Monday, March 27, 2023

I Wrote 25,000 Words Last Week!

By Elaine L. Orr

Needless to say, I've never written 25,000 words in a week. I've been subbing more than half time, and last week was Spring break. I decided I had to get really close to finishing "New Lease on Death." I've worked on it way too long.

I think my brain moved faster than usual because I've been writing and thinking about this story for months. I have notes jotted on pieces of paper all over the place.

Two weeks ago I spent a few hours on my Chapter Summaries. There is enough detail on each chapter that I can track the plot and subplots and if I need to move scenes around. It's not for anyone else to see unless one of my wonderful critique group members wants to see it. You'd think a crazy woman wrote it, because I ask questions of myself and sometimes write things like, "This doesn't work."

Outlines are fine, and I do make detailed notes in advance for much of a book. However, sometimes it's not enough. The chapter summaries let me see where I am and then I write detailed notes (in the same format) for the next few chapters. 

I now have 50,000 words and a path to the end, which I think would be about 7,500 more. Knowing where I'm going makes all the difference.

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To learn more about Elaine L. Orr, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Am I Trying to Write Two Books Instead of One?

By Elaine L. Orr

I've been working on New Lease on Death (13th Jolie Gentil cozy) for several months, sometimes going full speed ahead, other times pausing for a week or more. Yes, I am busy. Who isn't?

When I'm not moving fast or feel stuck, I look at the intersection of plot and subplots and which character is doing what in each. Because the book has two points of view (sleuth Jolie Gentil and a former town resident who left under a cloud years ago), I've been careful to define each character's role carefully.  The usual who-does-what-to-whom and why, plus outlined details about the clues that lead to solving the murder.

I've been wondering if I'm stalling for...what? Time? I set the schedule. Today I went back to basics while sitting quietly (a.k.a. away from my computer) and wrote about the inciting incident. Then I insisted (to myself) that there were two inciting incidents.

Ah, a clue. Maybe I'm working slowly because I'm trying to write two plots instead of a plot with strong subplots.

Below is the working description of New Lease on Death.

Jolie always has her hands full appraising houses, running the food pantry, and enjoying her family. Enter Buck Brock — an annoying landlord who likes to skimp on amenities and wants Jolie to lowball appraisals on properties he’s buying. He makes Lester look like a mild-mannered uncle.

She and Scoobie also decide to let a troubled Iraq War vet back into their lives, and Jolie finds him work cleaning units for Buck. Or will Josh’s presence end up helping her family — especially Scoobie?

Jolie’s in the Java Jolt Coffee Shop when Buck’s weekend tenant (a friend of Jolie’s sister) collapses. No one expects her to die so quickly. It’s hard to identify suspects, but Josh pops up on the police radar. Or could some evil person have put poison in a Java Jolt product just to cause trouble?

Jolie, Scoobie, and friends are pondering this when an annoyed Buck asks Jolie to meet him at a house she just appraised. She’s peeved, but he’s a steady client. What she finds in the foyer does not encourage tourist traffic in Ocean Alley.

As a mom of four-year-old twins, Jolie doesn’t jump into crime solving casually. But figuring out two murders may be a leap she has to take.

Except it doesn't include my main subplot. I think this is going to be a week of rethinking. It's either two books or one that needs to mesh better.

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To learn more about Elaine L. Orr, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.

Friday, February 10, 2023

How Much is too Much in Describing a Fictional Universe?

By Elaine L. Orr

Writers need to know a great deal about their characters and the worlds in which they reside -- whether it's a fantasy setting built from the ground up or a small town the antagonist has lived in all of his or her life.

World building is the phrase used in fantasy and science fiction to describe the mythical or other universe an author creates. But I think all stories and novels build their own worlds; we call it the setting. 

However, the reader probably doesn't need to know everything about a place or environment. For earth-based fiction, does the reader need to know, for example, when a town was founded? Not necessarily. However, if a character is the descendant of a founder and wields influence in town politics, then it could be important.

Marlon James, a Booker Prize winning author, put it this way. "I think what sometimes goes wrong with world-building is that people spend too much time on it. Build to the point of where it's of use to the character, otherwise you fall into exposition."

It's easy to fall into excessive description. The writer can see the room a character enters perfectly, and it can seem important to get it all into the first draft. But it doesn't have to stay in the final. 

If a character describes a room down to the fabric the curtains are made of or a tool shed down to the lawnmower brand, what does that level of detail add to the reader's enjoyment? If the answer is, "Not much," those could become the paragraphs readers skim. 

I recently read a wonderful review of a memoir in Publisher's Weekly. Yet, this was the last sentence: the [memoir] "would not lose any of its charm for losing a third of its length." Yikes! A good reminder of why an author needs to be ferocious in paring unneeded text.

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Check Out Janice Hardy's Fiction University

By Elaine L. Orr

At least once a week I read about enhancing writing skills. In the "old days" I would read a new book on writing after I finished writing one of my books. There are so many Internet resources that I now go there first.

A site I now go to a lot is Janice Hardy's Fiction University. It's straight forward and indexed well. The site also addresses a broad range of topics rather than focusing on, for example, character development or structure. Sites with a narrower focus can be quite good, but I like being able to browse diverse subjects. 

Though there are topics such as marketing and the writing life, these are samples of those that deal with writing itself.

Developing Your Novel

Ideas and Brainstorming

Story Development and Theme

Character Development

Structure and Outlining


Goals, Conflict, Tension, and Stakes


World Building


Word Count

Series and Trilogies

Writing Your Novel

Voice and Style

Dialogue and Internalization

Point of View (POV)





Tone and Mood

 Common Writing Problems

Show vs. Tell




Lack of Conflict

Lack of Action

Lack of Goals

Lack of Tension

Lack of Motivation

Lack of Stakes

Stalled Stories

Editing Your Novel

First Drafts

Revision and Editing

Word Choice

Trimming Words

Critiques and Feedback

Click on any of the topics (when you're at the blog itself) and you'll see many articles. In a sign of how much people benefit from the posts, you'll see dozes of comments.

I generally want my characters to solve problems, and that's not always the most interesting reading. At the moment, I'm reading articles on lack of tension in stories, especially the one about adding tension during revisions

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Why Do We Think We Know What Pets Think?

By Elaine L. Orr

My family did not have pets growing up until after I left for college. Then my father brought home a curly-haired black mutt (part poodle). As kids left, he and a successor kept my parents company for years. Oh, there was my sister's cat. A male she named Princess and refused to change. For some reason, he often tried to swat my father.

Eventually, my brother and I shared a house as adults and -- like magic -- there were suddenly six cats running the place. One of them was addled and liked to sit on the speed bump in the street. If we heard honking and cussing, we knew where she was.

My husband and I have had two cat duos. The first consisted of Sammie (named Sammie Jeanne after his mother) and Magic, who jumped into my car in the courthouse parking lot and would not leave. Sammie was friendly to my husband and would crawl under the covers to sleep with him.

Sammie and Magic
If he whistled, she would try to bite my forehead. He swore he didn't train her to do that. Magic made me laugh every day, as you might guess from the photo of him on the records.

After those two, we had Stella and Phoebe, both rescues who joined us in 2005. Stella crossed the rainbow bridge in 2020, and Phoebe, toothless for a decade, still rules our lives. I've decided black cats are especially smart, and Stella was my girl.

We moved several times, so I would walk them on leashes until they knew the new neighborhood. People remember you when you do that. Even unleashed, the cats would follow us on walks, assuming if we were going somewhere they should, too.

Humans tend to anthropomorphize their animals. A.K.A. assume they have human qualities. That's why we talk to them. If they tilt their heads certain ways when we ask a question, we assume a certain response. Some answers are obvious. If you ask a dog if she wants to go outside and she sits, she doesn't want to go potty in the rain.

Pets in our Books

Why am I talking about pets in a blog that is mostly about writing? I like to put them in stories. My characters are generally sleuths who live alone. They need company. It's weird to talk to the furniture.

Pets can be a distraction, though that's not the best use in fiction. Mostly, I think they root a character in their place. S/he has to care for them; it matters if she gets home in time to let the dog out or feed the cat. The latter would have a place to potty but would knock things off the tables if ignored.

In a mystery series, a pet can be the constant in sleuth's life. In my Jolie Gentil series, which takes place at the Jersey shore, her black cat, Jazz, always has a role. So much so that she's on the cover of every book. Usually, she's simply asserting her place in Jolie's life, but she has been known to attack someone trying to harm Jolie.

Stella and Phoebe prevent writing

In the River's Edge series, set in rural Iowa, Mr. Tibbs crawls into Melanie's life in the first book. He's actually a female, but the prior owner had selected the male name, and it stuck. An example of a pet that provides humor.

In my mystery books, pets don't think for themselves (other than sensing danger and reacting to it). I'm not big on pets that communicate with their owners -- telepathically or otherwise. However, the Mildred Mistletoe holiday stories are told from a cat's point of view (a black cat, of course). Those are a lot of fun to write.

At the moment, I'm constructing a "who does what and has what role" page for the newest Jolie book. I realized I have no role ascribed to Jazz. If I add her to my thinking sheet, she could have more opportunities to shine. Or at least pester Jolie for treats.    

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Difference Between "My Bad" and "I'm Sorry"

By Elaine L. Orr

Admittedly, I'm not the youngest author on the block. However, I only began hearing the phrase "my bad" in the last couple of years. Apparently, it's a way to acknowledge that you did something, but you make no commitment not to repeat the annoying or inappropriate behavior.

My Bad permits the user to acknowledge behavior without expressing regret.

Why do I think this?

For several years, I've been a long-term substitute teacher in a middle school in central Illinois. I love it. The teachers and administrators are helpful and appreciative. The kids are largely well-behaved. Much of what they do I find funny, though I can't let them know I think that. 

The thing that bugs me is kids who insist on talking during quiet study halls or work time during a class. Yes, it's middle school. The goal of many students is to socialize with their friends -- even as they do their work. But lots of kids ARE studying hard or doing math homework and deserve quiet. 

So, twenty-five times an hour I tell a few students to stop talking and get to work or read a book. (I've already written about how it sends me through the ceiling to hear kids say, "I don't read.")

When a talkative student says, "My bad," it's the same as saying, "Could you please turn your back so I can keep whispering to my friend?" I may be exaggerating about the 'please' part.

Occasionally a kid will say they're sorry. The second time they are admonished and use that phrase, I say, "If you were sorry, you wouldn't keep doing it." It doesn't generally affect their behavior, but it lets them know I don't accept superfluous apologies.

A few days ago, a boy and girl sitting next to each other at a table kept quietly giggling. I can spot a potential boy-girl crush. After a couple times reminding them to be quiet, I asked the girl if she would like to move to an adjoining table so they wouldn't distract each other. She almost bounded to the other table. That was cute, not that I would tell them that. They also apologized as they left the room. That was a pleasant surprise. 

I'm not a total ogre. I simply grew up in an age where you obeyed a teacher who told you to shush. If you kept it up and a teacher sent a note home (no email, of course), you'd be in big trouble. And you'd quiet down because a parent would tell the teacher they wanted to know if the chattiness kept up. 

Times change and it's good to change with them as long as you can still live your core values.

As the end of subbing for 12-weeks in a study hall approached, boys in different classes asked me if I'd "do the Griddy Dance" on the last day. Not being a total dummy, I asked my sister if she knew what that was. She looked it up and said it was a short dance a current NFL player did in the end zone.

So, I did the Griddy Dance in several classes. Thank goodness the students can't have smart phones in the classroom. 

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Finish (or Start) that New Book for the New Year

By Elaine L. Orr

I usually pound away at books throughout the year. In 2022, I had a bigger mix of other responsibilities, and I finished one and started another. Not good if you count on book income.

However, the slower writing year has reminded me of what I tell aspiring authors.

 Except during times of dire emergency, you can find 15 minutes to write each day.

2) To make that 15 minutes productive, jot notes as you think of ideas. Otherwise, you'll forget them.

3) Think in terms of scenes rather than chapters.

4) Think of scenes as building blocks. You can add the transition glue later.

5) You don't initially need to write a story or book in order.

6) Keep paper and pencil in your glove compartment, backpack, or purse. Most people write faster on a keyboard, but you can write parts of scenes as you wait to pick up kids from soccer practice or in line at the driver's license bureau. (Why a pencil? Pens don't write in the cold.)

7) This is the hardest thing. Tell people you will be unavailable at certain times of the day or week. During that time, turn off your phone.

These suggestions may not be useful if you spend a lot of time worrying about what's going on in your life. If you can't get troubles out of your head, write them down. They're still problems, but it may help your mind move to other things (like writing) at least temporarily.

To follow my own advice, I'm using a special calendar in 2023. Each day, I must write one thing I've done to write a new book and one thing I've done to market my 30 books. Why a separate calendar? Because if I see the other things scheduled I won't concentrate on writing.

I'll let you know if it helps.

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To learn more about Elaine, visit her website or sign up for her newsletter.