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Roughing It

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Feet First

When writing a rough draft, I find it easiest to jump in and write a few chapters to see what the characters have in mind. Which works well for me – except when it doesn’t.


Ten chapters into my latest work in progress I stumbled upon a major problem. I didn’t know how it ended. Worse, I found that I couldn’t see where this story began. This is a stumbling block of insurmountable proportions, so I quickly stopped to take stock to see what I could do to get over, around or through it.


I hauled out every book I own on plot. (Amazingly enough, I own tons of books about writing. I must love to read or something.)

  • Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
  • Save the Cat  by Blake Snyder
  • The Weekend Novelist by Robert J Ray
  • The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field
  • Plot by Ansen Dibell
  • Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress
  • and No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty, founder of NaNoWriMo, or how to pretend to write a novel in 30 days.


Surely these fine authors could help me plow through this challenge easily.




After spending an inordinate amount of time looking at these books – and a multitude of blogs – I came to the harsh conclusion that these folks are not me. Their solutions are not mine. I needed to look at this from my own perspective.


I filled out index cards. (Actually, I let Scrivener print the index cards — love this program.)

I plotted the fifteen point solution to plotting that so many children’s writers use.

I looked at inciting incidents and plot points and character motivations. And still had the front end problem.


So I took it to the mat, AKA my critique group.


They didn’t tell me what to do; They asked me questions. And I found my answer. I still have to do the work, but my critique group helped me find it. (Have I mentioned lately why I love critique partners?)


So what were the questions they asked?

What is her motivation? (She had two conflicting ones, which explains a lot about why I was sitting there treading water with her instead of moving forward.)

What does she want?

Why does she take the job that is central to the book’s action?

What scares her about the job?

What are the stakes for her if she fails?


None of these were new-to-me questions. I had done an extensive character sketch that includes these questions before starting this book.


But remember that duality I was dealing with. I hadn’t decided if she was inherently light or if she had a slight streak of larceny running through her veins. Turns out the duality makes sense for this character. One of her main motivations is to reunite with her family. She’s been cast out for getting arrested for grand larceny. Made sense if her family was on the good-guy side of the art world, but things kept cropping up in the chapters  that indicated her family were criminal masterminds. (Which I was loving.)


Then came  a follow-up question, the perfect question.


What if it was the character’s family of origin had a split-personality?


One branch are law-biding, fine upright member of society kind of people. The other branch of the family are highly organized thieves. Main Character’s got to make a decision which path to take incidentally deciding which side of the family are “her” people.


That sounds like something I can work with.


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Fish Heads

I have been waiting for several months for the latest revision to perk a bit on the back burner before jumping back in.

Just before I turned in my manuscript for the SCBWI conference critiques, it hit me. I had it all wrong.

When my husband goes fishing, he has the presence of mind to gut the fish and chop off the head before he tosses the fish into the cooler. He knows how I feel about fish. I like them fried, broiled, sautéed, but never ever with the head on.

Readers like their books the same way. Appetizing, without a stinky dried up piece of inedible flesh hanging about on their plate.

Writers often have to know so much more than readers need  or want to know about what is going on in the background. Writers need that background noise to give us insight into characters motivations and history. When I write my initial drafts, there is so much extra information on the page that the book is often twice as long as it needs to be. (Still trying to figure out a more efficient way of figuring it all out!) Thus, writers often need to prune their manuscripts before it goes to agent, editor, and reader.

I was fortunate enough to get into a novel revision workshop a month before the deadline for my seven minutes of fame with a hot agent. I took my recently completed middle grade novel featuring a young girl who lives for horses. (Sound like anyone you know?) The workshop went like this. We were teamed up with three other writers. We sent out manucripts to each of the other three writers and they did a detailed critique. My results? All three people who read my manuscript picked the eighth chapter as the first strong chapter. That meant the opening of the book contained seven weak chapters in a row. Ouch!

Not all that many readers are going to stick it through to the eighth chapter just on the off chance that the book will get interesting . . . eventually. So I started reading the book at the first strong chapter, Chapter Eight. The story still made sense and moved quickly…yes there were some key things missing, but it was clear what had to be done.

Fish Head. Whack. First six chapters hit the NotUsedMaterial.doc file. Voila.

I reworked the first page of the Chapter Seven, aka new Chapter One, smoothed the rest of it a bit, then sent it in and began to work on another project. After all it would be another two months before I got to sit down and listen to the notes the agent had for me on the piece.

Of course I spent some of that time worrying. Had I cut it too close to the action? Six chapter off the front of a manuscript is an awful lot of material to cut. Would the characters and their relationships still be understandable?

Evidently yes, because when I sat down with my critiquer, she said it read well. Not well enough that she wanted to rep it, but she did give me loads of great notes to work from, but all in all a much more positive outlook from this than I got last year.

So now all I have to do is rewrite the rest of the story so that it 1) fills enough pages to actually be a book and 2) keep it exciting and satisfying enough that someone will want to read it all the way through.



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NYC Bridge BubblesThe magnificent Deborah Adams, author of the Jesus Creek mystery series and editor in chief of Oconee Press, asked me to guest blog for her. This made me realize just how long it had been since I posted a new blog article here.


Long time, no see. Now working on a blog schedule for myself. I am letting myself go. This Will Not Do.


Happy Writing!


Not that I’m shutting the door on anything just yet, mind you.

But the magazine article writing is going well.

My first article in Texas Gardener comes out in the April/May issue. Look for it at stores near you.

Fiction requires a pretty darn long stretch with no other commitments in it for me to accomplish anything much. I need to clear a few things off my desk first before I can really tidy up the WiP and send it out. I expect to get back to writing my stuff – as opposed to other people’s stuff – within the month. I’ll be back to blogging regularly then.


Until then, I’ll leave you with a quote for thought:

“The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say but what we are unable to say.” – Anais Nin

A great exercise to figure out where you don’t want to go is to write, “I am afraid….” over and over again until the sentence rises up off the page and punches you in the gut. Then you’ll know a compelling subject on which to set your sights.



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Sprouting Dirt

Large Roma Tomato

I am going to do something I have not done for a long time. I am not ordering seeds from any of my favorite catalogues.

This is breaking my heart, but, it is preferable to breaking my neck. Which, it appears, is what I’ve been doing to myself.

I am not giving up gardening, only cutting back. I will sow the seeds I saved from my tomatoes: Italian Heirloom gotten from Brad Stufflebeam of Home Sweet Farm fame, Carbon seeds saved from a shipment from Home Sweet Farm’s CSA back when I was a working shareholder, large Romas, and small and large Slicers. I call them Slicers because I had planted five varieties of “slicers” in that bed and I’m pretty sure they’re as mixed up as I am when trying to decipher my husband’s handwriting.

Got a couple of varieties of pepper, some herbs and greens. Cucumbers. Melons. Butternut and spaghetti squash. Not a whole lot else going in.   What’s that you say? You think this is a lot? Maybe I saved a lot more seed than I thought I had. Maybe – you don’t have to spend money on seeds to have a garden.   But, and here’s where I steer myself back on track again, you have to grow the dirt to grow the garden.

Cousin Emme Sue always said to put a fifty-cent plant in a five-dollar hole. I have followed that advice religiously. So to build up my soil, the first thing I’m doing is sampling the soil that is already in place. Then I’ll add in the yummy goodness that only compost can bring (My horses’s manure, leaves and kitchen scraps were churned all summer by the chickens and have rested for the past three months, waiting for the time when I break out the front loader on the tractor and dig into the middle of the pile. I have about three yards of compost this year. Should be enough to amend the kitchen garden beds and perhaps have enough left over to fill in that pesky dip in the backyard.

Just waiting for results from the soil lab so I know what to add in addition to the compost. Why would I need to add anything else Micronutrients. Something to raise or lower the pH. Provide balance to the N-K-Ph mix. An excuse to dig in my lovely new dirt?


Sorry — gotta go watch my dirt grow.

Almost planting time!




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See my quote included in the Arts and Culture Houston Magazine article about artists leaving their own nest – what cross-contamination with other art forms does for our artist’s soul.

Mine comes complete with run-on sentences, one of my specialties when waxing enthusiastic. Enjoy!



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Prompt me?

Last night’s SCBWI meeting was great fun. Pat Miller brought writing exercises from her favorite writing books. She sure can pick ’em – both the books and the exercises were terrific.

Her handout featured a neat quote:

Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.
– Norman Mailer

Her choices of Books for Writers?

30 Steps to Becoming a Writer by Scott Edelstein, Running Press, 2005

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, Little, Brown, 2006

The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell. Writers Digest Books, 2009

The Write-Brain Workhook: 366 Exercises to Liberate Your Writing by Bonnie Neubauer. Writer’s Digest Books, 2006

What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. Harper Collins, 1990

Pat started her talk by sharing her favorite tip from book number one: keep a writing journal.

I carry a slim one in my purse at all times. Useful for longer pieces of writing, notes at meetings, musings, and stray ideas knocking at the door of my imagination. I also use 750words.com to do my Morning Pages. (Anyone who knows Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way knows all about these.)

Then we carried on with a writing exercise: Write a scene totally in dialogue:

“It must have been really hot in here for that to melt. I know, hand me that spatula.”
“You can’t use that.”
“What would you use?”
“A knife?”
“That would scratch the paint.”
“A spatula will scrape it too.”
“Not if you hand me the plastic one.”
“It’s a bookshelf, not a non-stick pan.”
“Fine, give me the knife. To hell with the paint.”

What does this sound like to you? (I meant it to be two people bickering about how to get a melted candle off a bookshelf.)

Book Two brought the exercise:

Take a character and outline three expected outcomes from the scene in question. Now outline three unexpected outcomes.

Pat suggested taking a groundhog and having him fall ill the day before Groundhog’s Day, and then the doctor tells him he has to stay in bed for two days.

Expected: stands up and falls down
Gives clothes to friend to have him imitate him
Goes under the covers and won’t come out.
Dies (Okay, so I am a mystery writer. Deal.) As a ghost no shadow so winter goes on.
Pops up and is promptly sick all over the place. “Groundhogs aren’t green. Impostor!”
Hires a Honey Badger to take his place.

The room was really into it by this time, so exercise three was warmly received. (Frankly, this may be exercise four, but think of me kindly as I sit here typing madly away when the doc says I ought to be in bed resting my neck.)

Write the worst paragraph you possibly can.

We met by the tamborine band so I know you couldn’t have heard me when I told you about my book so I thought I’s write it all down and mail it to you cause this is the best idea I’ve ever had and I’ve had a few. I want you to be the one to discover me. The groundhog dies. Really. Dead as a doornail. So they can’t see him. Or his shadow. Get it? Anyway, read the book.

Pat showed us her No Thank You book, a wonderful compilation of Rejection or “No Thank You” letters received over the years. She filed them immediately into a folder (With page protectors no less!) That way when she got rejections she could feel like she was building a future prop to share with classrooms when she did school visits. Great hint: She files the version of the story with the rejection so that she can keep track of the changes as it goes along.

Fourth – or third, remember I was working on scratch paper because I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been and left my slim little book at home. Plus, see previous note about neck.

Write about a sunny May morning…..merged with slinky. Begin with: When I

When I hit the floor that morning, I found ricocheting back into bed. That had never happened to me before, but then I’d never turned 13 before either. Later, when I went to slapsh my face in the bathroom, the water bounced off my skin onto the mirror.
“Oh no,” Mom said when she saw me bounce my way across the kitchen to clutch at the chair by the table. “that spell must have ricocheted when I shot it at your father last night. Hold on,” she said, rummaging in the spice drawer. “Aha. Now hold still” and she blew ginger….

The last exercise was about putting a familiar character in an unfamiliar place:

The prompt she gave us was Goldilocks

Goldilocks stared in the mirror, green eyes stared back at her, a little white showing all around. Her gaze darted upward and another moan escaped her throat. Snow White would sure crow when she saw this. Who went to the Prince’s Ball with green hair?


It was hard to come down from the high of all those exercises to the mundane business of the chapter, but that has its place in the order of things and there was plenty of great news. Lots of new folks in attendance, so that was a nice thing to see as well. Welcome!




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Pay Dirt

Picture of CheckI did an interview today. Don’t get me wrong, this is not my first rodeo. I’ve done loads of interviews, but this time, I’m getting paid.

Reminds me of when royalty statements came with a check.

It feels good to have income coming in. It is amazing how many writers I know who write for pennies per grueling hour upon hour creating and then revising their prose just so someone can come up to them at a conference and say, “Gee, I downloaded your book from ElRippoffSite.com and loved it.” Notice they did not say they paid for it. Many readers think that writers write simply for the satisfaction of having someone they don’t know read their work. Don’t get me wrong, that’s kinda cool, but the whole work for getting paid thing works for me too. Especially when I get my electric bill.

So how do you go about paying for someone’s work? You can do it the old fashioned way and go into a bookstore and look for the books that leap off the shelf into your hands and beg you to read them. Or you could ask for my books specifically, and, when they don’t carry them, you could – gasp – order them. I know. Delayed gratification doesn’t play well in my house either. The truth is that most authors’ hard work is not carried in all bookstores. Even when the author works hard, play by the industry’s rules and rewrite until their eyeballs bleed, submit to agent after agent and collect enough rejection slips to paper their garret – learning a little about what works on the page and what doesn’t over a period of years – and then, finally, get that contract promising a tiny check upon submission of the completely revised novel. You get paid more if and only if you earn our your advance. Which is what the pittance is called. Don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to pay my electric bill for the year with $2000. (Notice I didn’t even mention rent or water or gas or…you get the idea.)

Back to how to pay for a writer’s work. You can order the book online from any number of places, my favorite being Murder by the Book in Houston. Yeah, you’ll have to pay shipping, but if you order it from your local bookstore, then you don’t. (Plus, then the bookseller in your town will have heard of my books and might, just might, order more than one.)

Then there’s the e-version. Mine are not quite out in that format yet, but machinations have begun to make it so. Once it is accomplished, here’s what you do: Go to Indiebound.com , search for Murder by the Book in Houston, then look me up. (Again, not yet, cause hey, I’m not quite there.) But once I am, then you’d download the book through Indiebound.com and read it on your e-reader. (Yes, even KindleFire can read books from Indiebound.org and you can even set this device to order from stores other than Amazon.

So pick an author, say Miranda James, whose excellent new book just came out. Click on over to Indiebound.org and take a gander through Murder by the Book’s stock. Chances are you’ll find James’ latest book there – plus a whole lot more.

Happy Reading.


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I planted the oddest little seeds I’ve ever seen last fall. They looked like tiny little asteroids. When dropped from my hand into the dirt, they disappeared as if into thin air (or outer space.)

Lo and behold, bright green tips arose where the asteroids had collided with my planting beds and voila! instant root vegetables.

Well, not instant. It took another couple of months, during which time I enjoyed baby beet greens – but then I had them. Creamy sweetness coming out of my oven.


My favorite new start this year was Chioggia Beets.They come out of the ground looking quite normal and then, once you cut them open, you get a beet that has white and red rings like it ran away to the circus and came home as the tent. Of course once they are truly cooked the difference between the rings is not as noticeable, but boy are they tasty.




Beet Salad

I first had this salad at a trendy little place in New York. (Okay, so I define trendy as on the nearest corner, but still…)


Beets, both root and greens
Garlic, 2 – 3 cloves
Olive oil
S&P to taste (I use sea salt because it’s just better.)
Blue Cheese
Lightly roasted Walnuts

Clean your beets, reserving the beet greens.

Put the beets in a 325 degree oven to roast

  • drizzle with olive oil, salt lightly
  • wrap in foil
  • bake 30 minutes for a beet fist size or smaller, longer for those larger.
  • Don’t eat them if they’re old. Tough. Tough. Tough. MUCH better when you get them from your farmer’s market.

T-Minus 15 minutes ’til the beets are done: Roast walnuts in your skillet by turning up the flame and pushing them around, or, if you prefer, use your toaster oven.

When the beets have about ten minutes left to cook, chop your garlic to the desired choppiness and put in a skillet with some olive oil. Turn up the heat and sauté.

Once they’re tender (=not totally brown) dump your cleaned beet greens in and sauté until tender. Don’t overcook them, a little crunch is good. Remove from stovetop.

Pull beets out of the oven. Pull the skins off. (I tend to just cut in as if quartering. The skin peels easily.) Cut into smallish pieces.

Arrange greens on the plate. 
Sprinkle with walnuts.
Arrange cut beets on top.
Add about a Tablespoon or two of blue cheese.





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