Monday, October 8, 2018


For the October Fiction Writing Critique Group meeting at the Howell Branch Library, I prepared this handout, thanks to great articles from Writers Digest and Jane Friedman's blog.  I also wanted folks to get started thinking about NANOWRIMO. And to encourage them to plan their own writing goal for the month of November.
NANOWRIMO – th.jpg Do It Your Way th.jpg

·      NANOWRIMO begins 1 November 2018 – one month, 50,000 words (1,167/day)
·      Our writing goals don’t always fit the mold
·      Make a writing commitment and then make a plan
·      Set your own/reasonable goals
·      Partner with a friend
·      Utilize the library’s NANOWRIMO space – days and times will be announced
·      As a Fiction Critique Group let’s state and track our progress
·      Why wait? Start now!

Showing rather than telling is part of the magic that you have to work as a writer. In fact, it’s one of the most vital parts. Your reader has to make his way through your story or novel and then finally come away from it with a sense of characters and settings.

Example: “The city suffered significant damage in the blast.” [Too cold, too distant, too all-inclusive]
Instead: “Among the ruins, the reflection of the sun on the pieces of broken glass on the road was so strong that it was difficult to hold your head up as you walked. The smell of death was a little fainter than the day before, but the places where houses had collapsed into tile-covered heaps stank vilely and were covered with great, black swarms of flies.”

In To Kill a Mockingbird, never does Scout say her father is a good man. But throughout the novel, we know it; at the end, one of the strongest images is his goodness.

If your character is a fireman – you could say, “His job was exciting.” Or, you could say, “His heart rate elevated when his truck approached a fire.”

Balancing Act: * Your fiction has to be a balanced blend of both show and tell.*

Keep description short; get specific. “It was a beautiful sunset,” says nothing.
Describe a person through another character’s eyes;
Sprinkle description throughout the story;
Utilize the senses – sight, smell, touch, sound, taste
Setting is character; [Louise Penny’s Three Pines; Jan Karon’s Mitford] The truer your setting, the more believable will be the fictional world you invite your reader to enter. Setting can also set the mood or tone of your story, time period of your story.

“Readers’ love writing that brings the world in your head to life in theirs.” [Elizabeth Sims/WD Jan 2013]

* When describing people, stay away from hair and eye color, as well as height and weight. Many writers make the mistake of describing their characters like the people in a police blotter. Think, instead, about the way you might describe your friends. Do you know the height and weight of your friends? Do you ever think about their eye color? These features are not as interesting as other, more complex descriptors. Consider your characters' gestures, the shape of their facial features, their gait, their dimples, their scars, the way they laugh, the quality of their teeth, their stance, their fashion sense, their odor, their vocal tone, and so on.

*Think in terms of "telling details": details that let the reader see your characters while also revealing something about their minds. In this way, your descriptions can do double duty: giving the reader a physical picture while also showing an inner, mental trait. If a woman has unkempt, flyaway hair, that lets the reader see her, and it also reveals something about the character's sense of self and level of vanity. If a man has rimless, tinted glasses and a dry, taut mouth, that lets the reader see him, and it also reveals a lot about the character's personality.

*Each new scene in a story should have at least one paragraph of description to clarify where the characters are and who is present. This should happen fairly early in the scene. Whenever your readers are unsure about the physical logistics of the story, they will be unable to fully suspend their disbelief and dive in; they will be too busy trying to figure out what's going on. You never want your readers to be unsure about who, what, when, and where. Give us the situation right away. Tell us who is in the room. Locate your story in a distinct place and time.

*Too much description can bog down a story, but not enough can have the opposite effect, making the characters seem weightless and detached from reality. However, this is something to think about only during the process of revision. You should not worry about it while actively writing something new. When it comes to description, finding the right balance will take time, space, and the clarity of mind that comes from editing a finished piece, not creating a new one. While you're actively writing, don't worry about whether you're using too much or too little description. Feel free to try things and make mistakes. When in doubt, write more description than you think you'll need. You can always take things out afterward. [Abbi Geni/Jane Friedman blog 3 June 2016]

Monday, September 17, 2018

Caitlyn and Emilie – an update

It has been a busy summer, and I can’t believe it has been three months since I posted a blog.  I have been posting a few blogs and Caitlyn Jamison news on my website:

The third Caitlyn Jamison mystery, set in Virginia’s beautiful Northern Neck region has given me some challenges. I’ve been back and forth with the plot line (s). Basically, I had too many plot lines, too many characters, and the story was not working. I’ve had to cut back on plot and characters, making all the tweaks, and simplifying the story so that it is more powerful and now moving along.

To make matters worse, I recently added a new first chapter, a prologue of sorts, which prompted another round of chapter shifts. As in my first two books, I am dealing with my characters' personalities and their desire to run the show.

I recently read 20 Master Plots by Ronald B. Tobias and he describes what authors experience as they develop their stories. My favorite quote from the book is: “Once characters take on lives of their own, they become difficult to control. They may not share your sense of plot. They may have their own agenda and leave you astounded by their imprudence. They defy you. They taunt you.” Boy, did he hit the nail on the head.

While I’ve been working on the next Caitlyn Jamison mystery, another book idea emerged. The protagonist is named Emilie, and she has been quite persistent. She does not want to wait to have her voice and opinions heard. So last weekend I started her story that will be set in Savannah, Georgia, one of our favorite places to visit. I won’t say any more about the story line now, because knowing character development, she might change everything that I had in mind. I hope in a month or so I can report on how Emilie is progressing.

In the meantime, I’m getting ready for NANOWRIMO - my way - again this year. What will you be writing?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Anatomy Lesson

I’ve been putting a lot of thought into what I would cover in my first Fiction Writing Critique group that will meet one month from now. There is so much information to share on writing the question is, where do I begin?

It occurred to me I should start out with an anatomy lesson. The first question is: what's your genre? Is it romance, mystery, cozy mystery, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, or literature? Maybe they don’t know yet, but I think it’s helpful to have a genre roadmap. And that roadmap should include geographically where the action takes place. If the story is sci-fi and another world is developed, that world has to have rules. Know what those are.

Stories are made up of scenes. I recently read an informative blog by Rebecca Monterusso on Jane Friedman’s site. The blog is titled: “What does it mean to write a scene that works?” Rebecca states that a book is made up of multiple scenes. It’s the time when the character is pulled out of their comfort zone. Scenes are the basic building blocks of the story and together they build the novel.

Which brings me to pacing. No matter what genre you are writing, some tension, stress, force for change has to happen. Pacing means keeping paragraphs tight, chapters of varying lengths. If the tension is too high, readers will need a chapter with a slower pace for some relief.

Character development has to be done first. Who is the protagonist? Their mirror character? Supporting characters? A writer needs to understand the characters, their physical characteristics, their emotions, psychological profile, and their history. If the writer knows their characters, he/she will know how they will react in various situations.

What is the plot line (s) of the story? How will your character work through the situation?  And how will it be resolved? If more than one plot line will they connect at the end or resolve separately?

I also want to cover formatting. I’m a visual person. When I’m writing I need to have the manuscript look like a book. I format when I start – for a 6 x 9 trade paperback, which my books are, the perfect margins for publishing through CreateSpace are: Left: .8; Right .8; Top .95; Bottom .8; Header and Footer at 1.0.  I also number chapters as I go – although this is sometimes time consuming when I’m moving chapters around, I find it is helpful to find my place when I return to the manuscript. I also page down with each chapter, keeping everything consistent – four returns from the top with chapter number centered on that fourth line. Then two returns before first line of text, with that line starting on the third return. The first line of text for each chapter is aligned on the left margin, with following chapters indented one quarter inch. I’ve trained myself to this consistent formatting which saves me a lot of time and effort at the end.

And we haven't even gotten to dialogue . . . that's for another session.

Everyone writes differently, but I hope these guidelines will be helpful to the critique group.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Uninvited Corpse

It’s always exciting when a new mystery series is introduced. It is even more exciting when the book is written by one of your friends, and she has a three-book deal with a major publisher. That is what Debra Sennefelder has accomplished. The Uninvited Corpse, the first book in her Food Blogger Mystery Series, was published in April.

Her protagonist, Hope Early, is a foodie. She loves to cook, she loves to bake. She loves to take photos of her recipes, and then write about her cooking experiences. She also has a strong sense of justice, especially when her sister is accused of murder. Although Hope is warned several times to stay out of the investigation, those warnings fall on deaf ears. She is determined to find the truth—who killed realtor Peaches McCoy?

Some of Hope's favorite recipes are included at the end of the book. Ethan's Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookies anyone?

Debra’s second book in this series, The Hidden Corpse, will be available in April 2019. The Uninvited Corpse can be found on Amazon.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Author Presentation at Celebrate

Getting ready for the presentation
Last Sunday I gave an author talk to Celebrate Virginia’s mystery book group, the Page Turner’s. They in turn invited the community, which resulted in a wonderful turnout. Now, I’m not so na├»ve to think they were all coming just to hear me! Members of Page Turner’s provided Finger Lakes wine, crackers and cheese as accompaniments to my talk. 

 After a brief background introduction, I shared information on what is involved in writing – anything. The number one ingredient is passion. Whatever they are writing, they need to be passionate about their subject. That will make the writing fun, and readers will sense it. What do you wish to accomplish? What is the story really about? And this question will come up multiple times throughout the development of the work. Because the characters will change, the plot will change. To keep yourself on track, you have to keep asking – what is this story about?

I then went into decisions an author has to make: Genre, main characters, plot line (s), time frame, setting, and will you be a plotter (outlining) or pantser (just write and see where it goes)?

I shared some funny stories about how my some of characters took over, and the results of their demands. And when you type “the end” it isn’t. You need to have beta readers, and you need to edit, edit, edit. (But know when to stop.)

Listen to the music of your works, I told them. If the words and sentence structure are correct, the words will be like music to your ears. If not, then a sour note will be evident.

I finished by explaining the latest in the publishing world, why I chose to self publish, and the marketing process. Yes, you have to have a social media presence.

I think everyone had a great time – at least they told me so – and I think I gave readers a better understanding of how books come about.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Finger Lakes Book Tour

Lansing New York Community Library
After a book is written, edited, and then published, an author has to prepare to market their book. Actually this preparation should have begun months earlier with the development of a social media presence alerting readers a book is coming and providing teasers to keep readers on the edge of their seats while they wait for publication.

An important step in marketing is meeting readers, and that is done through bookstore appearances and signings and presentations at various venues, such as book groups and libraries. I met a lot of readers this past week when I gave a forty-minute Keynote presentation at four rural Upstate New York libraries. It was wonderful to be greeted by so many readers and to be able to share my writing journey with them. I answered a variety of questions about the writing and publishing process. One of the attendees was about ten years old and when I asked her at the end of my presentation if it was helpful, she said, “Yes. I’m just thinking about what I have written.” I told her there were handouts at the back with a list of things I have learned, and I hope she was able to grab one.

Creative poster at the Ulysses Philomathic Library - "with a candlestick"

An important part of my tour was my hubby who drove me around and was responsible for getting the laptop hooked up to each library’s projector (we brought our own projector just in case), and my sister-in-law who listened to the same presentation four nights in a row (I suggested she bring a book after the first night – she did not – she enjoyed listening and learning a little more each evening). She set up the book table and sold them before and after the event. That was a godsend as it freed me up to answer questions, talk with people, and sign their books. My sister-in-law intended to keep track of the number of books sold, but she quickly learned that they go so fast, there was no way she could do that, talk to people, and make change.

Engaging with the Lansing Library attendees
 A week before the tour I contacted each library director to confirm day and time, A/V requirements, whether there was a screen (or blank wall for projection), and whether I would be allowed to sell books. Normally an author donates a book to each library where the presentation is given, but in this case, I had already donated several of each to the Finger Lakes Library System.

I returned home energized about the next Caitlyn Jamison mystery. I know there are many readers waiting.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Learning the craft of writing - A Writer’s Journal

In a recent Writers Digest interview Kristin Hannah stated she probably does more than ten drafts of her books. She also shared the fact that she had worked on one book for over two years and ended up throwing it away. These revelations startled me, a beginning writer, but the comments were also comforting. This craft of writing is a long and challenging journey. But one of great joy and satisfaction when you can make the words work. When you are able to share a part of yourself, your passions, your ideas.

To capture my ideas, passions, and helpful hints I keep a writer’s journal for each book. The first page has a working title and some plot ideas. Since this is the second Caitlyn Jamison mystery, I have bios on the main characters. The supporting cast will be developed as I go along. The second page has the publishing stats of the first book, i.e. margins, pagination, author price (I learned the more pages in the book the lower the royalty-Fatal Dose is about 40 pages longer than Unexpected Death, so my royalty for Fatal Dose is about 40 cents less.) I also jot down the ISBN number of each book and the number of pages in each.

On the following pages I continue to jot down plot ideas, and introduce characters. Plots change as the characters are developed, so my “Idea” entries change as the book progresses. I also make note of reminders as to scenes, plot structure, use of senses (2 or 3 in each scene), and a constant reminder: What is this story really about? Why should readers keep reading?

While working on the third book, I am busy marketing the first two. Those venues with contact information is captured in my journal. Also captured are books with citations that I use for research.

When I get well into the story I start tracking my word count. I keep a listing of each day’s progress with notes on what needs to be done.

When I get stuck, I review the notes in my journal. It is a way to see how my thought processes have changed as the book matures.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Dreaded Middle

It has been a long time since I posted on this blog, which means I have been working hard on my third Caitlyn Jamison mystery! My new website: also has a blog, plus a short blog called "Caitlyn's News," in which I keep readers informed about what she is up to as her new adventure progresses. So, counting my genealogy blog,, I now have three blogs, "Caitlyn's News" and a website to keep fresh, in addition to making progress on the third book. Whew!

Last week I hit the dreaded middle of my new book (working title: The Missing Waterman). Actually I was over halfway when I came to a screeching halt. I spent several days (and nights) wondering where I had gone awry. I liked the plot lines, and I liked the characters, so why couldn't I make the story go forward?

The answer came to me in the middle of the night: the story sequence was in the wrong order. The way I decided to fix that was to start over. Yes, with 0 word count. I started a new document in which I copied chapters from the original document, but placed them in a different order. I took pieces of chapters and put them where they worked better. I've left the fluff behind, and now have a work-in-progress that flows much better and the prose is tighter.

Utilizing the advice from the book, Make a Scene, I will go through those new chapters to make sure they fit the criteria. I then will put each chapter through WritingProAid, a software product that is an incredible editing tool. I want to make sure my base is solid before I go much further with the story. 

And that is the life of a writer. Always learning, always trying new ways to come up with an enjoyable story. May your writing give you much joy.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Scenes Provide the Framework

I am reading Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld, a book I highly recommend for every writer. It is a whole new way for me to look at and evaluate the scenes in my book. I had just started the first chapter when I grabbed my writer’s journal to take notes on how I should reorganize my text. The book is that good.

Ms Rosenfeld begins by defining the functions of a scene as “…the essential DNA of story: They are the individual ‘cells’ of information that shape the essence of the story …” From that overall description, she delves deep into the core elements of writing scenes, and then describes the various scene types.

She outlines the most important questions for each scene:
“Where are my characters in the plot? Where did I leave them in the last scene and what are they doing now? *What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene? *What is my protagonist’s goal for this scene? *How will that goal be achieved or thwarted?”

My writer’s journal notes from the first few chapters of Make a Scene instructed me to flesh out the undesirable character, Vince Russell, mentioned in the first chapter. The book reminded me there are always two sides, and I should tell Mr. Russell’s side of the story. He, too, has hopes and needs. Vince now has his own chapter, when before, he had a paragraph buried in the first chapter.

I realized I had stereotyped some of my characters. That’s wrong, and I have now reworked those scenes to better reflect the people and their culture.

I had not described the setting enough, and I find that is an ongoing process. It is part of the process where I have to slow down, delve deep into my characters and where they are in order to describe the setting they are in. This is not easy for me, but I’m working on it. Yesterday I enjoyed creating the town of Ingram and I hope my readers will enjoy it as well.

Keeping in mind the advice Ms. Rosenfeld provides in her book, I am crafting each scene launch carefully and strategically, and asking myself, what is each character’s role? By following this recipe, I have already reworked the first couple of chapters, and am looking forward to reshaping and fleshing out the later chapters.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Story Needs Passion

Sydney, my muse and advisor
An article by Deb Caletti in the latest Writers Digest caught my attention. In fact, I stopped reading and put the magazine down. The article gave me pause.

She said the first thing she asks her students before embarking on a writing project is to write down – What’s the point? As writers we learn about developing characters, plot, POV, pacing, dialogue, and the importance of editing, but the most important element is, in her words, “your own deep and personal connection to what’s on the page.” And that is when I realized that what I have developed so far in my third book is a story, but not a passion.

Ms. Caletti goes on to say, “The most important thing you can do, truly, is write the book that stirs your heart and disturbs your soul.”

I had to reevaluate what I was passionate about in my third mystery. The first two books had issues I was passionate about, and there were times when I couldn’t type fast enough. The passion and energy flowed out of me at such a fast rate my fingers couldn’t keep up. But not this time. And I thank Ms. Caletti for reminding me that feeling the story is of upmost importance.

I realized that what I am most passionate about is delving into each character, getting to know them, and to see how they react in various situations. I am also passionate about how Caitlyn deals with the cold case she becomes passionate about at a time of high stress in her job and family.

Is there more? The article prompted me to talk things over with my muse, Sydney. I asked her that all-important question—what am I passionate about? We came up with several more things, and I have to figure out how to work them into the story.