Writer School: Structuring a Novel

Gardening in August


I’ve had plenty of people ask, “How did you write a book?” The curiosity varies from:

  1. How did you actually sit down and do this, vs., say, laundry. Work. Other normal priorities that often keep us from hobby time. To:
  2. How did you take an idea and wrap 300 pages around it.

The writing books will tell you authors are either character or plot driven. Both of my novels are plot driven – meaning I knew what I wanted to happen, in lieu of one person I wanted to write a story about.  (Also: my hobby time is far greater than many of my peers because my family time/responsibility is minimal. I hope this changes, but in the meantime — I’m writing like mad.)

Are you plot or character driven? You don’t have to pick one. Most authors will strengthen their muscles in one category or the other, but a great writer knows how to do both.

The basics of writing any story are identical to the instruction we received in primary school about writing an essay. Essential elements include: an intro, the meat and potatoes, a summary. That’s it. If you are writing a short story, a blog post, a novella or a series of novels – the format remains the same.

Doing this for a 300-page project can certainly be daunting. Take it one step at a time. We shall eat this elephant in bites.

Gardening in August

How you go about completing that format is where a writer’s personality shines. I often know what I want to happen at the beginning and how I want the story to end. I spend a good bit of time plotting out how to get from A to B. There are many ways to organize this information. You can take 15 sheets of blank white paper and label them by chapter. Hang them on a wall and carefully write out a few things you’d like to see happen in each chapter. By number 15, you should be wrapping up.

I use Scrivner. I create chapter folders. I start with notes. I also keep a cheap spiral notebook for each project. There is something great about keeping a working journal for each story. (This justifies my love of notebooks and school supplies.) I tab chapters and as ideas come to me, scribble them in the write spot until I can go back and work them into the project.

Your story may have more than 15 chapters, but you get the idea. This is how I work. I create the plot draft first and then go back and sprinkle in my details.

Then, I focus on character development. Who do I want to do these things? What do they look like? What do they love, hate, desire?

Next week, we’ll talk about the minor and major story arc and how these should be rolling through those 15 chapters at different paces.

So, are you character or plot driven? Have you ever plotted out a large writing project? What are your tricks of the trade?



PS: This week I stuck my foot it in. I asked a friend to design book covers for this new novel. I didn’t communicate well with her and ended up really hurting her feelings as a result. It is questionable if our friendship will survive. If you are working on a novel, you’ll likely ask friends and family for help at some point. Treat them with extra care. It is fairly amazing they care about YOUR work at all. Right?

August Gardening in Arizona

Gardening in August

Transplants taking off by the front door. Not sure what this plant is, but it blooms tiny bright pink flowers that look like sea creatures.

Gardening in August

Pumpkins, trying.

Gardening in August

Sunflowers, in heaven, reaching for the heat.

Gardening in August

Lots of succulents and one surviving pepper plant.

I am looking forward to planting a bed of root veggies and dark leafy greens come fall. The winter garden is going to be fantastic!

Britney — blah blah blah. But HOLY MOLY BOBBY FLAY!

We went to see Britney this weekend in Vegas:



The concert was silly and fun and likely exactly what you’d expect: incredible dancing and costumes. Her performance was okay. Her wig was NOT okay. And I’m not terribly fond of paying more than $100 for a concert that lasts less than 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Whatever. We danced. We sang along. We had a great weekend. But the real star was Bobby Flay.

I’m not a celebrity chef groupie, in part because local chefs have stolen my heart and I don’t have a television. I’m out of the loop on much of reality tv these days, and don’t get the hype. So, entering the Mesa Grill wasn’t as big of a deal for me as it was for my friends. But the meal we ate was by far the best meal I’ve ever enjoyed:


This isn’t going to do the experience justice, so just believe me. If you get a chance to eat at the Mesa Grill in Vegas — take it. It was so, so good. (And certainly not crazy expensive for the quality of food. I’ve eaten a meal that was lackluster at Le Cirque for three times as much.)

Also: the Wicked Spoon buffet isn’t so bad either. Sushi, pastries and a gelato bar. Oh, the pillaging that happened at that gelato bar:


So, yeah. Our 20s in Vegas: PARTY! Our 30s in Vegas: EAT!

I’m okay with that.



Home from Britney. Recovering. Let me distract you with funny photos of a dog who is so happy to be in a backyard.

Hatch chile roasting party

Hatch chile roasting party

Hatch chile roasting party

The boy loves grass. (He is from Colorado.)



This week I went to a Hatch chile roasting party at the Tucker’s house. The smell of roasting chiles might be my very favorite. (And I may have awkwardly said more than once during dinner that I would, “wear that scent as a perfume! No. Really!”

Hatch chile roasting party

Hatch chile roasting party

Hatch chile roasting party

Hatch chile roasting party

Hatch chile roasting party

Hatch chile roasting party

Hatch chile roasting party

Future meatloaf and enchiladas will now be extra yummy. For locals: chiles are on sale 3 pounds for $1 at Food City. Get them while you can! The smokey, spicy flavor of backyard roast peppers is far richer than the canned variety.


Writer School: Prime Rib

Let’s talk about editing. I’d say selecting the right editor is more important than having some genetic, magical ability to put great stories on paper.


Yes — there is crap that sneaks through and becomes a cultural sensation without good editing, but it’s gross. Twilight is a Big Mac; Lahiri is prime rib.

We settle for the cheap and easy too often as readers. Fluff books are good “beach reads.”

As writers, let’s not settle.

I’m writing this post as a pep talk. I am working on the first edits for Basket Baby from my friend Sagar. He is one of those who is so smart, it is fairly remarkable he can have a conversation and make eye contact. If you’ve read it, he’s read it. And the author’s other book. And the British review of the book. And he has thoughts about said author.

(Unless it is The Alchemist. This is the book that shall not be spoken of. His Voldemort of sorts.)

PB Party

He also has little to no ability to speak gently. He is direct, blunt and critical.

Our friendship was fairly new when he read my first novel. That lunch resulted with me crying into my burger at Four Peaks, and him awkwardly staring at his beer. To speak gently for him: it wasn’t his favorite.

This novel is different. I have another five years of writing practice, including multiple courses at Lighthouse, and have done a good bit of reading.

Thankfully this time Sagar can work with the story. (He still isn’t saying he loves it, but I am okay. I love it.)

He’s returned edits that are sharp, pointing out both major and minor changes I couldn’t see. He has effectively communicated how and why I should make these changes. This is the work of an excellent editor.

It is paralyzing to hand someone a project you’ve worked on for years that you think (foolishly and perhaps blindly) is perfect upon delivery, and have it returned with hundreds of suggested improvements. I imagine this is a bit like sending a beloved child to kindergarten only to have her return with a note from the teacher on all the behaviors you must work on as a parent to make her a great adult. (This is why they typically do not hire men like Sagar to be kindergarten teachers. God only knows what my notes would have looked like. “Make her shut up!” “She laughs at her own jokes. Too much.” “She sits down and reads during PE.”)

Becoming a great writer includes the rare skill of loving something so much, you are willing to let it go to make it better.

Lazy novels do not stand the test of time. As such, while I’d pretty much rather be doing anything other than editing the same pages again, I am digging in.

Let’s all agree not to settle.

Happy writing, friends!


The little things

Just because he's good to me


I have a stack of ironing to finish. Knitting to complete. A book that is two-thirds read. Hundreds of pages of edits on a novel to make. A book proposal half completed. And I’m going to Vegas this weekend with a childhood friend to see Britney Spears for our 35th birthdays.

Guess which one is getting the most attention?

I’ll be back soon, and will post for Friday’s Writer School. Otherwise, just trying to manage one hot day of summer at a time — and thankful we are nearing September, with cooler, darker mornings.


100 Foot Journey

Grand Canyon trip prep

We are preparing for a multi-day trip in the Grand Canyon. I’ve never done such an extensive hike (17 miles the first day) and I’m a little nervous.

Grand Canyon Trip Prep

Good, good Lord are hiking shoes ugly.

(More importantly — if you haven’t seen 100 Foot Journey, do! It is delightful.)


Writing School: Tools of the Trade

Oh, hi there. How did your goals go this week? Did you sit down to write? Did you read?

My week was a draw. I did read. I’m thoroughly enjoying Wildwood. It is young adult, fun, easy and was perfect on the beach. I read about 300 pages, passing my goal.

I also received edits back on the first 80 pages of my novel, and am slowly making them. This isn’t writing, but is essential for this book to see the light of publishing day. (Also chanting my mantra: Thick skin makes for a better author. Thick skin. You can do this. Ohm…)

I’m calling it a win.

On writing: Workshop

Today’s topic: resource tools of the trade

What books have you read that have helped make you a better reader? Granted, all books help. As do magazines, blogs and cereal boxes. I am leery of writers who claim “not to have time to read.” Chances are, I’m not going to have time to read what they’ve written. As we’ve discussed, language is a fluid, beautiful stream of current thought. You’ve got to read to understand how our language has changed from “Romeo, oh Romeo — where art thou Romeo?” to “Kanye: hit me back, yo.”

A few of my favorite books and other reads critical to improving writing:

1. On Writing by Stephen King. The best writing memoir I’ve read, and I’ve got a dozen or so under my belt. Second would be Bird by Bird by Annie Lamott. Also incredibly well done and encouraging. I like King’s because he talks about routine and setting up your daily writing practice. I like Lamott’s because it feels like writing saved her. And any writer can tell you, it is a lonely endeavor and if your work doesn’t help pull you along — why bother?

2. Grammar Girl. Her stuff is fun and a good reminder of how to write well. Also, her podcast is great if you want something nerdy to listen to on the way to work.

3. A Word A Day by Anu Garg. Easy enough to understand why this is important. The weekend summaries from those who write in about their experiences with the week’s words are worth subscribing. Folks from around the world discuss their memories and experiences with the words of the week, which is extra nerdy and often hilarious.

4. The Elements of Style. Because proper word use is essential to success in nearly every profession. I keep a copy on my desk because for the life of me I still cannot remember the correct tenses of lay vs. lie or hung vs. hanged.

4. Go Fug Yourself. Sure, it is fashion gossip. It is also really well written, and in a contemporary voice. Thanks to these ladies, I know what “throwing shade” means.

(Oy, I’m feeling old.)

What are some of your favorite writing resource tools?