The Adventure of Writing by Judy Alter



I confess. I am an unrepentant pantser, with only occasional regrets. I have heard writers say they simply sat down—in the day at a typewriter, I suppose, and today at the computer—wrote that first sentence, and took off from there, as curious as future readers would be to see what would happen. I’m not quite that bad. I have notes and rough ideas of what’s going to happen on the pages of the work-in-progress, but those ideas usually change dramatically as I write.
Right now, I’m working on a Blue Plate Café cozy set in a small Texas town and involving a thirty-year-old unsolved murder. I’m in the soggy middle, and the other day I was semi-stumped, writing some desultory background material, mostly to keep going. Most of it will probably come out in first draft.
And then suddenly, one character asked the other a direct, blunt question, and the entire direction of the last half of the novel changed, much for the better. I know where it is going, but I can’t attribute that sudden epiphany to any conscious effort on my part. It was all in that character’s question.
A couple of days later I was writing a scene in the café that is central to the series, when suddenly two strangers walked in, seated themselves, and began to visit. They were from Ohio on a back-roads tour of the American West, looking for interesting, out-of-the-way sites and towns. They stopped in Wheeler because of the old murder and a brand new one. What are they going to do in Wheeler? Will they become part of the story or move quickly on, their curiosity satisfied? I have no idea.
The late Elmer Kelton, iconic Texas novelist, used to caution, “Listen to your characters, and they’ll tell you where your book is going.” He told the story of his classic novel, The Wolf and the Buffalo. He sat down at his computer intending to write the story of a former slave who became a Buffalo soldier. His life was an upward arc. But there was a Comanche chief who just wouldn’t stay out of the action. Fighting against the encroachment of Anglo civilization on his tribal lands, his life was in a downward spiral. Despite Elmer’s best efforts, Gray Horse Running would not stay out of the action, and the award-winning book became the parallel stories of two men, one building a new world and the other losing his traditional world.
I know some authors plan out every page of work before they sit down to write, so that by the time they finish their outline, they have the book written. The actual writing is sort of like filling in the blanks—that method reminds me of paint-by-numbers, because it takes all the spontaneity and the joy out of writer. Other writers rely on computer programs to help them plot and keep track of scenes. To me, writing is an organic, living process, with a fluidity that changes constantly. Machines, no matter how sophisticated, can’t do that. One author, who scoffed at the idea of characters telling him where his book was going, was both a writing teacher and a prolific writer. “It’s my book, and I will decide what’s happening,” he proclaimed. I never hear about his books today. I do hear about Elmer’s work.
Over the years, characters have given me all kinds of surprises, from skeletons to hidden stashes of marijuana and a secret dungeon beneath the floorboards of a dining room. When you set out to write a cozy, you never know what will happen. But these days, when I have 30,000 words on a cozy and think I can never possibly get even another 30,000, I keep going because I know the light will hit. A sudden inspiration will send me sailing into the last chapters.
I don’t particularly like to travel, and I have friends who think that’s downright peculiar Don’t I want the sense of adventure, of discovering new places and people? I tell them I have enough similar adventures sitting at my computer. And I’m convinced those adventures keep me young.
Excuse me now, but I’ve got to go see what those two strangers are doing in Wheeler.
--Judy Alter


Judy Alter is the author of six books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries, two books in the Blue Plate Café Mysteries; and two in the Oak Grove Mysteries. Pigface and the Perfect Dog follows The Perfect Coed in this series of mysteries set on a university campus. Judy is no stranger to college campuses. She attended the University of Chicago, Truman State University in Missouri, and Texas Christian University, where she earned a Ph.D. and taught English. For twenty years, she was director of TCU Press, the book publishing program of the university. The author of many books for both children and adults primarily on women of the American West, she retired in 2010 and turned her attention to writing contemporary cozy mysteries.

She holds awards from the Western Writers of America, the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, and the Texas Institute of Letters. She was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and recognized as an Outstanding Woman of Fort Worth and a woman who has left her mark on Texas. Western Writers of America gave her the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement and will induct her into its Hall of Fame in June 2015.

The single parent of four and the grandmother of seven, she lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with her perfect dog, Sophie.




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Comments

I always love to read what Judy has to say.
Anonymous said…
Loved reading this. Thank you for sharing.

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