Saturday, July 13, 2024

Saturday, July 6, 2024


Please forgive the much-used quote in the title, but that is the question many writers face. And having tried and failed many times to complete an entire book until I outlined one, I fall on the side of outlining. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose one or the other. You can do a little of both, and I’ve recently learned this is called plotzing or plantsing.

Just to be clear, by outlining I simply mean a detailed summary of your story from beginning to end and a description of its characters, both written out in complete sentences. I am not referring to those tortuous devices required in many English classes with the Roman numerals, letters, numbers, or other bullets.

Pantsing, on the other hand, means writing without any pre-written guideline. The name comes from the saying of doing something “by the seat of your pants.” Sometimes, it’s called the discovery method. The writer starts with a general idea of a story or maybe a “what if . . .” question and begins writing. Often, the pantser does not know how the story will end, what characters will show up, or what the main conflict will be.

Many highly successful writers like Stephen King and Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James use this method. King, in fact, declares outlining a waste of time. Lisa Cron, in her book, Story Genius, explains that some people instinctively know what makes a good story, so “. . .the novel merely unfolds as they write, delightfully surprising them at every turn.” She concludes that these writers may think they are just writing blindly from one scene to the next and that “. . . that’s the nature of writing itself, rather than their nature.” Often these writers assume everyone else can do the same thing.

Unfortunately, not everyone can. How do we know if we need an outline or not? Simple. If you’ve written a complete book without it, you don’t need one. If you haven’t, and like me you’ve tried, you probably do.

If you’ve completed one or more books without an outline but can’t interest an agent/publisher or get many readers to buy it, perhaps an outline would have helped create a better story. Maybe not, but it’s worth considering.

Not too long ago, I heard a best-selling American author, whose name I now cannot remember, confess in a live interview with R. L. Stine that he would never write another book without outlining, even though he’d written many successful novels as a pantser in the past. To his surprise, once he started outlining, his rough drafts came together quicker and needed less editing. Those are some of the benefits of using an outline, even if you don’t need one.

I completed my first novel using the Snowflake Method which I now love. It allowed me to choose the level of outlining and how much detail to include. I did the lowest level or least required amount for this particular method. Once I had created all the major plot twists, conflicts, and obstacles leading up to the turning point and then resolution, I had a clear road map to complete a descent rough draft. I could have further outlined all the chapters and then each scene within the chapters, but I did not go that far. Essentially, I pantsed my way through each scene and later decided where to break each chapter. I don’t know how much of my next novel will be outlined, but I will certainly begin with one.

So, if you’re starting a book length work for the first or hundredth time, and you’re struggling to complete it, you might consider starting with at least a simple outline. I recommend the Snowflake Method, but there are many others. Just pick one and stick with it to the end of your story. Don’t give up when it gets hard or assume outlining isn’t for you. It may not be as easy or as fun as creatively writing from one page to the next, but I believe it will pay off in the end. It took me several weeks to produce the outline for my novel, but after decades of starting and never finishing a novel, I was thrilled with the results. By starting with a limited outline and then pantsing my way through the rest, I captured the best of both worlds. Find what works for you and finish that book!

Saturday, June 29, 2024


Many writers choose to hide their true identity and publish their works under pen names, sometimes referred to by the French phrase nom de plume, or the really fancy word, pseudonym. Why is that? Why wouldn’t you want to use your own name? After all, don’t you want proclaim to the world, “Hey, I wrote that!”?

According to Jennifer Sommersby, a/k/a Eliza Gordon, there are four primary reasons why a writer chooses to use a pen name: Confidentiality, Anonymity, Branding, and Gender Respect. Regarding Confidentiality:

Some writers want and/or need to keep their writing life completely separate from their day-to-day life, so that’s where a top-secret pen name might come into play. It’s very freeing to know you can write about something naughty or scary, and it won’t come up at a board meeting or in your employee review with an ultraconservative or snobby boss.

As for Anonymity? Many writers are introverts, i.e., they are not “attention-seeking weirdos.” Or, they want to maintain their privacy, especially “. . . after experiencing threats or other harm to their person or families.” Moreover, “Some writers want to make sure their kids or partners are protected from outside attention.”

Branding is another reason. If you write in different genres, having two names keeps the author’s brands separate. Can you imagine if Dr. Seuss also wrote erotica? (Maybe he did, but it certainly wasn’t under the name Dr. Seuss.) Or, “Think about Nora Roberts vs. JD Robb, though. Same author but two VERY different styles of books, right?” But, having two names can be very confusing at book signings.

Finally, there’s Gender Respect. “[T]he name on the front of a book can have an impact on a buyer’s choice.” Think of J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series. Rowling’s publishers, believing that the stories would appeal to both boys and girls, recommended using initials (J.K.) and not the author’s name (Joanne). And Rowling’s not the only example. “Did you know George Eliot, acclaimed novelist and poet who wrote Middlemarch and Silas Marner, was actually a woman? Her real name was Mary Anne Evans.”

How do you find a pen name? One of the most famous is Mark Twain, the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. How he got from Clemens to Twain is very interesting.

According to the blog Connell Guides, “Before “Mark Twain” he was “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.” And before “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass” he was “Sieur Louis de Conte,” “John Snook” and even “Josh.” But how did he settle on “Mark Twain”? Connell Guides continues:

Up until now there have been a number of competing theories about Clemens’s pseudonym. Most popular is the suggestion that the name derived from the riverboat call, “by the mark, twain.” Twain was an old-fashioned way of saying two, and the call referred to sounding a depth of two fathoms, which was just safe enough for a steamboat travelling down the Mississippi. The problem with this interpretation is that “twain” would have been an uncommon word choice on the Mississippi – [research by Kevin] MacDonnell . . . shows that Clemens’s own journals from his steamboat days use “mark two” instead of “mark twain.

The Nevada Sentinel newspaper claimed that the name came from the way a local saloon in Virginia City, Nevada kept a tally of Clemens’s bar bill by making chalk marks on the wall. “Clemens supposedly asked the barman to “mark twain” against his tab so often that the phrase became a nickname.”

Clemens himself debunked the The Nevada Sentinel’s claim in a letter, which reads:

‘Mark Twain’ was the nom de plume of one Captain Isaiah Sellers, who used to write river news over it for the New Orleans Picayune: he died in 1863 and as he could no longer need that signature, I laid violent hands upon it without asking permission of the proprietor's remains. That is the history of the nom de plume I bear.

Straight from the horse’s mouth. Must be true, right? Well, according to the Connell Guides blog, “MacDonnell, however, argues that this response is only a symptom of Clemens’s notorious tendency to tell tall tales and stretch the truth.” The blog elaborates:  

MacDonnell’s research led him to discover a sketch that uses the name in 1861, two years before Clemens says he adopted it. The magazine in question was the comedic journal Vanity Fair (unrelated to today’s Vanity Fair) – which Clemens later referred to as an early influence on his work. The sketch depicts a group of Charleston mariners who are “abolishing the use of the magnetic needle, because of its constancy to the north.” The characters involved are named “Mr. Pine Knott,” “Lee Scupper,” and “Mark Twain.

The three names are nautical puns: the first for dense wood, the second for a drain and the third for shallow depth. Clemens took a liking to the latter, adapted it and invented the Captain Sellers story later in order to promote his burgeoning series of riverboat writings.

Hmmm. A tall tale about a fake name? Seems like something Mark Twain would do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go whitewash a fence.

(Sources: Why do writers use pen names? — Eliza Gordon; Biography - Mark Twain House; and The origin of Mark Twain’s name – Connell Guides.)

Saturday, June 22, 2024


Tiny McIntosh apple
My McIntosh produced its first tiny apple.
Time is always the issue, isn't it? I'm constantly scrambling for time for all the things I want and need to do. So often I've despaired over ever being able to finish another novel. I'll stress about the amount of time required so much that after the first few sessions on a new project, I may even give up. After all, there’s so much else I need to do right now, or want to accomplish in my life.

With attention fractured and pulled in different directions, it can be hard to focus, even for blocks of time as short as twenty-five minutes as part of the oft-recommended (and justly so: it does work) Pomodoro Technique

But what if you don’t have twenty-five minutes to spare? What if you find even that amount of time daunting as you stare at the blank screen or page, when you’re not sure where the plot or characters are going? What if, instead of writing, you just spin your wheels about all the sacrifices needed to make time to finish that novel?

My suggestion: try something even smaller.

It may sound counterproductive. How could one possibly get anywhere by working on a novel for only fifteen minutes, or even ten?

Yet—ten minutes might be exactly what we have, at the end of the day, before falling asleep. Fifteen minutes might be available while waiting in a parking lot, on hold for customer service, or even standing in line.

For years now, I’ve been leading micro writing workshops for Hampton Public Library as Adele Gardner. These are free, one-hour sessions via Zoom. (Adele’s Writers CafĂ©; ages 18+, free, online only, registration required, which has been through Hampton Public Library’s Eventbrite, but that might change due to changes in how Eventbrite works. I typically lead several in spring and several more in fall. You can also hear about these via the Gardner Castle listserv, where I post news about my writing and art.)

For these sessions, I devise writing prompts, and then all the participants create very short pieces of fiction or poetry during a set period of time. In between prompts, those who wish may share their creations with the group. Depending on participation, we usually cover three or four prompts per session.

After much experimentation, it seemed to work best for everyone to write in ten-minute blocks. Some people are finished earlier; many are still in the middle of writing; but it’s a comfortable length of time, permitting enough space to quickly come up with an idea and create something that captures it without having too much time to overthink things. These are necessarily rough drafts, made with the intention of coming back later to add more and/or polish the work. But people have written some amazing and beautiful things at these sessions.

The length of time seems perfect for the “micro” works we’re striving for: though we’re not counting words or lines, and often run over, the aim is to make poems/flash pieces of 20 lines/200 words or less. The timer set for ten minutes lets the brain set to work quickly, on a sprint. There’s no time for the lengthier ruminations one might fall into during twenty-five minutes. One must simply get right to work. Find the first idea that catches your fancy and go!

Yes, a good poem can take a long time to finish. I recently spent over thirteen hours writing and rewriting a longer poem (over 100 lines). But often, for me, poems and short stories have seemed like a more achievable goal, because of the time involved. However, I’ve always dreamed of writing book-length fiction. So far, I have one mystery novel written but not published; but that often happens with first novels, so I need to finish the next one, and the next. However, that first one took ten years to complete! I’ve been finding it hard to even start on the next, since I don’t want to devote that amount of time. So I’ve been stymied.

Then I wondered—how long would it really take, if I approached it the way I do in my own workshops?

Since this is a novel we’re talking about, I decided to experiment and see what would happen if I tried fifteen-minute blocks.

When writing by myself, I do get distracted—a lot—so I decided to track how long I’d been working when the first urge to check my DMs or mow the lawn struck. It’s often about seven to ten minutes into a new writing session. Perhaps it takes that long for my anxieties about time to really kick in. But if I’m only aiming to write for fifteen minutes—and I check the timer and find I have eight minutes left, or only five—I can keep going for that amount.

Try it! Set a timer for fifteen minutes. Tell yourself, “It’s only fifteen minutes.” It’s just the length of a break at work, on which you can walk outside with a notebook or your phone (do some voice typing in a note or send yourself a text or email). In fact—if you’re in the middle of a marathon yard-work session, as I was last night—you will probably find a little break in the middle to be really helpful!

I’ve come up with some really interesting new angles on my characters and plot during those fifteen minutes—especially when I had no idea what I was going to write when I sat down.

Fifteen minutes can also keep you from getting trapped in a brainstorming spiral. Or it can keep a scene short, if it turns out to be something you want to experiment with but aren’t sure yet that you want it in the book.

Typically, I can write anywhere from 250-500 words in a fifteen-minute session. Most often lately, it’s at least 350+ words. Your mileage here may vary, and that’s perfectly okay. Remember, it’s only fifteen minutes. (And you’ll probably get more words per session once you start doing it every day.) Note: Your average word count per hour won’t apply here. I write a lot more in four separate fifteen-minute sprints than I do in one solid, unbroken hour. I think our brains gear up for a short sprint and we get the words out there a lot faster.

I did the math. For a fantasy novel, I’d want my first draft to be about 90,000 words before I get in there and start rewriting and editing. Even if I only wrote fifteen minutes each day, and even if I only did an average of 250 words per session, I’d be done with the amount of rough draft I need in less than a year.

When I look at it in terms of fifteen minutes a day…it doesn’t seem like such a huge sacrifice, either. I’m not really taking anything away from my family or other commitments. It’s a between-time. As long as I take my writing device or tools with me, I can make art anywhere I happen to be. For fifteen minutes, or even five.

I do try to get in at least two fifteen-minute sessions per day—one in the morning before work; one at night before bed. That way I’ll have half the year to make my draft, and half the year to revise.

Though I do also write in longer sessions when I can, I actually find I’m coming up with some of my best ideas when I sprint this way! It’s even allowing me to explore writing scenes from the points of view of side characters. Whether or not these scenes make it into the book, it’s a helpful way to explore and learn more about their character and motivations.

Of course—you’ll want to put in more time when you can. There’s research, for instance. And for at least some of the editing sessions, you’re going to want more time to consider things beyond the sentence currently in front of you. But as a start, as a means to create the draft needed to be able to start editing in the first place—this really seems to be working for me.

I hope it helps you as well.


For more information about Max Jason Peterson (they/them), visit or the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram links through Here’s a recent interview as Adele, but the author goes by Max in daily life.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Jammed Up by Judy Fowler


Ah, the fruit trees of Coastal Virginia. Since I moved here from the Big Apple twenty years ago, I've met at least twenty homeowners who wished their trees would be less fruitful. 

You don't see the problem coming when buying property. I once spotted a promenade of fruit trees behind a beyond-dilapidated house in Hertford, N.C., and all I could think of was the homemade jam I'd give away at Christmas. Now I'm grateful the owner turned down my offer. 

Last summer I crossed jam-making off my bucket list. When a retired friend called to say he wanted to surprise his adult son by clearing the son's backyard of a hailstorm of purple plums, I grabbed my inherited 1947 copy of Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking and headed out.

My friend stood waiting for me to arrive. The soles of his deck shoes were stained purple. 

He accepted the five-pound bag of sugar I'd picked up on the way. "We're going to need a bigger bag."

I quickly saw the problem in the backyard. He'd collected five buckets of fallen plums but a thousand more plums—squished and not squished—blanketed the grass below one medium-sized tree.  

His son's immaculate kitchen featured a white countertop. My friend had placed ten small jars there. He turned two buckets-worth of fruit into the sink and ran water over them. My job was to find a suitable cooking pot. His son had two saucepans—one small and one medium-sized.

"We're going to need a bigger pot," I said. "Maybe there's one in the garage?"

"He'll be home by five, and it's already one-thirty. We'll use the larger saucepan. I'll cook. You read."

Our grandmothers and mothers had used Rombauer's cookbook, so faith in its author came naturally to us. I'd marked the section on jam-making with a stroke symptoms flier someone had left in the book. "Shall we make Plum Jelly, page 703, or Plum Jam, page 706?"

"Jelly's fine."

"'Plums have their own pectin,'" I read. "That's a relief because I don't know what it is. Do you?"

"Read on."

"Once the plums are washed, place them in the pot."

"How many?"

"She doesn't say." I wondered why the recipe didn't include cutting up the plums first. "'Boil them in water until soft.'"

He pushed as many plums as possible into the saucepan, filled it with water, and lit the burner. At my insistence, he poked holes in some of the fruit so they wouldn't pop open."What next?"

"'Strain when soft.'" I located a colander.

"What happens after we strain it?"

"'Put the juice through a jelly bag.'" 

Neither of us knew what a jelly bag was. "I can google it," I offered.

"Never mind," he said. "Whatever it is, we don't have one. We'll improvise."

Improvising. Red stains on the white counter. Not my son. I kept reading. "We need a two-cup measure. The recipe says, 'Empty into each cupful of juice ¾ to 1 cup of sugar. Boil four cupfuls at a time and taste each cup to be sure it's sweet enough.' Neither of us should be drinking all that sugar."

"They're boiling over. I'll turn off the heat and make the jelly bag."

"It says the jelly bag can be made of flannel."                                                                          "Unless you brought flannel pajamas or a lumberjack shirt I'll use this dishtowel." 

If the bag he fashioned failed us, his son's kitchen would end up looking like a crime scene. 

"RULE FOR MAKING JELLY, page 699 says pectin forms best in underripe fruit."

"You never said that. I'm boiling multiple levels of ripeness here."

It's taken me until retirement but I've learned not to say, 'I'm sorry,' to bossy men. "I thought Rombauer would make this a joyful experience."

"You're too optimistic as a person."

"I'm optimistic? Who's cooking five buckets of plums in a medium-sized saucepan?" 

"I've almost got this dishtowel into a funnel shape."

"I looked at the softened plums. He'd dumped in as much sugar as would fit next to them. "The recipe says none of the fruit should float. Some of these are still floating. I think you turned the heat off too soon."

He kicked one of the buckets part-way across the floor. That had to hurt. "Pour the stuff from the pan into that colander," he snarled. "I'll catch it with the rolled-up dishtowel and squeeze it into this mixing bowl." 

Only a trickle reached the bowl. I picked up the book again. "'If the jelly is to be clear and sparkling, do not squeeze the bag.'"

I'd never seen him set his teeth the way he did then. "How can I get any jelly out of the bag if I don't squeeze it?" The stains on his son's dishtowel grew. The formerly white counter was purple.

"Let's switch to jam," I said. "Jelly needs too many gadgets. Here it is. 'For Plum Jam follow the rule for Quince Jam, page 705.'"

By two-thirty, the only things we'd strained were our patience and the limits of our friendship. We had two half-filled jars. I wished I'd checked Google to see if any advances had been made in jam-making since 1947."Do you think your son would mind if I eat some of his granola?"

"This should be easier," he said. You must have skipped something."               

"Only lunch. You really needed a two-cup measure," I said. The recipe said to cook four cupfuls of jam at a time for twenty minutes. 'It should be thick and smooth.'"

"Twenty minutes after it's thick and smooth or twenty to thicken?"

"We've been at this for hours," I said. "Your brow is dripping sweat, and there's no dishtowel left to wipe it. The floor is getting sticky with jam." 

"Doesn't that book say anything helpful?"

"It says 'stir frequently from the bottom as it is apt to stick.'"  Gunk had hardened on the inside of each of our two saucepans. He tried to loosen it with a spatula.

"Try a spoon," I suggested. "My grandmother made jam and she always shooed me out of her kitchen with a spoon. Now, was her spoon wooden or metal?" 

I was playing for time. I didn't want him to know Rombauer had moved on to Fruit Butters. Once he'd found out, my friend walked the remaining buckets of plums one at a time to the end of the driveway. He hid all evidence of our jam-making disaster, including the dishtowels, in a neighbor's covered trash can. I scrubbed the counter, but I'd seen too many cop shows to think I could get it all out.  

 At five o'clock when his son walked in to say Happy Father's Day we were fighting over the remote and polishing off the last of a three-cheese pizza delivered by Door Dash. The son's dad was an OK liar. He said we'd given the fruit to a homeless shelter, which we certainly will do if there's ever a next time. 



Saturday, June 8, 2024


Summer is just around the corner, and everyone is getting ready for some fun in the sun! There is a lot to do in the beautiful summer months. Some people will take vacations they have planned months before, while others will travel spontaneously to their destinations. Staycations are also popular choices; experiencing local outings can be a fantastic way to spend summer days.

Summer, oh, how it stirs up nostalgia in me! It is one of my favorite seasons, a time when I find myself reminiscing about summers gone by. The fun-filled days and the not-so-perfect moments—all of them are etched in my memory as wonderful experiences. From family vacations, driving to different states to visit family and friends, going to amusement parks to the bee/wasp stings I endured while playing outside, going on fishing and camping trips, to baseball games where I once sat on a red ant’s nest.

My fondest memories are the Fourth of July celebrations. As I write this, the smells and booms of fireworks shooting up in the sky, bursting to show their bright colors of red, green, blue, and orange, are vivid. It was my highlight of summer, followed four days later by my birthday celebrations.

In recent years, I traveled to various cities during the summer. This summer, I decided not to travel but to do a staycation to relax and unwind. We will attend Juneteenth and 4th of July celebrations, watching fireworks and joining in the festivities. Some of my family will visit in July for my birthday. I look forward to spending time with them and creating new memories. I also look forward to cookouts and going to the Virginia Beach Ocean Front, Williamsburg, and Bush Gardens.

In my writer’s life, I am going to complete the first two books of a mystery series. To do so, I am setting up interviews with professional female truck drivers. Who knows, I may even be able to go on the road for research with one of them. Now, that would be an adventure! I will also finish building my author’s website and participate in many book signings. An anthology I am a contributing author in will be released soon, so I will be participating in a launch party and promotional book signings.

On the not-so-busy days this summer, I am looking forward to reading, binge-watching movies, and television shows, and just enjoying the dog days of summer.

What are some of your most memorable summers? What plans do you have for this summer?

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Agatha Christie - Pick Your Poison by Teresa Inge

While participating on the Agatha Christie panel at the Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem event this year, we discussed Christie’s fascination with using poisons to kill many of her characters. Thanks to her work as a nurse and a pharmacy dispenser during World War I, her knowledge of poisons was extensive.

In her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, strychnine is featured, and it is described as an ideal poison for a writer due to its rapid onset and dramatic effects. But the poison she used most frequently is Cyanide, appearing in And Then There Were None and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. In other books, victims die from arsenic, digitalis, and morphine.

However, Christie was not the first writer to introduce poison in a mystery novel. She just used them with such incredible detail, that a reader could learn about a new poison and its effects instantly. This method made her novels quite sophisticated to readers during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, which is often referred to as the Golden Age of Poisons, largely due to Christie and her contemporaries who used toxins to dispatch characters in their novels.

The panel discussion continued with the methods of murder that mystery writers use today to bring about a character’s demise. These include stabbings, shootings, blunt objects, fire, drowning, and strangulation.

However, the use of poison still continues in culinary mysteries and other genres. Writers use plant poisons such as hemlock, lily of the valley, poisoned mushroom, Nicotine, and Oleander. Drugs and medicine include insulin, sedatives, Tylenol, and Fentanyl. All of which are fascinating to today’s mystery readers.

Since Agatha Christie was a "pick your poison" writer and most likely had fun with it, in many ways, poison became a personality in her stories which is almost a clichĂ© today. But her novels live on due to her well-crafted plots, interesting characters, and realistic descriptions of the toxin's symptoms, which is why she is crowned "The Queen of Crime."






  The Listeners BY  WALTER DE LA MARE ‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,       Knocking on the moonlit door;