Alter-Author/366948676705857

Twitter: @judyalter

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5446.Judy_Alter

Harvesting Books

Our garden is in its final throes. The tomato leaves are turning yellow and the last of the little green globes stand out stark red. The herbs have long flowered, but the late bees still come and drowse among the purple and white of the mint and oregano. The catnip buds hang heavy. Even the zucchini plant is still trying, and the green apples, given a reprieve this year with a hot October, might yet make it to red. They’re blushing for sure.

All this reminds me of gathering in what you’ve worked hard to plant and grow. Writing a novel is harder work than all that hoeing and tilling, then digging trenches and sowing seeds. Editing is weeding. I’m bad at both, but it must be done. Then I mulch. Is that like sending things off to editors and agents? Tucking the plants in and waiting?

I’m waiting for two publishing contracts to end with more anticipation that I await the volunteer cantaloupe that may produce a little round globe that’s edible. The first two novels in my Power Places series are soon to be mine. I can pick them off the vine of traditional publishing and bring them to my own table. In plain language, I’m going to put them back out myself. I’ll continue the series.

I hope to have the next installment of the Power Places series ready by next spring, so I can bring two out at once. All my own. I won’t make ten percent or six or eight. I’ll make the whole thing. Yes, I’ll have to pay for production. I’ll have to promote—just like I do now. But the harvest will be mine. And the plowing and planting of the next in this series. I do have another piece I’m working on that I’ll send around to traditional publishers. Why not? A little variety makes for a healthy writing career, just like biodiversity keeps the planet and the bees happy.

Falling: Is That Where You Find Your Ideas?

Falling is the first thing that fired my imagination and showed me how to find ideas.

I was lucky enough to be born on a small farm—not a working farm but what my family called a “gentleman’s farm.”  For me, it was an idyllic, 12-acre playground of sheer heaven.   My sister and I had climbing trees and sledding hills and blackberry bushes and a creek for wading.  Bossie the Cow terrorized us, patrolling her pasture from our encroachments when we went hunting for litters of kittens in miscellaneous sheds.  We had our very own forest of Christmas trees, and the fields next to the forest hid the original corn maze.

But one of the best parts of life on that farm was raking autumn leaves into gigantic piles near the road.  Those leaf piles were taller than me at age 5.  The game started whenever we heard a car coming.  My sister and I had to race each other to the leaf pile and fall into it, smothering ourselves with earthy smells of dried leaves.  We had to hide ourselves completely, falling into the leaves, before the car appeared.  Otherwise, the bank robbers who were probably driving by would surely catch us spying on them, and capture us into their world of crime, or…  Well, who knew?

And thus began my career of spinning tales.  My first ideas came from my own imagination, firing in those leaf piles.  We all hear this question over and over:  where do you get your ideas?  Here are five of my favorite sources for ideas:

1.  Imagination.  Some hidden recess of the brain generates the weird stuff, either through a flash of apparently unprompted inspiration, or a Technicolor dream.  Don’t ask, just grab it and run with it.

2.  Overheard snippets of conversation.  For example, last night at dinner in my favorite local restaurant, I overheard one man tell his dinner partner (another man):  “you’re either married, or you’re not married.”  Well, yes…but, hmmm. What made him say that?  There’s a story here.

3.  Local newspaper.  Useful for 3 reasons:  advertisements, lining the bird cage, and triggers for stories.  For instance, in today’s paper there’s a story about an office building that had to be evacuated for a gas leak.  Uh-huh.  A deliberate leak?  Why?

4.  Therapy.  When something or someone bugs you, in the form of lack of consideration, or political or religious fanaticism, or whatever, no problem.  Just put them in a mystery novel and do mean things to them.

5.  The What-If Game.  My personal favorite!  So…  What if I made my detective an amateur artist, and he decided to go plein aire painting along the creek, and then what if he discovered a body there, half-submerged, and what if…  And so on and so on.  Pretty soon, there’s a story.

Tomes have been written on this subject of finding ideas, but these are just a few of my favorite sources.  What are some of yours?

Guest Post: Lev Raphael

My “Ferguson” Novel

I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, so it’s not surprising that the themes of my early books were dark. They were well reviewed and earned me a lot of fans and invitations to speak around the country, but my editor at St. Martin’s Press, gave me unexpected advice.

“You’re a funny guy,” he said. “Why don’t you write something funny?”

Well, I was a huge fan of crime fiction, and an escaped academic at the point, so I couldn’t imagine a more hilarious setting for a mystery. Academe has the vanity of professional sports; the hypocrisy of politics; the cruelty of big business; and the inhumanity of organized crime. It’s a perfect setting for murder and satire.

That turned out to be the right choice, and so was my fish-out-of-water sleuth Nick Hoffman, an Edith Wharton bibliographer from the East Coast who not only felt stranded in the superficially friendly Midwest, but who enjoyed teaching freshman composition, which made his colleagues think he was a freak.

My serious work continued to draw one kind of audience, the mysteries another, including Marilyn Stasio at The New York Times Book Review, who loved The Edith Wharton Murders. That was the first time I was reviewed in the Times which went on to review a handful of my mysteries over the years but has ignored my serious novel. Go figure, as Voltaire said.

I tried out different forms with the series: a corpse in the first line, a corpse halfway through, and even no corpse at all, just general mayhem. I happily attended a slew of mystery conferences here and abroad, and appeared as a panelist or moderator on dozens of panels. But after Tropic of Murder, the seventh book in the series, I ran out of steam. Nick was never one of those sleuths who was untouched by the crimes he encountered; he was battered and beaten down by them as much as he was by academic stupidity and cupidity. He was tired and so was I. What more could I say about academic crime?

Luckily for me, I wasn’t under contract and forced to squeeze out another mystery at that point. I let the series lie dormant while I kept publishing in other genres, and wondered what to do with it. My mid-career breakthrough book My Germany was about the role the country–real and imagined–played in my identity and writing. It generated a lot of interest here and abroad. I spent five years touring with it and learning German, which was a good change of focus for me, and also a healing experience for someone who had grown up loathing the name of the country itself.

As the touring wound down, over the course of a few years I noticed a bizarre trend reported in one newspaper after another: even small town police departments forces were becoming militarized. They were getting surplus assault weapons and armored vehicles from the Pentagon, setting up SWAT teams, and recruiting from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The stories were being written because these teams were being sent on drug raids, or to serve warrants or perform other police duties–and sometimes to the wrong address. They would trash property, shoot dogs, terrify, injure or even kill people. Every story I read chilled me, and reminded me of my mother’s brief allusions to the Nazis bursting into her home in Vilnius, stealing what they could from it, and dragging her father off to be shot. Over-reaction? Not for someone growing up with the kind of family history I had.

So what was behind all these U.S. raids? How had the cops who were meant to protect us become virtual soldiers? I dug around and discovered a really disturbing foundation. Without any public discussion at all, across the country, police forces were widely being trained by the military, which meant that they were coming to see us citizens not as the people they needed to serve and defend, but as potential enemies, as dangerous.

Years ago, my multi-lingual mother who was equally at home with Thomas Mann and Agatha Christie said, “Write something people will want to read.” She meant, kindly, a lot of people as opposed to the audience for short stories, which was what I was focused on at the time. Well, this assault-cover-250militarization struck me as a terrific subject, so I started Assault With a Deadly Lie over three years ago.

America was really at war with itself, a slow-burning, low-level guerrilla war, maybe. But war nonetheless. And now, for the first time in my life, I’ve actually published a book that feels ripped from the headlines, given what happened in Ferguson and how the country’s been reacting to it. Even more so when I read a few weeks ago about Davis California, a quiet university town like the one in my series, which sent back its gift from the Pentagon, an MRAP. These armored vehicles with turrets have “V-shaped hulls, raised chassis and armored plating,” according to the Marines. What are their strengths? They’ve “proven to be the single most effective counter to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Blast-resistant underbodies and layers of thick, armored glass offer unparalleled protection, while all-terrain suspension and runflat combat tires ensure Marines can operate in complex and highly restricted rural, mountainous and urban terrains.”

Just what’s needed to put down campus demonstrations about reinstating a professor unfairly denied tenure, right?

I’m proud to have started writing about developments like this before they reached national consciousness. Prouder still that my fictional college town Michiganapolis is not sending anything back to the Pentagon. Seriously, where’s the mystery in that?

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in a wide range of genres.  He blogs on books, art, and politics for The Huffington Post.  You can read more about him at http://www.levraphael.com.

Falling Into Place

When working on the first draft of a mystery, or any story for that matter, I find there are few things better than having all the bits and pieces of the story fall into place. Sometimes the result is planned and everything works out as I envisioned. Other times, I’m completely taken by surprise by the way various plot and character elements click together. Actually, I’m probably taken by surprise more often than not, but pleasantly so!

When I started writing my most recent cozy mystery, I had no idea that the main character and her love interest had known each other when they were younger. I only realized that when I reached the scene where they meet for the first time in the course of the story. It was as if the characters had already known that they had a history and simply didn’t get around to telling me that until that point. But it made complete sense once I was aware of it and it seemed to fit the story so perfectly. In fact, the more I wrote, the more I realized how important that aspect of their relationship was to the rest of the story. It provided a foundation for the relationship story arc and made the characters’ interactions more believable.

With past manuscripts, I’ve had a character do or say something early on that didn’t seem to have much significance, but then later on in the story I realized that it was actually quite important and played a significant role in tying various elements of the story together. I don’t know if I’m aware of these things subconsciously all along or if it’s just dumb luck that allows me to plant seeds along the way that grow into something more later in the story. Either way, I love it when all the puzzle pieces fit together in an unexpected but satisfying way.

Are you often surprised by the way the pieces of your story fall into place?