Thursday, September 24, 2009

This blog is moving!

I am taking this blog to the Sisters in Crime Guppies Group at this time. Sisters in Crime is an organization dedicated to supporting and promoting women who write and publish in the mystery genre. Guppies stands for the "great unpublished" and is a group of people focused on developing their mystery writing craft and getting published. If you want to join me there, the website link is

Best wishes for your writing careers!

Jacqueline Corcoran

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Donald Maas's workbook is an extension of his book WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. For me, the workbook format helps me put his techniques into action. I would suggest using this book for initial brainstorming of plot and character formation, although he often writes as if a complete draft is before you. He relies heavily on reversing ideas (i.e., if you have an idea, take the opposite idea instead), which tends to get you out of the rut of going with your first idea or a superficial idea.

As I've mentioned, he has several exercises for developing plot without being linear, which to me, is a nice departure from scene cards and the three-act structure. However, it's a challenge to put the ideas then into sequential order. My only gripe is that I went back and read the books he suggests as "breakout novels," and I didn't like any of the books he had used as examples. I'm partial to mysteries and that perhaps explains why I didn't like the more literary novels or the romances.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Defining Personal Stakes

Donald Maass has in WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: THE WORKBOOK an exercise about defining personal stakes (page 48), which I'm applying to TEEN TIME WITCH. The main character's central goals are to win Chase's heart and find her mother.

What could make ths problem matter more: Chase is the prince in a witch's prophecy Eve discovers, and she has to be with him as part of the prophecy, otherwise the "bad" side will win. Eve's best friend points out that Chase doesn’t really act like a prince. He will have to rise up to the occasion. But how can a teenage boy who is susceptible to a popular girl's attention (Avery) give that up when Avery is the prettiest and richest girl in the class?

What could make this problem matter even more: There is some larger political controversy looming in the background that the prophecy ties into -- a possible conflict between the country Eve's mother was from and the US. Eve's best friend Jocelyn's father is involved as he often goes to that country for his ambassadorial position.

What would make this problem matter more than life itself? The abolition of the U.S. if they get into a conflict with this country that would mean nuclear weapons.

After pushing you to keep coming up with reasons to raise the personal stakes, Maass challenges you to incorporate these into the novel in at least six places.

Reflection on Exercise

This is a difficult exercise but stretches your creativity. Maass mentions that people often see this exercise as a way to add plot complications. I'm always looking for new ways to plot so this is helpful. Raising personal stakes will be important in my mystery because there is always the question in amateur sleuth mysteries why the protagonist becomes involved. The problem with the exercise is that in continually brainstorming personal stakes some of them become outlandish. For example, when Maass asks "what could make this problem matter more than life itself?" I ended up with the U.S. potentially being bombed with nuclear weapons!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Creating Inner Conflict

In Writing the Breakout Novel: The Workbook, Donald Maass has an exercise on page 24 about creating inner conflict, which basically involves considering the tension about what the character wants and then thinking of the opposite of that. Note that since Maass requested that I not write out the exercises, I will just apply it to my own work right away rather than posting on two separate occasions.

I am switching now to my young adult mystery paranormal, TIME WITCH. The main character Eve wants Chase, a popular boy, and they are about to start high school together. But she also wants him dead because he made out with her and then appeared to ignore her; he is now responding to the attention of a popular girl. This inner conflict will be the combustion that triggers her witch powers. One of the ways she realizes her powers is when she harms him when she sees him with the popular girl one night. She stops short of really hurting him, although she could.

Results: Plot Layering

I apologize for not posting but I was on vacation in Miami.

Results of Ploy Layering Exercise

I like this plot layering exercise from Maass because it doesn't require you to be so linear in your approach to plotting (i.e., going from point A through Z). Instead, you think about one element of the plot and consider the scenes that demonstrate that plot layer. When you come up with a few aspects of the plot, you are able to create scenes from these, although, to some extent, you still have to know where these plot layers are coming from.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Results of Maaas's Plot Layering

Here is another plot layer: trying to discover the connection between the Senator's mistress and the victim

1. Drew tries to write or call the senator and is blocked by the secretary

2. the aide agrees to meet with her for coffee

3. when Drew is leaving her building at nighttime, she is stopped by the senator and his driver, a man from Russia, and tells her that is connection is related to a congressional subcommittee that is looking into psychiatrists who didn't report their earnings from pharmaceutical companies and the victim's husband was one of them. The intern had decided to do some investigating on her own to impress him; he still denies that he had an affair with her.

4. Drew looks into subcommittee's reports and finds that he is telling the truth

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Result of plot players exercise Donald Maaas

Sorry again for the delay in posting. Book in a Week got me overwhelmed and then I went on vacation to Miami with my family, so postings might be a little thin for the next three weeks.

Results of Maaas Exercise on Plot Layers

Plot Layer #1: Drew discovers that Laurel was having an affair with the subcontractor and they were involved in a building scheme so they could make money and run away together

4 scenes that show this plot layer

1. Drew pretends she wants to get an estimate for a deck at her townhouse so she can question Kyle Harrigan. She gets him to confess the affair.

2. Drew puts together that the phone number she found in Laurel's bedroom connects them to a lawyer who is handling the real estate deal they have going - a large Georgetown Victorian which will be renovated and chopped up into condos. She finds out that the Victorian is not allowed to be chopped up into condos and realizes that another suspect, Tad Gowers, must be involved as head of the Historical Commission to influence this project going through.

3. Drew arranges to meet with Kyle Harrigan at a Panera's to confront him with what she has found out, but he stands her up. She calls him to say that she will go to the FBI with her information if he doesn't talk with her.

4. She meets with the FBI as he won't respond.

Reflection on Exercise

I'm going to continue with this exercise in the next posting as Maaas suggests adding several plot layers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Book in a Week

I am in the midst of being in a writing challenge for Book in a Week. Each month for a week at a time, this organization offers a challenge for writers to set their own writing goals, which are posted. Each day, everyone who has joined for that week, can post their output for the day.

I have decided to shoot for 10 pages a day. Unfortunately, I am running out of plot ideas, and it is difficult to keep going without a plot in sight, so I'll be skipping to WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: THE WORKBOOK by Donald Maass (Writers Digest Books, 2004) for the plotting help that I need right now. There are many books that discuss plotting in a linear way, considering the three-act structure, but this doesn't work well for me. Maass's book is unique in talking about plotting from other standpoints. (I will return to Carolyn Wheat's book after Maass's book.)

The first exercise I'm choosing is "building plot players" (chapter 15, pps. 93-98) in which Maass asks a series of questions of questions about the problems the protagonist must solve and ends with suggesting that for each layer (problem) that you list and develop at least 4 scenes in which this problems plays itself out. (Maass prefers that I not write out his exercises; as an aside, I write to the authors of books I plan to use and get their permission ahead of time.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Result of Storyboard Method to Scene Writing

I'm sorry I haven't posted in awhile but fell ill and got behind...


As follows is my application of the Storyboard method of scene-writing as described in Carolyn Wheat’s HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION (pps. 146-147).

Stage Setup

Time: Afternoon

Place: A McDonald’s restaurant or another fast food

Season: Cold – the sun hasn’t shone since the victim’s death

Sounds: Noise of old, grizzled men begging and laughing hysterically, servers speaking Spanish

Smells: the special sauce, grease

Sights – dirty tables, sullen clerks, hamburger juice squirting, special sauce

Tastes – coffee – strong, surprisingly good

Touch – sticky table, plastic seating

A meeting between the main character and one of the police detectives, a pregnant African-American woman. Drew wants to tell her all that she has discovered about the case. Sgt. Reynolds is mad about her interfering and tells her info about the arrest that was made of the housekeeper that Drew didn’t know about. Now it does seem more credible that maybe the police arrested the right person after all.

What physical objects surround the character: other diners

What details of their surroundings do they notice and/or comment on? Maybe Sgt. Reynolds drew the protagonist out to a more dangerous neighborhood to meet on the pretext that she had to interview someone on another case in order to intimidate her. Maybe makes the point that usually the criminals are obvious like they are here in this neighborhood, and it’s not all the scheming that Drew thinks it is behind it. Drew makes the point that if it’s that obvious, then wouldn’t the husband be a suspect and he makes a pretty good one, too, given that he lied about his alibi, and that since he was getting fertility treatments, the pregnancy couldn’t be his. Maybe Drew tries to make some kind of point about justice and how people of color are more likely to be arrested for crimes hoping that she will get Sgt. Reynolds to relate to this, but Sgt. Reynolds is cynical and thinks it’s liberal nonsense she’s spouting.

How do the characters’ clothes reflect personality? Sgt. Reynolds is wearing pregnancy jeans and flats with a blazer.
Drew wears business casual and clogs

Does any physical object remind someone of the past? Drew thinks about her current life seems full of McDonald’s now. Maybe this is Sgt. Reynolds’ old beat, and she feels more comfortable here.

Does any physical object take on symbolic meaning: Pink hamburger that Drew is sickened by – the death of the victim?


What’s the large action? Drew telling Sgt. Reynolds about what she’s found out on the case.

What smaller actions make up the large action? Sgt. Reynolds is eating a Whopper and fries, and a milkshake. Drew drinks coffee.

How does the character’s performance of the action reflect character? Sgt. Reynolds is unselfconscious about eating. She is confident in herself and her judgments about the case. She feels inferior about not having as much education as Drew, and makes fun of her for being a professor and being “so smart.”

How does the other character react to action? Drew tries to get on the same side as Sgt. Reynolds but it’s difficult. She is used to having to be tough as well from having to stand up to student pressure.


What do the characters talk about? The case.

What’s going on under the surface? Sgt. Reynolds is resentful at the time Drew is taking up and feels inferior to Drew’s education.
Drew is intimidated by Sgt. Reynolds’s tough demeanor, but isn’t going to back down.

Do they disagree? Most of their conversation is about disagreeing.


What’s the outcome for the main character scene? Sgt. Reynolds doesn’t listen. Drew wonders whether she has been wrong.

What does the main character feel, have, or want at the beginning of the scene? Drew wants to convince Sgt. Reynolds that there are other possibilities besides Blanca, whom they have arrested at this point.

What has the character gained or lost? Drew has at least gained the relief of telling all that she knows. She has lost her conviction that Blanca is innocent.

How does the gain/loss affect the character’s overall story goal? For awhile, Drew may decide not to keep pursuing the case, and she will question if what she has been doing is worthwhile.

What’s the climax of the scene? When Sgt. Reynolds snaps at her that she said she will tell the detectives in the missing congressional intern case about the information Drew has told her.

Do you have a curtain line? “I said I’d tell them, and I will.”


This exercise took some time, but I got a lot out of it. I often get stuck in writing scenes, and I think it may be partly because I don’t know how to write it and what should be covered. As a result, I don’t write anything. This is an excellent exercise to counteract the overthinking and stuckness that I’m sure other writers are prone to as well. It helps in planning scenes and frees up a lot of blocks because it makes you think through so many elements before you even start writing the scene. You can also use it when you have already written a scene, as Carolyn Wheat suggests, and you want to go deeper.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


The next book will be HOW TO WRITE KILLER FICTION by Carolyn Wheat (2003, Perseverance Press). I will start with her "Storyboard" technique (pps. 146-147). Here she details 6 aspects of the scene: 1) Stage setup; 2) Characters; 3) Props; 4) Action; 5) Dialogue; and 6) Outcome. The purpose is to think through all these aspects ahead of time or to revise an existing scene to go deeper or to cut material that doesn't advance the goal of the scene and how it ties to the plot. In the next post, I will apply all the details of these aspects to at least one scene.


Yardley's book WILL WRITE FOR SHOES would be helpful if you were planning to write a Chick Lit novel, and she talks about some of the stereotypes and pitfalls to avoid about writing in this genre. She acknowledges that her method of structuring a novel is very linear and left-brain, and I had a hard time being able to use her method for that reason. Although I have elements of chick lit in the novels I am writing, I am not enough in that genre to benefit fully from the advice Yardley offers.

A strength of WILL WRITE FOR SHOES is that she takes the reader through the planning of the book, the writing process (although I wished there had been more about this), and selling the novel. Another strength is that she keeps the personal chick lit tone going throughout the book. She makes it sound like writing a chick lit novel is, if not easy, an achievable goal, which should motivate and insire authors in this genre.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Results of Yardley's Synopsis Ideas


Fourteen year old EVE ELLIOTT yearns for popular CHASE RIVERS but doesn’t stand a chance against AVERY CARTWRIGHT who’s so rich she competes as an English-style horseback rider. Meanwhile, Eve lives with her single-parent mother, ARIANE, in one of the few rentals – an apartment in a Victorian building twisting with turrets and staircases -- in the Washington, D.C., Georgetown area. Eve, convinced she must have a sperm donor dad given her lack of information about him, searches for clues in her mother’s room on the Friday before Halloween. She finds a beautiful crystal watch, surprised that her stylish mother, who works with the mentally ill in downtown Washington D.C., has never worn it.

That night at a costume party her mother has forbidden her to attend, Eve and her best friend JOCELYN are shunned for wearing “old school” witches’ costumes while the other girls prance around in provocative outfits, until everyone’s attention is focused on Avery’s latest drama, the theft of her championship horse. Finding out that her mother has not yet returned home, Eve and Jocelyn sneak into the park at Dumbarton Oaks, an historic mansion and site of many diplomatic meetings, to start a treasure hunt their teacher Ms. Ainsley assigned. In the woods, Eve is stricken to find Avery and Chase fooling around in the woods as Eve had her own secret make out session with Chase two weeks before they began high school.

After scaring Chase and Avery off, Eve starts to get in touch with her witch powers, but doesn’t yet realize what’s happening. The next day Eve’s mother has still not returned home, but Eve keeps this a secret from everyone but Jocelyn realizing that foster care is the next stop. The only clue to her mother’s whereabouts is that an unknown woman with auburn hair was last seen riding BRAM, Avery’s championship horse. Eve and Jocelyn team up with Avery and Chase to find the missing horse, believing that it might lead to Ariane.

When a Child Protective Services arrives at her door, Eve absconds to England, trading Avery the crystal watch for plane ticket money, in search of her only living relatives. In a cottage on a deserted coast of Cornwall surrounded by snow and ice, Eve finds her aunt CIERA, who (in an accent Eve can barely understand) denies knowledge of Ariane’s whereabouts, but consents to taking Eve of a tour of the area. When Ciera stabs Eve with an icicle from a tree, Eve thinks Ciera is trying to kill her, but Ciera claims that she is only helping her create a wand so that Eve can more fully develop her witch powers. She is appalled that Eve gave away the crystal watch as it plays a key role in a prophecy about time slowing down and eventually running backwards, which will feed into the powers of DUVESSA, Ciera and Ariane’s evil younger sister. Only Bram, the winged horse, can outrun the watch’s power and correct time’s course. Ciera explains that the reason she and Ariane have both gone into hiding is to escape Duvessa, who stole away Eve’s father from Ariane. Ciera beseeches Eve to return to the states and reclaim the crystal bracelet before Duvessa can find it get a hold of it, because there is only 24 hours until the clock will run down. The new course of time will only enhance Duvessa’s powers. Ciera leads Eve into a cave to find the crystals that are needed to complete the wand, but a cascade of rocks fall onto Ciera and she is killed.

Back at home, Eve is pleased, despite her worries, that Chase seems to have missed her, and he gets the crystal watch back from Avery when she refuses to return it. Jocelyn and Eve are shocked to discover that Jocelyn’s mother turned Eve into the authorities; she also has a horseback riding background. When Jocelyn talks her mother into taking them riding, Eve performs a clearing spell, and Eve’s mother is revealed as Duvessa the witch, and Bram, the horse, grazes in a nearby field.

Duvessa reveals that Jocelyn is her biological daughter who was stolen away by Ariane and adopted. Jocelyn seems pleased to finally know her real mother (she didn’t know she was adopted, but it makes sense). Avery and Chase, who got a ride with Chase’s older brother, drive up, and Avery runs to her horse. When Duvessa tries to stop her, Avery instinctually performs a freezing spell. Duvessa easily deflects it, but Chase, who is also trying to reach the horse, is electrocuted by its force. As Duvessa turns to claim Bram, Eve and Avery simultaneously blast her with a time trance, and Duvessa is forced to reveal the whereabouts of Eve’s and Jocelyn’s mothers, which turns out to be in the clock tower at the Smithsonian. Avery, Eve, and Jocelyn jump on the winged horse, which takes off toward the setting sun. After an explosion of light, they all tumble off, bursting through the door at Dumbarton Oaks. They look at Avery’s cell phone time, and it’s running normally.

When both mothers are freed, Eve’s mother reveals that Eve and Avery are half-sisters. Duvessa stole Ariane’s husband, a master clockmaker, but then killed him after she had his child and he was unable to produce a replica of the enchanted crystal watch that Ariane had in her possession. When Duvessa abandoned Avery to foster care, Ariane gave Avery to an American businessman, who, in turn, arranged Ariane’s passage to America. Ariane set it up so that if Duvessa ever got close, Jocelyn would appear to be her biological daughter to throw Duvessa off the track. Because Eve and Avery shared the same father, their bloodlines were united and their power was exponentiated; thus, they were able to knock the witch into a time trance. Duvessa was taken to a hospital by paramedics where she stayed in a coma, along with Chase. A door is open to a sequel; Avery and Eve, although half-sisters, are still enemies and blame each other for Chase’s coma, and Jocelyn is jealous of their relationship. How will they work out these relationship triangles and manage their witch powers as they continue on in their Freshman year?


I suspect that I got carried away with the synopsis. Although I diligently worked on paring it down, I found it difficult not to recount many of the events. They all seemed important, and it was challenging to keep it to plot points. All the events seemed like plot events. I will take feedback if anyone sees a way to keep it just to major plot points (although I also have to say that the sample synopsis that Yardley includes in the appendix is quite detailed, as well).

Monday, June 29, 2009


The next book is WILL WRITE FOR SHOES: HOW TO WRITE A CHICK LIT NOVEL by Cathy Yardley (St. Martin's Press, 2006). For me, this book is relevant for my mystery from the angle of Mom Lit; the protagonist struggles with the demands of caring for two young children and it is partly her need for adult companionship and a place to take her children that account for her involvement with the victim. It is also relevant when I think about my teen book TEEN TIME WITCH because YA fiction is often written in a breezy, first person narrative, and a central element is often the romance.

The first exercise will involve chapter 16 on writing a synopsis, which links to chapter 7, plot. A synopsis outlines the book for a publisher or agent, but it's got to be done in a way that is not simply a linear retelling of events. Basically, Yardley states that the synopsis should include the introduction of the character, the story goal, inciting incident, the three sequential plot points, the black moment, the climax, and the resolution. She says it is also important to infuse your voice into the synopsis. She has an interesting idea about writing the synopsis in first person voice, although she advises that it is typically written in third person.

In my next posting, I will try writing a synopsis for my YA novel that is being revised as a paranormal mystery.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Results of Exercise #5 and Review of NOVEL SHORTCUTS

Results of Exercise #5:

This was hard and took me awhile because I had to essentially outline all the scenes I have yet to write. Although I wasn't able to envision scenes to the end of the book, I did come up with 17 more scenes and got more ideas in doing this exercise. A number of writing books suggest outlining all the way through before writing the book, but this doesn't work for me. It is too linear and logical a process when I am still trying to figure out the story. Attempting to do it periodically though does help me grow ideas and organize the plot though which are always challenging aspects for me.

Since these 17 scenes are ones I have yet to write, it was difficult to know when I would need transitions and, even more specifically, if they would be in the form of reflections. In general, my transitions will likely comprise reflections on the passage of time, combined with some of the more mundane tasks connected to Drew's investigation (e.g., trying to contact the senator and failing), showing her at her job (writing, teaching, etc.), spending time with her children (e.g., Gymboree), and having parenting challenges (defiance, crying spells, temper tantrums).

It seems that in writing a mystery some of the ideas that Whitcomb mentions about reflections do not fit as well; instead, they may be more well suited to a literary or women's novel where there may be more reflection about theme, character, and so forth. Still, my adaptation of her exercise made me realize more consciously that I will use transitions rather than whole scenes for the protagonist's work, childcare, and routine tasks of the investigation. As importantly, it helped me line up my scenes, which gives me more direction about what to write next.

Review of Laura Whitcomb's NOVEL SHORTCUTS

In general, I thought this was an excellent book. For the most part, my sampling of her exercises involved those that were more appropriate to the middle portion of writing a novel. Whitcomb has a lot of exercises about coming up with ideas and starting a novel that I didn't get in to. For most writers, it is easier to start a novel than to deal with what one of my writing teachers at the Writer's League in Bethesda, Maryland called (and even had a workshop on), the Muddle in the Middle.

But the ones I chose are definitely helpful for figuring out scene-building when you are past the beginning. I will continue to use these two exercises in every scene I write: the compounding scenes exercise and the scene shortcut exercise (taking the purpose of the scene, the dialogue, and the freewriting separately and then melding them together). Does anyone else have any reactions or comments about Laura Whicomb's NOVEL SHORTCUTS?

Exercise #5

For this exercise, I'm going to work on combining, and slightly adapting, Whitcomb's idea from NOVEL SHORTCUTS to go through the scenes of a novel and decide whether a transition is needed or not, labeling each with a Y or N.

The other part of this is to decide what kind of transition to provide. Whitcomb writes about "reflections," which are when the character in narrative voice makes a decision or comes to a resolution or insight. She talks about a variety of reflections:

1) reflecting on a theme or major conflict
2) reflecting on a character's personality
3) on thoughts
4) recapping a segment of time

My task (and please join in) is to examine the scenes I have yet to write which are loosely organized with many gaps and decide which ones should have a transition. I'm hoping this will help me firm up which ones I will be writing as scenes. I am also going to try to write some sample transitions based on the 4 Whitcomb names above.

Results of Exercise #4, con't.

My other teen novel is entitled INVITATION TO THE DANCE, which is currently structured by the alternating voices of three sisters. The oldest one, Elizabeth, writes poetry, so her chapters are additionally structured by opening with a poem. I am considering revising based on the idea that two, or possibly three sisters, are actually the same person -- a twist at the end. These are different ideas based on Whicomb's suggested devices for telling a story:

Cautionary Tale
The book could begin with an opening chapter that is not labeled by any particular sister to create suspense about who ended up "in the hospital after the crash."

This is an example of how it could be set up as a cautionary tale: "I’ve written this so I can figure out who I am, and maybe it will help you figure out who you are, too. I am in the hospital now after the crash and have time to sort it all out."

Show date and time before each chapter entry by one of the sisters. It will mislead the reader because although it looks factual with sequential dates, the years are off (2 years ahead for how Genny would be if she takes a certain path).

Although each chapter is currently written in first person from one of the sister's voices, it would become even more immediate if the chapters were written as diary entries.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Results of Exercise #4

Here I'm going to depart from my mystery DEATH IN THE CHAVURAH and apply the exercise from Laura Whicomb's book NOVEL SHORTCUTS to two different teen novels I have written but am considering revising.

The first is an urban fantasy called TEEN TIME WITCH. Currently, it's structured by having a quote about time open each chapter. Here's some additional ideas based on Whitcomb's exercises:

1) As a cautionary tale:
Open the book with a caution: "You know how your mom tells you not to get involved with a boy (in that way). Well, she knows what she's talking about it. Because it releases all sorts of powerful feelings. In my case, it brought out my powers."

2) Documentary
Because TEEN TIME WITCH involves a prophecy where time starts to run backward until it ends, I could show the time at the beginning of each chapter, and the reader can see how it goes backward.

3) Illustrating a story

A witch's spell could start each chapter or a how-to tip on how to be a witch.

4) Diary format
Main character Eve writes down in her diary as events occur; might lead to a new title DIARY OF A TEEN TIME WITCH which might have appeal

Let me know which sounds like the most compelling device to you and/or the one that might best catch the interest of agents or editors.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Exercise #4

I'm departing from exercises on scenes with this post to Whitcomb's discussion in NOVEL SHORTCUTS on framing devices for a story. She offers different examples of such devices, which could also be thought of as a way to structure your project. Here are some of the ones she talks about:
  • the cautionary tale
  • the knight's tale
  • documentary (showing date and time)
  • a confessional (speaking directly to the audience)
  • the book of wisdom in which you insert "lessions in life" or "stories" at the start of chapters (pps. 63-67)
  • diary
  • the fairy tale

I'm going to suggest a variation of Whitcomb's exercise; hers involves picking devices out of a hat and applying them to known stories, such as fairy tales, to get the creative juices flowing. My variation is to apply at least three devices to the project that you are working on.

Result of Exercise #3 from Novel Shortcuts


I went through Chapters 9-13 of DEAD AND BURIED by Karen MacInerney, a Gray Whale Inn Mystery (Midnight Ink, 2007). I chose the book because it's a delightful cozy mystery series, and I am writing a cozy. I chose the particular chapters because I am around that point in my own novel.

What I found is that she is very heavy on writing scenes. In chapter nine, she has a one paragraph summary of a morning and afternoon and the rest of the chapter is a scene.

Chapter Ten has three scenes with a paragraph summary between the first and second scenes to convey a two-hour break.

Chapters Eleven and Twelve comprise one scene each.

Chapter Twelve has one short scene, then a two paragraph summary, followed by another scene.


This was a helpful exercise because it forced me to examine this element of writing in an author's work I admire. It's interesting that MacInerney uses so many scenes; I've been writing scene-heavy chapters, as well, with the understanding that these are much more immediate for the reader to experience events with the characters.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Balance Between Scene, Summary, and Reflection

We are still in Whitcomb's book (NOVEL SHORTCUTS), and this time I have chosen an exercise that she suggests involving the topic of how much of each you should have -- scene, summary, and reflection. A scene is spelled out action in real time. A summary, as the name implies, summarizes a span of time or events. Whitcomb differentiates between summary and reflection. The latter involves the protagonist reflecting about events that have occurred up to that point, and often, making a decision to take action. It can be difficult to know sometimes when to use each, but a scene should be used for meaningful moments that advance the plot. A summary can be used as a bridge to the next scene when nothing eventful takes place in between. A reflection is used to ensure that the protagonist's motivation is clear for why he or she will take a certain course.

Whitcomb suggests looking at your favorite author (or the kind of book you want to write) and seeing how that person balances scene, summary, and reflection since it can be challenging figuring out how much of each to put in. This one doesn't require any writing, just seeing how other authors handle this.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Exercise 2: Results (cont.)

I e-mailed Laura Whitcomb about my questions in my results of the exercise, "Scene Shortcut," in the previous post, and she was kind enough to review and respond. I've taken the liberty of excerpting her response here:

In the "what should happen in the scene" section, the goal could be as simple as learning that so-and-so isn't a suspect or as complex as John and Mary fall in love. It's the thing you're aiming at. The reason for having this scene in the first place. It might go with the character's goal. It's great for tension if two or more characters have different goals in a scene. John wants to convince Mary to testify while during the same conversation Mary wants to find out how he feels about her romantically. That kinda stuff. =)

Something should be unresolved. Could be something big like a mystery's whodunit, or something smaller like a character being unsure how they feel about something like death or taxes. What you don't want are scenes that tie up all the loose ends every time. People will feel too free to close the book. =D

Helpful feedback. Thanks so much to Laura Whitcomb.


Now here is the scene I wrote after weaving the three elements for the "Scene Shortcut" together:

“How was that lawyer Miller?” Arlene asked.
“I guess, okay.” Rob still chewing, sat back in his chair around our kitchen table. “He had me tell him everything before the police took my statement.”
“What kinds of things did he ask you?” she asked.
We had opted for pizza, with a whole-wheat crust since Seth was trying to control his consumption of white flour and sugar. He didn’t want to turn out diabetic like his mother.
Rob shifted in his chair. “Mom, that’s confidential.”
“Anything you tell a lawyer is confidential,” said Seth.
“I just want to get a feel for the guy. Is that so wrong?” Arlene appealed to Barbara.
“Like if were there any problems.” Rob avoided eye contact as he sawed at his pizza.
I stopped chewing. Those indentations in the pad I had found on his nightstand? I had filled the numbers in and called them: “Attorney’s office,” the young woman had sang out over the phone.
“What kind of attorney?”
“Divorce,” she’d said as if that was the happiest thing ever.
“Wrong number,” I’d said, wondering, as I replaced the receiver, who had written it down – Rob or Laurel?
“No marriage is perfect,” Arlene said and stuck a bite into her mouth.
“You can say that again,” said Barbara.
I didn’t want to rub it in, but I was pleased at how things had worked out for me and Seth. Why had I resisted marriage for so long?
Barbara pointed with her fork. “This pizza is the best ever.”
“The deep dish is even better,” I said, “but since the kids don’t eat the crust, we get the regular.” When ordering, Seth and I had reminded ourselves of our motto since having children: It’s all about them.
To underlie that point, I heard a “More!” from Alyssa in the living room. As I scurried to do her bidding, I strained to hear the grown-up conversation at the kitchen. But the Wiggles, singing and prancing about with brightly-colored pompoms, drowned it out.
I took Alyssa’s cannabilized piece back to the kitchen. She had picked off the cheese and pepperoni and left all bread products behind. As I tossed it in the garbage, I thought once again how comfortable you had to become with waste when you had children.
“I made some calls, “Rob was saying “– to the pharmaceutical rep from B.X. Watkins – but I have his phone number programmed into my cell phone so I called him from that.” B.X. Watkins, the company Seymour worked for, and where Laurel had her stock. Was it sheer coincidence that Rob had called someone from there? My mind started spinning the possibilities. Had he found out about her insider trading? Is that why the number for the divorce attorney?
“Mommy!” Noah yanked me out of my pondering. He had finally learned to say my name. Like most children, he had learned Daddy’s name first because of the constant prompting by Mommy, but now I wondered why I had been so eager for him to say it. The sound echoed through my ears, and I could barely hear Rob.
“It didn’t prove I was in my office. And the phone rang a few times, but I didn’t pick up. I thought it was probably a student – I had my seminar that afternoon – and they usually call about the case I assign right before it.”
That’s how they do, I thought until Noah wailed, as in “Come on with it, woman!”
As I cut my own half-eaten slice into tiny bite-sized pieces so Noah wouldn’t choke, Seth asked, “You didn’t write an e-mail, make a phone call?”
Rob shrugged. “I was either on my cell phone or dictating notes.”
I didn’t know anyone who dictated anymore and laughed at the idea of any of our office help typing something for the faculty.
“They can’t think it’s you. You’ve never done a violent thing in your life,” said Arlene.
I hurried into the living and handed Noah his plastic bowl. “Now don’t cram it all in your mouth at one time.” On the T.V., Henry the Octupus warbled a song. His voice sounded like the lead singer for the B52’s.
“What about that maid?” Arlene said.
I walked back into the kitchen. “I had Rosa call her.”
Arlene put her fork down. “Whatever for?” Even though I was a grown-up and an authority figure in my own right, I could see that she must have been a fierce disciplinarian. No wonder Rob had married a strong personality like Laurel.
Sitting down, I said, “Blanca’s trying to get her family back here. She sends them money. She makes an easy target for the police since she’s terrified of being deported.”
“How is that different from your babysitter?” Arlene asked.
I smiled. It was like a challenge question from a student, and I had a good answer. “Rosa has her green card. And she doesn’t rely on me for income. She works at the child care center at my gym, and I have to work around her hours.”
“I doubt if they can take you seriously, Rob.” Seth was obviously trying to change the subject. “There’s no evidence of a problem between you and Laurel. It’s not like the neighbors heard you arguing or anything like that.”
I wondered how hard the police had worked to get hold of the neighbors, to find out if they’d seen anything. I’d had no luck myself when I’d knocked on the house’s next door. Everyone in Georgetown must work all the time to afford their houses. I remembered that even when the emergency vehicles came, they didn’t draw out the neighbors like they usually did, only a few passersby.
“And they still haven’t found the murder weapon,” Rob said.
“If they don’t have that, any case against you is circumstantial,” Seth supplied and got up for his second piece.
“Boy, you eat fast,” said Barbara.
“It’s ever since having the kids,” he said, “we’ve learned to eat like wolves.”
“There’s no evidence againt Blanca either,” I said.
“She was there,” said Barbara.
“Yes, but she didn’t have blood on her.”
“She could have changed. Did you think of that?”
I shook my head. Of course I had thought of that. “Then she pretended to run out screaming for the benefit of neighbors that weren’t there? She didn’t know I was down the street. If it was an act, and now that she’s not working for Seth, she should sign up for a Spanish theatre group.”
Seth said, “She knew the area. Wasn’t she the one who walked Weezie? Maybe some bush or some plant?” I shot him a look. “Hey, I’m just playing devil’s advocate. You’ve got to consider all sides when you’re in court.”
What I was really thinking was, how could I go back and search the area for bloodied clothes?

Reflection on the Scene Shortcut

I thought this was a good exercise. In the future, I would probably not be able to keep all the sections as clean as Whitcomb presents, but that's moot since the point is to get you writing. It does ensure that you attend to all the elements, which makes you think them through. I would definitely use this one again for writing a scene.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Exercise #2 Results

Following is my attempt to do the Shortcut to a Scene exercise by Whitcomb. I did all three parts except for actually putting the scene together, which I will do in the next post. This time I put my reactions to the exercise embedded in brackets throughout the exercise.

Part I:

Goal of the scene:

Rob, the victim’s husband, relates his questioning that day by the police. He is worried he might be a suspect because they couldn’t alibi him at work where he said he was.

[Reaction: Here I got a little confused: is this supposed to be my goal as an author to convey or the goal of the protagonist? I put my goal as the author, what information I wanted to convey.]

Protagonist Drew is worried about Blanca, Rob and Laurel’s housekeeper who discovered Laurel’s body and is also a suspect. The conflict is that no one (Drew’s mother-in-law, her best friend and Rob’s mother, Arlene, and even Drew’s husband, Seth) can’t understand why she is going to help Blanca. They are afraid that if she is removed as a suspect, then Rob will emerge as a stronger suspect.

[Reaction: This part was very helpful to clarify.]

What is left unresolved:

The identity of the suspect

[Reaction: Here I also was a little confused. Should this be what is left unresolved more broadly – the identify of the suspect, which chose – or what is left unresolved in this specific scene, which may be whether Drew continues to support Blanca. It doesn’t seem like there is any question that she will, given the set-up though.]

Part II: Dialogue

Seth: Did you write an e-mail?
Rob: No, I was just dictating my notes.
[Reaction: I found I was unable to stay with only dialogue, and I had to insert Drew’s observations (indicated whenever I used “I” voice.)]
I didn’t know anyone who did that anymore and laughed at the idea of anyone typing anything for me.
Arlene: They can’t think it’s you. You’ve never done a violent thing in your life. What about that maid?
Drew: I had Rosa call her.
Arlene: Whatever for?
Drew: I felt sorry for her. She’s trying to get her family back here. She sends them money.
I would have said it more boldly if Rob wasn’t there. Poor Blanca obviously put up with a lot working for Laurel.
Arlene: How is it different from your babysitter?
I smiled. It was like a good challenge question from a student.
Drew: She has her green card. And she doesn’t rely on me for income. She works at the child care center at my gym, and I have to work around her hours. Blanca’s worried that since the police questioned her, she'll be deported.
Arlene: They’re not that easy to get rid of.
Seth: I doubt if they can take you seriously, Rob. There’s no evidence of a problem between you and Laurel. It’s not like the neighbors heard you arguing or anything like that.
I wondered how hard the police had worked to get hold of the neighbors, to find out if they’d seen anything. I’d had no luck myself when I’d knocked on the neighbor’s door. I wondered who lived in those places. Everyone must have to work all the time to afford the neighborhood. I remembered that when the emergency vehicles came, they didn’t draw out the neighbors like they usually did, only a few passersby.
Seth: And they still haven’t found the murder weapon.
Rob: But I was the one who was supposed to notice if something was missing. I could have said nothing was missing and used it myself.
Drew: There’s no evidence on Blanca either. Yes, she discovered the body, but she didn’t have blood on her.
Barbara: Maybe she changed.
I shook my head.
Drew: Then she pretended to run out screaming? It didn’t seem like an act.
If it was, and she had more time, maybe she could join a Spanish theatre group.
Seth: She knew the area. Wasn’t she the one who walked Weezie? Maybe some bush or some plant?
He misinterpreted my look.
Seth: Hey, I’m just playing devil’s advocate. You’ve got to consider all sides when you’re in court.
What I was really thinking was, how could I get back and search the area for bloodied clothes?

Part III: Freewriting

[I couldn't bring myself to use the term "heartstorm." This was the hardest part since I couldn’t figure out an appropriate setting. There was a summary a chapter back or so that covered dinner at Seth and Drew’s house so I wondered if it was repetitive to have a dinner scene at the house. Then I was thinking of them going to a restaurant, but she had just mentioned that it was impossible to take her son to a restaurant, and, if I did that, she would just be running around and chasing children and not be able to talk.]

We ordered pizza, although Seth wasn’t happy. Not that he didn’t like pizza, but he was trying to control his consumption of white flour and sugar. He didn’t want to turn out diabetic like his mother. We used to order deep dish, but we recalled our motto since having children: It’s all about them. It’s frustrating to survey a plate of food you can’t eat.

I was glad I changed with the greasy finger prints smeared across my legs. There was a glue stain permanently etched into them, as well, when Alyssa and I had attempted one of our projects, a collage that I thought would be more amusing to work on, and which required actual glue.

I popped up and down like a Jack in the Box. “More!” “Juice” I took away one of Alyssa’s cannabilized pieces. She would pick off the cheese and of course, the pepperoni and leave all the bread. Making sure to cut the cheese strands into small pieces, so Noah wouldn't choke.

The Wiggles, grown men dancing with brightly-colored pompoms with their secondary characters, Wags the Dag, Dorothy the Dinosaur, Henry the Octopus (whose warbly underwater voice sounded suspiciously like the lead singer of the B-52’s), and Captain Feathersword. Out of a cast of irritiating characters, he won the award for most annoying. We were playing the whole collection of Tivo’s Wiggle shows about 10 times a day (but each show, I justified was really only 20 minutes long and not the half-hour as advertised. Thus, this only came out to three and a third hours of T.V. a day when he had vowed in her infancy that we would follow American Pediatric Guidelines to limit TV watching to one hour a day.

Next post, I will weave these elements together. Feel free to contribute your attempts at the exercise, as well.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Exercise #2: Shortcut to a Scene

We are still in Whitcomb's book, and this time I've chosen her "Shortcut to a Scene" exercise described on pps. 101-125. To summarize, it involves three steps that each can be a paragraph (or longer) in length:

1. Write the goal of the scene, the conflict that happens, and what is left unresolved.
2. Write just the dialogue of the scene.
3. Freewrite (Whitcomb calls it "heartstorming') the sense details (touch, taste, smell, hear, see) and feelings of the scene.

Put these side by side after you are finished, and using them as a menu, take a part of each as you write the scene.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Exercise #1: Results of Compounding Scenes

My Aim

In the scene (below) for my mystery novel, DEATH IN THE CHAVURAH, I tried to convey a number of events:
1) the protagonist Drew met the industrial service to clean the Georgetown house where the victim, Laurel, was killed, as a favor to Laurel’s husband, Rob, who stayed with them the night before.
2) Drew has taken his cat back to her house to add to the chaos there
3) She has conflict with her husband Seth.
4) She is trying to amuse her children (Alyssa and Noah)
5) She has information from her babysitter Rosa, who is the only person Drew knows that can communicate in Spanish with the prime suspect, Blanca, Laurel’s housekeeper
6) She has met with the director of Victim Services at Washington, DC Police and received information about the case from her.


“Where’s dinner?” Putting his briefcase down, Seth stretched his shoulder.
“Your mother doesn’t want the chicken. She wants to eat out.”
“Hi, buddy,” Seth said, as Noah marched by, struggling to hold a full bottle of soda. Noah ignored him, intent on his task.
“I was looking forward to the chicken.” Seth didn’t react to the BOOM that followed. Just Noah throwing the soda bottle down the kitchen stairs. One of what we called his “projects.” He would do it to each bottle in turn. Did we mind? Not in the slightest. It kept him amused.
“I have to side with her on this one,” I said. “Not everyone wants to eat chicken
every night.”
Alyssa tugged at my hand. “Mommy, play.” Although I had taken scores of child development classes, somehow I had never learned that imagination did not emerge until age three. That was what I remembered about my own childhood – imagination. Without it, you had to keep that ball rolling back and forth. After playing ball, Alyssa and I had danced to Wiggles songs, then a Gymboree C.D. I had drawn her T.V. characters, then she’d drawn. I’d enticed her with Montessori-approved blocks, which Noah knocked over.
“This is too much, having all these people here.” Seth rubbed his face, which was blotchy when he took his hands away.
“They’re all your people – your mother, her best friend. And I’m the one who has to be with them, not you.”
“You said you were gone for three hours.”
“Only seven hours less than you. And now there’s the animal entourage. The cat’s here, too.” The cleaning people had forbidden the cat; it was against their policy to have animals in the house while they did their work.
I ran my hand over the snags from Adam’s claws on the dress slacks I’d worn to meet with the director of Victim Services. I had stuff to tell Seth from Anita Rennert but not in the mood he was in now.
“Two dogs and a cat?” he said.
“Well, when we got together, we had three dogs.”
“And we almost didn’t have children because of that.”
When Alyssa pulled at me again, I said, “Why don’t you go find kitty?”
She hung on my hand. “You go.”
“You can do it yourself. See if he’s still there, and tell Daddy.”
“No!” Her face crumpled.
“Did she nap today?” Seth pulled out the mail and began sorting bills and circulars. Nothing fun came in the mail anymore.
“She’s done with naps,” I said.
“She still needs them.”
“We can’t drive around with Noah.” We’d never mastered the art of putting her down for a nap and had to resort to aimless driving missions to make her sleep.
“Where’s my mom and Arlene?”
“Now? It’s dinner time.”
“They took care of the kids for three hours while I met the cleaners at Rob’s house and went to Victim Services.”
“Why didn’t you get Rosa for them?”
“I offered to, but your mother doesn’t want her around. Too much talking.”
I had called Rosa, and she had told me about her conversation with Blanca. “Oh, miss, is terrible. She cry. I cry.” Her voice became husky with tears and broke. “I must not cry. The policia say she will be deported. Mr. Rob won’t call her back. She’s afraid he mad at her and won’t want her to work there no more. No money for children, no money for lawyer. Is terrible, miss. You must help her.”
“Noah – in a restaurant?” Seth was saying.
“It went fine on your birthday.”
“My fortieth birthday.” That was kind of a sore point. Worried that Noah would act up, we went to Guapos, a Mexican restaurant in Shirlington loud enough to cover up Noah’s bellowing, and even Alyssa would eat the fajita chicken. We ordered immediately upon being seated and were home within 45 minutes of leaving. What a fortieth celebration.


Before doing this exercise, I had written the meeting with the Victim Services director and the conversation with the babysitter Rosa as two separate scenes, but they each ended up only being about a paragraph long. That made me realize they needed to be part of another scene.
Although I did manage, in the above scene, to weave in a number of happenings, I wasn’t able here to get across the information Drew received from the Victim Services director. I will have to wait for the next scene when everyone is gathered for dinner, including Rob, the victim’s husband, who has been questioned by the police that day. I am also a little worried that, despite the number of things going on here, does it advance the plot?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Exercise #1

The first exercise is from Whitcomb's Novel Shortcuts in a section on Scenes:

Write a new scene or work with an already-written scene and make sure you have a few different things going on. This adds interest and cuts out the need for many short scenes in which only one event occurs (pps. 146-147). Whitcomb gives an example of combining scenes in which a mother gets into a fight with her husband and has her feelings hurt by a child.


Note if authors you are currently reading do this well and describe what they did and to what effect.

Monday, June 1, 2009


My fascination with writing books started as a teenager when there were few around; now it has turned into big business and is always my favorite part of the bookstore to peruse. I’m sure other writers share this interest. Rather than just reading writing books (very easy), this blog will be about actually working with writing books (more challenging). As I write my novels, I invite you to participate with me as we go through different writing book exercises. This is how it will work:

1. I will pick a particular writing book. As time goes on and I pick up readers, I will be open to suggestions about which ones to select.
2. I will then select certain exercises that catch my fancy (again open to reader suggestion) and post them, one by one, here in advance. Just as a warning, I reserve the right to do a certain amount of skipping around. That means, I won’t necessarily select exercises that start with planning and starting your fiction and going from there. But I will flag your attention to the category of the exercise, such as setting, character, showing not telling, plot, dialogue, and so forth, typically using the author’s system for labeling.
3. The next posting will involve my illustration of the exercise and a reflection of the process.
4. You are invited to comment on what I have written and/or participate in the exercise. You can even send me the result of your efforts and your reflection of how it went. I will then select a couple of reader examples to post.
5. Another option that I will occasionally do and that you are welcome to try, is to find, as you read fiction, how particular authors exemplify the particular technique we are working on.
6. I will attempt to contact the author of the writing book and ask him or her to view the discussion about the exercises and offer any insights or comments.
7. When we are finished with a particular book, I will offer a summary (a kind of review) of how the exercises have worked for me and other readers that have tried them.
8. As we go, I will keep a list of “favorite” exercises in each category (setting, character, plot, dialogue).

The purpose of all this is to keep us inspired and motivated to write and to develop our skills and techniques through the use of fiction writing books.

I aim to post about three times a week. The first book will be Novel Shortcuts by Laura Whitcomb, published in 2009 by Writer’s Digest. Stay tuned for the first exercise!