Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Plotting Process

I'm rerunning this from 2013 since it's been one of my most popular posts. I hope someone can use this!

First, a few words on actual structure. I'm coming at this from a mystery writer's perspective, so my notes and sources are generally skewed in that direction.

For physical structure, I like to use the W plot. Kris Neri first introduced this to me, but many writers use it. It's very hard to find a good picture of it, but this site ( includes two fairly good samples. This one has a simple example near the end of the page (
).For mystery fiction, it's useful to put one more hump in it. Point A starts at the top left, B is the bottom of the first downstroke, then C is up, D is down (but not as far down as B), E is up (but not as far up as C), F is way down, and G finishes with a big upstroke.

A: Begin and immediately start a struggle for your protagonist
B: Pull the rug out from under her
C: Allow her some progress toward her goal
D: Give her a hurdle and make her think that her goal will be in sight once she leaps it
E: Move her close, but then make things worse
F: This is the low point of her struggle, she despairs that she will ever reach her goal
G: She finds a way to prevail

This works for a broad overview of the plot. You can also use one for each subplot and plan where they'll overlap and/or intersect.

I like to brainstorm with myself a bit and set up plot points. If I can end up with at least 12, I distribute them into Act I, Act IIA, Act IIB, and Act III. If I can work from point to point, putting at least 5400 words between points, I know I'll end up with a 65,000 word novel on first draft. From there, I usually layer in some texture. I revisit dialog and description, and try to put as many of the 5 senses into each scene as I can. I make sure each scene has a goal, conflict, and resolution. That last should lead to another goal set up to keep the story going.

Sounds simple, but the plot points tend to morph during writing. Some don't work out, others have to be added, always paying attention to the ebb and flow of action that some call scene and sequel. Character refuse to play the role you've assigned to them, and other characters pop up unbidden and interrupt things. Yikes! How did I ever write a novel?

So, I guess, it's complicated. I'm open to suggestions on how to plot here! It's good to see how others do it.

To prepare this blog, I googled around and found some sources new to me. These folks have some good thoughts on plotting for fiction:

Here's a fun one:

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Magic Number Theory, Re-re-run

This theory, which I first wrote about in October 2009 and repeated her in July of 2015, is for writers who want to be traditionally published and are submitting, either to agents or small presses. I stole this from someone and can no longer remember who, but if someone wants to take credit, I'll gladly give it. Any if someone else can state it better, that would be good, too. This is a little long winded.

First, I'm assuming your project is as good as you can make it. It's as good or better than what's on the market and it's ready to be published. You're sending out queries and collecting rejections and wondering if you'll EVER reach your goal.

As a querying writer you have your own, individual magic number. You don't know what it is, but it is written in stone somewhere. It's the number of queries you must send out before you land that elusive agent, the one who "falls in love" with your work and then manages to get it sold for you, or the publisher who eagerly accepts you into the fold. (An agent who can't sell your work, necessitating getting another agent, is a pre-agent, and doesn't count. Only your "real" agent, the one who sells for you.) When you send out the query with the magic number on it, you're set, done, reached your goal. (Until you go on to the rest of the stuff, marketing, promotion, guest blogging, which are just as hard, only different.)

The beauty of this theory is that you can regard each rejection as a step closer to your magic number. Another rejection? Okay, the magic number wasn't 17. A few more? Okay, it wasn't 28, or 52, or 77, or maybe not even 110. Each rejection is PROGRESS. You're getting closer to your magic number. If your number is 455, your 456th query will be The One that gets you published.

You may lose patience and try another route, self-publishing. Keep in mind that it may help to get the big agent and the big publishing house if you publish something with a good small press. That’s what worked for me.

Another writer, Lina Zeldovich, has a similar theory she calls Stairway to Heaven. Every rejection letter builds her stairway and gets her closer.

Either way, don't view rejection letters as marks of failure, but rather as marks of success.

I hung on for 10 years getting hitting my magic number. It turned out to be 468. There's something symmetrical about that for me. I now have had 10 books published.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Guest Jim Jackson on a Road Trip

I'd like to welcome Jim to my Travels again today. He was one of my first Guppy critiquers and, years later, followed me to become the president of that incredibly helpful group. Here he talks about using location in fiction.

First, here's a bit about him and his successful mystery series:
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. ANT FARM, BAD POLICY, CABIN FEVER, and DOUBTFUL RELATIONS (8/23/16). Jim splits his time between the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the open spaces of Georgia’s Lowcountry. He is the current president of the 600+ member Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find information about Jim and his books at

Taking Fictional Characters on a Road Trip

One of the great divides in the writing community occurs in choosing locations for their stories. Some prefer the freedom of creating their own communities where every street, every business, every stop sign is there because they created it. Some of them do such a great job that I want to visit, if only I could. Those authors are concerned with consistency. Even if they don’t remember there is a left-turn-only lane going from Broad to Main, their readers will, and if it disappears in a later book, the author will hear about it.

Other authors prefer to set their stories in real places, with perhaps a few modifications so bodies don’t turn up in real businesses. Many readers get a charge when they’ve been to a location used in the book. It shares a communal bond between them, the author, and the characters. But woe to the author who has the sun directly in the eyes of a character driving on what locals know is a north-south street. A hot email is about to arrive.

Some authors blend the two. Louise Penny comes to mind as one who created the village of Three Pines that so many want to visit but also uses actual places in cities like Quebec. As an aside, I visited Quebec City this summer with one of our granddaughters, and she chose to tour the Morrin Centre. I walked in having totally forgotten about its role in Penny’s Bury Your Dead and was transported back to the story. That’s the power of real locations.

The Seamus McCree novels use (mostly) real locations and for Doubtful Relations I decided to have Seamus and his mother take a road trip. Some people are happy to research settings using the internet. I prefer visiting the places I use. When you read about Seamus’s home in Cincinnati, or the hotel he stays in Columbia, SC, or Tybee Island near Savannah, or North Carolina’s Outer Bank, or the hills and train stations of New Jersey, (all of which are in Doubtful Relations), I’ve been there, quite possibly with my camera to keep my memory accurate. 


Personal visits do not solve all problems. For example, a beta reader sent me an urgent note that a Cincinnati restaurant I used for a scene no longer exists—in fact the building has been torn down. I actually knew that, and fortunately Doubtful Relations is set a few years in the past, when the restaurant did exist.

So readers, what about you? Do you prefer real locations or a well-crafted fictional locale? And how do you respond when you find a factual error in a novel?

Jim's latest!

Financial crimes investigator Seamus McCree has wife problems, and Lizzie’s not even his wife anymore. Her current husband disappeared while traveling, and Lizzie turns to Seamus for help.

Equal parts road trip, who done what, and domestic thriller, Doubtful Relations takes psychological suspense to a new level. Seamus McCree fans and newcomers alike will delight in this fast-paced novel that leaves no one in the family unchanged and keeps you guessing until the very end.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Guest Today! Judy Penz Sheluk on Mystery Conventions

I'm pleased to welcome Judy Penz Sheluk to my travels today. She has some of her own travels to tell you about! I'd known her online for some time, but was able to meet her at Malice Domestic this year.

One of the perks of being an author is that it provides an excuse to attend writers’ conventions in cities that I might not otherwise visit. When I signed the contract for my first mystery novel, THE HANGED MAN’S NOOSE in 2014 (published July 2015), I made a commitment to myself to attend at least one conference a year.

In the mystery genre, the selection is plentiful. Some conventions move to a different city each year, such as Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime. There are also many that stay in the same city. Examples of these include Killer Nashville, New England Crime Bake, Thrillerfest in New York City, and Malice Domestic in Bethesda, Maryland.

For my first conference as a debut author (The Hanged Man’s Noose, July 2015), I selected Bouchercon 2015, which was held in Raleigh, North Carolina. An annual four-day world mystery convention, what I liked was that Bouchercon had a Debut Author breakfast, and the location was an easy flight from Toronto.

I arrived in Raleigh the day before the convention to do a bit of sightseeing and loved the city. Lots of historic buildings, great people, and the weather was fantastic. As for Bouchercon, it did not disappoint. I met so many great authors (I was quite star-struck for much of the time), attended some terrific panels, and was even on my first panel as a published author, with Donna Andrews (Moderator), Maya Corrigan, LynDee Walker, and Tom Franklin, who was the American Guest of Honor. Talk about pressure! Fortunately, Tom and the rest of the panel were ultra-kind to me.

In 2016, I selected Malice Domestic. I’d never been to Washington before, and they also have a Debut Author breakfast. Furthermore, I knew that many other members of Sisters In Crime were going to attend. Once again I arrived a day early, navigated the Metro system (which is fantastic), and saw the White House, the War Memorial and other monuments. Unfortunately, it was cool and rainy, but the city is amazing. I’d love to return and see Arlington and the Smithsonian museums.

As far as the convention itself, Malice is much more low-key than Bouchercon, with fewer attendees. Think of Bouchercon as the big wedding with hundreds of guests, and Malice as immediate family only.

But smaller doesn’t mean not as good. Malice had great author panels, and an Awards banquet second to none. I was fortunate to sit at Ellen Byron’s table; her book, Plantation Shudders, was up for the Agatha for Best First Novel.

What’s in store for 2017? For sure Bouchercon, since it’s in Toronto and I only live a couple of hours away (in fact, I’m on the volunteer committee). If time and money permit, I’ll look for another place to travel. I’ve always wanted to go to Nashville…

Judy’s latest release is Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in the Marketville Mysteries:

What goes on behind closed doors doesn’t always stay there…

Calamity (Callie) Barnstable isn’t surprised to learn she’s the sole beneficiary of her late father’s estate, though she is shocked to discover she has inherited a house in the town of Marketville—a house she didn’t know existed. However, there are conditions attached to Callie’s inheritance: she must move to Marketville, live in the house, and solve her mother’s murder.

Callie’s not keen on dredging up a thirty-year-old mystery, but if she doesn’t do it, there’s a scheming psychic named Misty Rivers who is more than happy to expose the Barnstable family secrets. Determined to thwart Misty and fulfill her father’s wishes, Callie accepts the challenge. But is she ready to face the skeletons hidden in the attic?

Bio: Judy Penz Sheluk’s debut mystery novel, The Hanged Man’s Noose, was published in July 2015. Skeletons in the Attic, the first book in her Marketville Mystery Series, was published in August 2016.

Judy’s short crime fiction appears in World Enough and Crime, The Whole She-Bang 2, Flash and Bang and Live Free or Tri.

Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

Find Judy on her website/blog at, where she interviews other authors and blogs about the writing life.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Traveling to Sumatra with Nancy Raven Smith!

I'm delighted to welcome Nancy Raven Smith to my Travels today and visit...Sumatra! I don't believe I've ever read a book set there. Read on to see how she delved into some fascinating research.

Writing About an Unvisited Location
So you want to set your new writing project in a foreign location you’ve never visited?

Not an unusual occurrence for a writer, and one that happened to me with my debut novel, Land Sharks – A Swindle in Sumatra.
The area around Sumatra was important to my story for it’s history of identity theft and counterfeit identity via forged passports and identity papers. A recent example of this was when two passengers (not involved with its loss) on the Malaysia Airline that disappeared tragically a few years ago, were discovered to be traveling under fake passports bought in adjacent Thailand. Since my new series is all about scams, cons, and frauds, Sumatra was a perfect place to locate my first book.

Then there was the actual island itself. Sumatra is the third largest of the 13,677 islands that make up Indonesia and is the sixth largest island in the world. Physically, it is about the same size, shape, and population as California and full of wild beauty. It’s a rich environment, filled with possibilities that fill the imagination.

What more can a fiction writer want than an island whose western side is lined with ninety-three volcanoes - fifteen of them active. Imagine California with fifteen active volcanoes. On a tiny island just off the southern tip of Sumatra is Krakatoa, one of the most infamous volcanoes in the world. You may have heard of the latest eruptions of Sumatra’s Mount Sinabung. It’s in the northern third of the island and a stratovolcano, as is Krakatoa and Mount Saint Helens in the US. Mount Sinabung has been spewing gas and ash clouds as well as lava for the last two plus years with no sign of stopping. It’s located to the North of Lake Toba, which is a super volcano like Yellowstone.

 Rainforests, marsh, and shallow rivers cover a third of the entire island and dominate the topography on the eastern side. 

The flora is as fascinating as the topography. There are over 35,000 known plant species in Indonesia. It’s the home of the infamous corpse plant, which smells like purification, and Rafflesia which produces the world’s largest bloom. Hibiscus, jasmine, bougainvillea, lotus, and frangipani are common. Sumatra’s rainforest trees grow over sixty meters tall.

The animals are unique too – 176 different mammals, including orangutans, Sumatran tigers, rhinoceros, elephants, sun bears, clouded leopards, and tapirs as large as ponies. The orangutan exists only in Sumatra and neighboring Borneo.

Reptiles, insects, and aquatic life are just as varied as the mammals. Luckily the fierce Komodo dragons live a fair distance away on a different island. The rare and colorful bird species number 523 including Birds of Paradise, Black Ibis, Sunbirds, pheasants, owls, nightjars, parrots, hornbills, cuckoos, and hawks. The bird population alone fills volumes of books.

The people of the island are as diversified as everything else. Although there are a large number of ethnicities, more than eighty-six percent of the population is Muslim. Christians are the next largest group at a distant second. They are followed by Buddhists and Hindus. Local tribes still exist such as the Batak people in the north.

But sadly, I’ve never been there. So I researched. Researching is definitely a wonderful part of writing. Here’s how I went about it. First, I bought several current travel books on Sumatra. In the front of travel books is always a section on the abbreviated history on an area, a section on flora and fauna, and a section on the people, culture, government, and food as well as descriptions about travel and money. I read these carefully and took notes. Then I bought a large wall map. From it, I got a sense of topography and distances. I picked where I thought the story might take place and zeroed on that specific location. The location changed as I learned more, and I repeated this process several times before finalizing my choice. At the same time, I was still taking notes, searching on the internet, and following things about Sumatra in the news. 

Then I went to Amazon and Ebay to see what was available about Sumatra. I ordered and read several first hand accounts of living on the island. I also ordered videos of the area. These actually give you a true visual of the area, especially if you look at the background and not just at what the video focuses on. You also can see how the people sound and look. One video I’ll mention that was absorbing for me was called The Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey filmed by the Blair brothers as they journeyed through the islands of Indonesia for ten years. It’s old and on VHS (1991) as a 4 tape set, but they also kept a diary and published it. Another program I watched was a much more recent Globe Trekker episode, a Nova episode, and several programs on orangutans. (All on DVD). Another thing I’d recommend if you have the opportunity is to interview someone who has been to the location.

Then I wrote my book. 

Thank you Kaye for letting me share how I research a location with your readers.


Nancy Raven Smith grew up in Virginia where she ran horse sport events. Later in California, she worked in film and studied screenwriting at UCLA. Her scripts have won numerous awards, but she decided to write one idea as a novel. To her surprise, she discovered a passion for writing mysteries. Raven Smith realized that she found her true creative home in writing mysteries/romantic suspense. Land SharksA Swindle in Sumatra is her first mystery/romantic suspense novel. She hopes people will enjoy reading it as much as she did writing it. She was thrilled when it was chosen as an Amazon/Kindle Scout Program Winner.


In Land Sharks – A Swindle in Sumatra, a bank fraud investigator goes undercover in Sumatra to find a young heiress who may or may not have been kidnapped. Her job might be easier if she didn't have to deal with her boss's untrained son who has a crush on her and the unexpected appearance of an ex-boyfriend who’s a conman with his own secret agenda.         – Mystery/Romantic Suspense

The ebook for Land Sharks is on sale for the month of August, 2016 for $1.99 on Amazon.
Land Sharks – A Swindle in Sumatra Amazon Link -
The Reluctant Farmer of Whimsey Hill Amazon Link -

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Short Bit of BSP

BSP=Blatant Self-Promotion

But I'm actually promoting for all eight authors, our independent editor, and our publisher.

Our anthology, which began on a whim and took on a life of its own, has been named a finalist for a Silver Falchion Award at the Killer Nashville conference, taking place this next weekend!

Stories and authors:

A NICE SET OF WHEELS, by Kathy Waller
FAMILY BUSINESS, by Reavis Z. Wortham
ROTA FORTUNAE, by V. P. Chandler
MOME RATH, MY SWEET, by Gale Albright
BUON VIAGGIO, by Laura Oles
APORKALYPSE NOW, by Gale Albright
HAVE A NICE TRIP, by Kaye George
HELL ON WHEELS, by Kathy Waller
RED’S WHITE F-150 BLUES, by Scott Montgomery

Editor: Ramona DeFelice Long

Publisher: Wildside Press

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Healthy Eating?

I recently noticed two different articles on somewhat the same subject, both from the same publication, and was struck by them in juxtaposition.

First, there’s this one showing how many people eat fruits and veggies, by state. My present state, Tennessee, looks pretty abysmal. Third for the bottom for vegetables and dead last for fruit! I hope your state does better.

Then there’s this article from last year on the state of the drought in one of our most productive places.  

So, I thought to myself (well, who else would I think to?), maybe Tennessee is ahead of the curve. Maybe we’re trying to preserve what vegetables there are so everyone can have some. Yeah, right.

So, to console myself, I think I’ll heed this article.

All photos from