Plotting, Not Plodding!

Plotting Clip Art

Plot points, crisis, and climax, oh my! I have been reading up on plotting, taking a deep dive into process and techniques, attempting to distill the information that others have provided in books like The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson, Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell, Building Better Plots by Robert Kernen, and The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman into something that I can easily absorb and make part of my ingrained writing process and inform my teaching process, as well.

This is not the first time I have delved into plot at this level. A couple of years ago, I published an essay about plot called “Plot Isn’t Just a Four-Letter Word,” You can find it on line here for free. However, what I am currently focused on is not about the relevance of plot or how it feeds into the whole of what makes fiction work.  I continue to believe that without an engaging character with some form of character arc, the reader not only has no one to travel with, but no reason to embark upon the journey. Plot, on the other hand, is also a critical element, as it includes the trials and tribulations that temper character and reveal the true nature of the protagonist with whom we have decided to hitch a ride.

Starting with plot is not how I work. While I know many talented, skillful writers who plot out the story before hanging the narrative on that initial structure, my process always starts with character. Character is what takes hold of me, what piques my interest. Character is my starting point. But I recognize that plot is also required to take the reader on an engaging adventure. In my stories, the plot evolves as I come to know the character. Because of this, I generally end up massaging and sometimes even developing many of the plot points during the revision stages of writing.

So, I decided that I wanted to explore plot more deeply, to try and see how those other writers manage it, how they come to story from the direction of plot. It’s taking me time to do this, to make my brain understand all the complicated bits that go into plotting in an objective way that (I hope) will feed my intuitive/creative brain in a manner that will help me find the plot earlier in the writing process. If not, I have lost nothing, as I still have to find my way into plot at some point, still need to infuse the story with the elements that make up plot—situation, complication, (satisfying) resolution—to ensure I give my readers a well-rounded, fully executed story, which is after all the goal.

I’m very interested to see how, and if, this journey to fill my brain with plotting techniques changes my writing process. So, let the plotting begin!


Home Project: Tiling My Office Window Sill

Over the past few years, we have been replacing our older, less efficient windows with newer, double paned, triple EEE rated, energy efficient ones. It took time because, well, window replacement is not cheap. (BTW-quick plug: if you are in the Phoenix area, Affordable Windows offers a great product and has the best installers on the planet. And, no, I don’t get anything for referring them, but we used another company for the first batch of windows and I can verify that I know great window installers from not-so-great.)

As you can see, my office has a great window with a view of the back yard and our amazing, prolific lemon tree. (Please, ignore the rest of the back yard, which is a still work in progress.)

  • My Office Window Ready for Tiling

This window was also one of the last needing replacement as it was part of a newer add-on section of the house than those that were part of the original build. We had all the 1950-era ones replaced first, since they were the least efficient. And for those who are wondering, yes, we have seen noticeable savings on our utility bills.

The office window is a little over 4 feet wide, with a sill that is just under 4 inches deep. Because the existing window leaked dust, and the cats like to sit on the sill, what was originally a white ledge had turned gray in places, so needed some TLC. But I decided not to simply repaint. I say it’s because the cats were just going to dirty it up again, even with a fancy new non-leaky window. My husband simply nodded and said, “I can tell you need a craft fix, so carry on.”

At any rate, I decided I wanted something more creative in my writing space. Thus, began my first foray into tiling.

The room has dark green floor tile that is so dark it looks black, and the fixtures are brushed nickel. I chose a blue mosaic glass tile with hints of green because I like the way it catches the light. Also, the 4mm tile size seemed like it would be best for the size of the project. Also, they can be cut with hand-held tile cutters and I wouldn’t need a tile saw. I also opted for premixed grout that could be used as the tile set, which also simplified the task.

Blue Mosaic Tile I Chose for Tiling My Office Window Sill

One issue I ran into was that the tile size I chose did not perfectly fit the sill depth. I considered cutting tiles to fit, but having to cut over four feet worth of 4mm tiles into less than 2mm slices and then filing the edges was daunting. (I wanted a pretty window sill—and possibly a craft-fix—not a month-long tedious project.) So, I found some spacer tile* I liked and decided to place a row of that at the front of the sill. It makes a nice lip, as they are a bit taller than the glass tile, and the dark color actually ties the sill in better with the floor.

Tiling Progress: Tile Set

I have to admit, once I finished, I could see that the mosaic tile is not perfectly level. I figured out that I didn’t scrape off enough of the set grout before placing the tile. However, it’s only noticeable if you are really looking for it, and I am happy with the final results.

Tiling Progress: Left Side of Finished Window Sill
Of course, I will do better on the window sill in my sewing room, which is the next project and will give me some additional tiling practice before I do the bathroom backsplash. Once those are done, I should stop “jonesing” for a hands-on home project for a bit.

*I have since discovered there is such a thing as tile edging and will be checking to see if that will work nicely for future projects.


Setting: Emotional Depth Through Character Perspective

healers_legacy_poster-characters in setting

When writing, I start from character, not simply because I think it’s a great place to start—although, for me, it’s mostly character engagement that keeps me reading (or writing) a book or story—but more so because that’s just the way my brain works.

So, when describing the landscape/creating the setting for the book, everything I see is filtered through the eyes of my characters. This is a huge plus in developing voice and for showing the character's emotional journey, because the world the reader sees is from the perspective of the characters living in and experiencing it.

Healer's SettingMatriarchs Setting

Setting in The Healer’s Legacy and The Matriarch’s Devise:

There were a few things I knew about Kira’s world before I set foot in it. As soon as she manifested in my mind, I knew some of the issues she faced, as well as some of the major parameters of her environment.

  1. There are small “magics” at work in Kira’s home realm, but only a few individuals are “touched” by them.

  2. The technology is primitive. Fire. Swords. Herbology.

  3. The fauna includes mythical animals, such as the miniature wyvern she travels with, while some animals are similar to our world, such as horses and large felines.

  4. The social structure in the first book is not only patriarchal, but also one with a social hierarchy in which status is determined by bloodline and gender.

Other than this, I knew only what Kira decided to share with me as she shared it.

For example, the first place we see in Kira’s story is the weather-worn home of her mentor, the healer, Heresta. This is the place where Kira, having been orphaned during the war, grew up. Just like first time readers of The Healer’s Legacy, I have never seen this small healer’s home from any perspective but Kira’s. Therefore, it appears even smaller than it probably is. Homes always do when we have been way for a time and then returned.

The description of the hut, with its cracked weathered walls and thatched roof with bare patches resonate with Kira’s own sadness and reflect the state of her relationship with the woman who raised her. “The yard in front of the cottage was also withered. The plot of herbs that had once grown bright and green, now a barren space of dirt spotted with weeds.” This metaphorical image of the relationship between Kira and her mentor was not consciously derived, but grew organically out of seeing the world through Kira’s eyes, and filtered by her emotional lens. This sort of emotional nuance brings a deeper meaning to story without overtly pointing it out. Not every reader will make the conscious connection here, but the description colors the world with tints and hues that convey meaning directly to the subconscious. It’s like the backlights on the television series Face-Off, which are typically purple or blue, changing to red as the competitors step onto the “chopping block” to hear which one will be eliminated. Though it happens without fanfare, the lights fading to red (a color that is subconsciously upsetting to most people), signals something bad is happening.

In fiction, the right word choice and/or turn of phrase, even when used to describe an element of the environment can provide that emotional nuance, and can elevate setting to act as a character in the story. So, whether you build from character and layer in plot, or plot first and then add character arc, seeing the world through your character’s eyes is critical in getting the right flavor and emotional nuance across to the reader.


US Naval Station Great Lakes: Petty Officer Tennis Shoe

In 1977, despite the best efforts of some, the US Navy was not an Equal Opportunity Employer. Sexism was still a thing. Mid level Petty Officers expected lower ranking females to sit in their laps and stand under the mistletoe at the holiday party. Some even obliged. It was a difficult environment to navigate through.

Add to that a misuse of authority that cropped up in many places and you have the perfect recipe for a hostile work environment.

At my first duty assignment in 1978, I reported to a 2nd Class Petty Officer we called Petty Officer Tennis Shoe behind his back, partly because his name was akin to a brand of sneaker, partly because he had the scruffy appearance of one, and mostly because he exhibited the intelligence of a one.

Petty Officer Tennis Shoe didn’t like women in “his Navy” and made no effort to disguise his attitude toward female sailors. He was the total misogynist package, though he wouldn’t have known what the word meant. His desk and bulletin board were covered in men’s magazine centerfolds of naked women displaying themselves. So, whenever I was required to report to this man, I had to stand there staring at his collage of objectified, nude women in various sexually explicit poses.

I could not find a single reason to respect this man. In my opinion, he did not belong in uniform, much less at a rank to be telling others what to do. In short, he didn’t like me and the feeling was mutual.

My job at that time was to troubleshoot, repair and maintain the electronic equipment used for training new ETs in the electronics technician school. I was only an E-3 at the time, which was below the rank that according to documentation was supposed to fill that particular position. However, I believed that you should go where you’re told and do the best job possible.

Not having been trained to do the job, I had to learn from the written procedures, which I followed “by the book.” When a repair was needed, there was paperwork to fill out, with special coding for the type of issue encountered. All paperwork had to be approved, or the work could not be considered complete. Disapproved paperwork had to be redone.

One day, I received returned repair paperwork that was not only disapproved, but Petty Officer Tennis Shoe had used red pen to make his comments. This was annoying because in standard the paperwork was filled out in pencil, but red ink mark-up meant that the entire document had to be rewritten, rather than edited. (Keep in mind that the only person on base with the actual “authority” to use red ink was the Base Commander.)

I revised the paperwork based on the Petty Officer’s comments and resubmitted. It came back. Again. More red ink. He didn’t like the repair code I had used. I tried a different explanation for the repair. It came back again. This happened several times before I decided to hand carry the disapproved document down to Petty Officer’s  office space and confront him.

When I asked him why he continued to disapprove a simple repair doc, he told me the repair code I was trying to use didn’t exist.

I countered that I always used the codes that were “in the book.”

He called me a liar.

Then he pointed to his desk, between a naked, busty blond and the bare ass of a curvy brunette, where he had placed a photocopy he had made of the repair code list from the manual.

I walked over the desk of another 2nd Class Petty Officer and asked for his copy of the manual, opened it up to the repair code list, and turned the page to show Petty Officer Tennis Shoe the second half of the list. He had only photocopied the first page and hadn’t even looked to see that the list continued on the next page. I suggested, in very clear terms, that he might want to actually read the manual he was supposed to be using.

You guessed it. I got called into the Chief’s office for insubordination. Behind closed doors, the Chief admitted that I was right in my assessment, but suggested I should find a more appropriate way to get my point across in the future. “Respect the rank, not the person” was the gist of his advice.

This was the moment that set me on a path that led me to understand the best way to work within the system was to use the written rules to get things done. From then on, I used the Navy’s own rules and procedures to question the status quo and push for logical and beneficial changes in a system wherein a lot of people were “cutting the end off the roast” because that’s how it had always been done.

More on that in future posts.

As a matter of note, within a few months of the above altercation, a new XO (Executive Officer) was assigned to Great Lakes. She made certain to make the rounds of every office within the recommend. Needless to say, Petty Officer Tennis Shoe's magazine centerfolds were ordered removed immediately after her visit. Our XO was a person I could respect, along with her rank.


Things I Learned Writing The Matriarch’s Devise

As with every new book or writing project, there are a lot of things I learned writing The Matriarch's Devise. However, one of the key things I grew to understand on a deeper level is how much trust it takes to bring a story to life and send it out into the world. Here are five things I learned about trust while writing the sequel to The Healer's Legacy:

Things I learned Writing The Matriarch's Devise

Cover: The Matriarch's Devise

  1. Trust your process: Fear can cause you to freeze. This is as true at the keyboard as it is in the wild. The more people who told me how much they loved The Healer’s Legacy, the more worried I became that unless I did it absolutely right, they might not love, might even hate, the story’s sequel, The Matriarch’s Devise. Since I am an organic writer, what some call a “pantser,” (one who writes by the seat of her pants), this is the one and only time I have ever experienced anything like writer’s block. I spent a lot of time thinking and worrying about the story when I should have been writing it. I worried so much that, when I did sit down to write, I found myself writing fewer and fewer words, until the day that I realized I needed to go back to what had worked for me in the past and simply write the book that needed to be written. If I believed in the story and the world and wrote the best book I was capable of, if the characters remained true to who they were, and if we honed and polished the manuscript with an editorial eye, my readers would enjoy the second stage of the journey as well as the first stage.

  2. Trust your subconscious, but be willing to try new tools: As an organic writer, I find myself deeply enmeshed in the story and the characters I have created. This can make it difficult to be objective about what is working and what isn’t. It’s very hard to kill your darlings when you are snuggled up so close to them you can’t see their flaws. I have found a number of tools, especially those related to plotting and character development that allow me to extricate myself from the story and see the shape of it more objectively. This is especially helpful when writing a story as complex as the one that takes place in The Matriarch’s Devise, which contains a larger cast and more plot lines than anything I had written before. Keeping all those character traits and agendas straight took more than my usual simple character sheet, and I ended up using a number of writing resources and tools to develop my own process for handling all that information in a manageable way, while still following and trusting my personal writing process.

  3. Trust your editor and/or Beta readers: Sequels can be difficult and squirmy. Because I am an organic writer, I did not have a fully formed plan for what would take place after the conclusion of The Healer’s Legacy. So, writing The Matriarch’s Devise felt at times like trying to make a sand castle on the beach with the tide coming in and the waves periodically washing away bits and pieces of the story. There were times I had to remind myself to let go and, to follow Jane Yolen’s advice to just write the damn book. The editing process may be different for plotters, but for a “pantser” like me, filling in the gaps and scraping off the odd lumps and ugly bumps comes after the first draft is written, during hard content edits. Here is where it’s important to have a great editor and Beta readers. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t also trust your own editorial eye, but once you have done all you feel you can with a story, it needs to spend time in the arms of honest Beta readers and a good editor.

  4. Trust your gut: When you get feedback on a story, try to read it with an open heart, that way you will know which comments and suggestions resonate and will make the book better and which may push the story or characters in the wrong direction. This doesn’t mean that any feedback should be ignored completely, unless the reader is hitting completely off-base. Although, that should be a red flag, especially if it is coming from a trusted source. But some editorial remarks will make you slap your head and say duh, while others may cause a negative kneejerk reaction. For me, all feedback generally needs to stew in the subconscious mind a while before just the right fix reveals itself.

  5. Trust your readers: The realization that I had to get back to my own mind space for writing the sequel to The Healer’s Legacy in order to give my readers a good book required me to place my trust in them just as they, by buying and spending time reading my books, placed their trust in me. Forcing myself not to worry about their expectations was really about trusting them to want to come along on the journey and spend more time with the characters they fell in love with in the first place. Rather than causing my brain and heart to freeze, trusting my readers is what ultimately enables me to bring them the next story and the next and the next. As long as I push myself to tell the best story possible and work to ensure it is as polished as it can be, I trust my readers will continue to enjoy spending time in my worlds, and readers you can trust really are the best possible company to have on this crazy writing journey.


Writing Fiction and Making the Words Disappear

It may seem counterintuitive, since we work so hard at choosing just the right words when writing fiction, but one of my main goals during the editing phase is to make the words disappear on the page. I do this in such a way that the reader will forget she is reading, instead “seeing” the action in her head. While it sounds like a magic trick, it is in fact a fairly natural state for me. As a visual writer, I see the action as I write it. In fact, as I tell the people who ask me about my writing process, I often feel more like a journalist than a fiction writer, because I simply follow my characters around inside my head and write down what they do and say.

As a writer, one of the best things I can hear from a reader (aside from how much they loved the story and how much they want more) is that I made them late for work, or caused sleep deprivation because they stayed up all night finishing my book. The last thing I want to give them is the opportunity to set the book down to go do something else.

When the text draws attention to itself, it pulls the reader out of the story. Sadly, this is often as true for beautiful, shining prose as it is for poorly written, badly punctuated, or grammatically incorrect writing. While bad writing can be a mire the reader must slog through, glowing prose can be just as distracting. Either one can pull the reader out of the story. And the one thing a writer does not want is to allow the reader to fall out of the story realm and find themselves plunked back down in reality. A reality, mind you, filled with electronic devises, household chores or any number of real-world distractions calling out for attention.

The challenge is to keep the reader engaged and one key to ensuring it is, as Arthur Quiller-Couch wrote in his essay On the Art of Writing, to “murder your darlings.”

This sage advice has been reiterated by (and attributed to) a multitude of authors, including William Faulkner (who IMHO should have heeded it more) and even Stephen King. What it means is that when writing fiction if you find yourself stepping back and admiring a specific bit of your prose, a phrase or sentence that stands out in your writing like a sparkling gem in a field of sturdy, but functional paving stones, unless you are writing poetry (or in some cases literary fiction) it should be plucked out and tossed aside.

At first this will be painful (there may even be mental and emotional kicking and screaming involved), but no one said writing fiction was easy and if the purpose of the writing is to tell a story and take the reader on a journey, as is the case with most novels, then anything that detracts or distracts from that mission should be expunged, and I promise that over time it does get easier. And when readers tell you how they “were so absorbed in the story they couldn’t put the book down” that payoff will be worth the all hard work, including the tears and kicking and screaming.

As Pablo Casals said, “The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.”


More Flash Fiction: Glitter & Fur

I am traveling this week, attending the 2015 Grant Professionals Conference #gpaconf15 in St. Louis, MO. Thus, this blog is a couple of days late and will basically be another flash fiction piece. This one was developed using four prompt phrases that I strung together to tell an odd little story.


They're detaining my mother in customs, again. I'd go down there and give them a piece of my mind, but the zipper on my furry suit is stuck. I knew I should have opted for the Velcro closure, but I hate the ripping sound that stuff makes when you pull it apart. Ugh. It's worse than fingernails on a chalkboard. My teeth hurt just thinking about it.

I'd ask for help, but the divas have locked themselves in my bathroom and refuse to come out. They've made it clear they won't be reemerging any time soon, not while the Merry Pinkers are running around tossing paint balls and sparkles everywhere. Not that I blame them. I doubt I'll ever get all this glitter out of my fur.

I nearly had the Pinkers under control, but I ran out of duct tape and the clothesline knots aren't holding. Damn plastic stuff. Nylon rope would have been better, but you take what you can get in the middle of the night. Besides, they probably would have managed to work their shears loose sooner or later.

Sometimes I wish I'd chosen another profession, but a calling is a calling. I suppose in the end that the glitter doesn't matter, it's likely I'll have to burn the suit when I'm done, anyway. Too bad, though. I really liked this one, especially the faux leather tail.



Another bit of Flash Fiction. I used to write a lot of short pieces, usually based on some sort of prompt. I dredged this one up out of a pile of papers while cleaning house this past week. Enjoy.



A glimmer of light flickered in the distance. It shimmered, brightening the hillside for a fleeting moment, then faded. It flared again a moment later, farther down the slope, as the torch bearer emerged from the depression of the small vale that lay just below the height of the ridge.

Thomas shook himself and pulled his cloak tighter to keep out the chill wind that crept inside to brush icily against him. Would the harbingers bring word of renewal? Or would the approaching messengers bear doom with them?

His mount whinnied and stamped beneath him.

Behind him, his guards sat rigid, weapons drawn, awaiting the words that would determine his lot. Sacrifice or survivor. One or the other would he be this night, but neither outcome would he welcome.


Developing Your Writing Process and My Next Author Appearance


Your writing process is your writing process. There are many ways to find your way in and many, many ways to execute a killer story. (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.) The point is, that no one can really tell you what your process should be. That is for you to discover. However, there are a great many guides in this business, who are willing to share what they’ve learned along the way. One of my favorites is Darcy Pattison. Darcy is knowledgeable and insightful and continues to learn and share along the way. Her  Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise is full of fabulous tools for revising and revisioning your novel. For a heaping helping of writing wisdom this week, I direct you to Darcy Pattison's Fiction Notes where you can sign up for her newsletter and read past blog entries and learn more about writing and revising.

Next public author appearance for me will be October 16-18, 2015: Comic Media Expo, Mesa Convention Center--Guest Author Appearance. I will be doing panels and also signings in the Brick Cave Books booth. Here is my tentative schedule:

  • Friday, Oct 16th @ 7 pm: Writing with Multiple Protagonists, Pomeroy Room

  • Saturday, Oct 17th @ 1pm: Wyked Writers Panel with Gini Koch and Marsheila Rockwell, Robson Room

  • Sunday, Oct 18th @ 11:30am: First Page Critique with Tom Leveen, Robson Room

If you are coming to CMX, make sure to find me at one of the aforementioned panels, or stop by the Brick Cave booth and say hello!

And be one of the first people to get your hands on The Matriarch's Devise by ordering a presale copy now.

  • Matriarchs Cover Finalxx


Flash Fiction: Dream Home


Meg shivered as she crossed the cold cabin floor to put a fresh log on the dying embers in the fireplace. Squatting on the hearth, she stirred the coals, blowing gently to encourage the log to light. The embers flared, small flames curling themselves around the fuel. Meg stared into the fire.

The funeral had been held on a bright, warm day in late summer, the kind of day Kent would have called a perfect hiking day. Kent’s sister, Janice, had said that it seemed wrong somehow for the sky to be so blue, the sun so bright, but Meg had known better. Kent would have loved it. Later, her mother tried to talk her out of returning to the cabin. She told Meg  it was dangerous for her to return to the woods alone. What if something happens? she'd asked. What if there's an accident? Meg had known what she’d meant, what she’d wanted to say. She knew that they all thought Kent would still be alive if only he and Meg had never moved up to the mountains, but Meg had been adamant. The cabin had been their dream, their paradise on earth. It had been the one thing they’d had in common from the first day they’d met, and it had become the driving force behind everything they did, their reason for working so hard, scrimping to save every cent. They had spent all their spare time planning, searching for the right place, and finally, building their dream home.

It wasn’t a big house by most standards, but it was cozy. They had built it right into the side of the mountain so that the earth could provide some protection and insulation from the harsh winter weather. There weren’t any real roads up to the cabin, just old unused logging trails, but their heavy-duty four-wheeler had gotten them in, and out again when they’d wanted, which had been seldom.

Meg placed another log on the fire, grateful for the large store of wood. Kent had always insisted they be more than prepared for any contingency. He’d loved the mountain wilderness, but he’d also had a healthy respect for it. Meg shivered again as she rose from her place in front of the fire. Throwing off her nightshirt, she slipped into jeans and a clean flannel shirt, pulled up her thick wool socks and padded into the kitchen.

It was cold in here, too. She fanned the sleepy coals in the old iron cookstove. There was a kerosene back-up, but she preferred to cook over the sturdy wood-burner. Twinges of loneliness pulled at her as she pumped water into the coffeepot, and scooped the grounds into the basket. She smiled, remembering how Kent had always been up before her.  Making the first pot of coffee had been one of his favorite daily rituals. She would lie in bed stretching, smelling the perking brew, and listen to him humming quietly to himself.

He had always seemed so close back then, even when he was out on one of his solo hikes, photographing the mountain wildlife. Meg would give anything right now to have that back. Even this cabin, this home, she thought. Yes, she glanced around the room, even this.

She poured herself a cup of coffee, watching the tendrils of steam rise from the cup as she reached for the sugar bowl, then paused, spoon hovering over the cup, white crystals suspended above black.

Kent had always drunk it black. She emptied the teaspoon back into the bowl and took a sip, letting the acidic liquid wrap around her tongue, and made a face.

She scooped sugar into her cup and stirred, fixing her coffee the way she wished she could fix her life, covering up the bitterness.