Seeing People, Not Differences

Nerdy Book Club

When I first started writing The Fire Horse Girl, I obsessed over getting all the details right. The book opens on Chinese New Year, and I combed through every New Year tradition I could find and jammed most of them into the first chapter (don’t worry, Cheryl Klein, editor extraordinaire, saved readers from that monstrosity). I meticulously researched clothing, mannerisms, language patterns, traditions, and other cultural nuances because people said that these differences were important.

FireHorseGirl_CV-2There’s another reason I obsessed over differences. While I was writing The Fire Horse Girl, I was also in the process of adopting our son Jack. At the time, he was a three-year old little boy who I’d only seen in six pictures his orphanage in China sent. Between filling out immigration applications, fielding questions about why adoption took so long, and daydreaming about the day we would finally bring him home, I…

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Why I Write Realistic Fiction

I was at the Montgomery Book Festival last week on a “Just Keeping it Real” panel with Christina Mandelski, Stasia Ward Kehoe, and Jessica Warman (all fabulous and so much fun to spend the day with). Our books span the various genres under the umbrella of realistic fiction– mystery, romance, coming-of-age, historical. An audience member asked us why we wrote realistic fiction, and I have been chewing on that question ever since. Continue reading “Why I Write Realistic Fiction”

Crayon on paper


To be a writer is to sit down at one’s desk in the chill portion of every day, and to write; not waiting for the little jet of the blue flame of genius to start from the breastbone – just plain going at it, in pain and delight. To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again, and once more, and over and over….

John Hersey

Every summer for eleven years I sat around campfires, sang camp songs, rode horses, and rowed canoes down the Guadalupe River at a wonderful camp in the Texas Hill Country. The summer after my last year as a camper, I returned as a counselor. It was still a beautiful, warm, and peaceful place. But the shift in perspective from camper to counselor made me realize the work that it took to create that easy, relaxed atmosphere.

I think I struggle with the same shift as a writer. When you come to writing from the experience of being a reader, it takes a little while to peer behind the curtain and see the complicated decisions that add up to a story. Years of reading have given me good instincts, but bad habits.

One thing I am working on is my ability to create an outline. My first book, THE FIRE HORSE GIRL was created with a loose outline based on The Hero’s Journey and then revised into submission. It was messy and a little chaotic. I spent a lot of time stepping blindfolded into the next plot point only to fall of a narrative cliff.

The first time a fellow writer tried to convert me to outlining, I cringed at the memories of my ninth-grade English teacher saying, “If you have an A you have to have a B under your roman numerals” as I hunched over my college-ruled paper that was full of eraser holes and tears.

That experience taught me that writing an outline is like etching your paper in stone…with your fingernail – painful, pointless, and permanent.

Now I am realizing that a story’s outline can have the fluidity that I crave. It can also allow me to layer story elements through scenes in a second or third draft instead of a twentieth or thirtieth draft. Sometimes I think of it as a first draft.

Stories can be created without outlines. I don’t think the outline serves the story. Stories existed long before outlines. I think it serves the author (which, of course, trickles down to the reader).

I am starting to buy into the ‘why’ of outlines, and I am trying to figure out the ‘how.’ Here are a few resources that have helped me.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks – A great look at the structure that lies under stories.


Outlining Your Novel by K.M Weiland – I like


The Writer’s Journey by Christophe Vogler – This is what I used for my first novel. It is a nice way to mark places your story needs to stop before it gets to the end of the road.


My Next Read:

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder


If you worry about getting too organized (or you just need a smile), you can check out this fun TED Talk on “Tidying up Art.” I get tickled every time I watch this:


Scenic Route

Is it a bad sign that I am finally getting around to writing my New Years resolutions on the fifth day of the new year? Maybe, but 2012 was a bit of a roller coaster for me, and I am finding a scenic route through 2013.

This year is about falling little out of step with the proverbial rat race. It is about quality over quantity and savoring the day-to-day. It is also about celebrating small wins and even smaller steps forward.

This is not a new philosophy for me, but I think it is time for a reminder. Since I write historical fiction, let me take you back to the year of my prom. It is twenty minutes before my date was supposed to be there, and I am wiping the tears from my eyes and seriously considering taking off my sequined prom dress, crawling back into my stirrup pants and oversized sweater, and popping an episode of Seinfeld into the VCR.

What made me so upset? My date. He did not stand me up. He did not show up drunk. He did not show up with another girl. He did not even show up in a hideous tux. He showed up early, with a friend who he was helping out because his date had stood him up. Devastating, right? I was probably thinking, “This kind of stuff never happens to Jennifer Aniston.” I was definitely thinking, “This whole night is ruined.”

Okay, it is easy to laugh about now. But that is what it felt like because the mythology of prom told me that everything would be perfect. So the second that reality didn’t match the image I had borrowed from movies and magazines, everything fell apart.

And that is the kind-of thinking that I am walking away from this year.

Because it is impossible to find perfection. And while I am busy looking for it, I am missing out on all the interesting, quirky, fun (like prom turned out to be), ridiculous, charming, silly, and inspiring moments that make up life.

My big moments are always a steady progress of hundreds or even thousands of little moments, each with their own exquisite beauty.

So, this year my resolution is to plug away at the small tasks and enjoy the little moments. I will get up early and enjoy the peace of sleeping children. I will learn the exact way my daughter’s nose crinkles when she smiles really big and breathe in the sound of my son’s laughter. I will get to know my characters and enjoy the way they arrive with bolder and cleaner strokes with each version of the story. There will certainly be moments when I forget this resolution, but that is okay. Because detours happen on the scenic route, and sometimes they lead to the most marvelous places.



Fire Horse Girl – Released this Week and Giveaway

There is a giveaway of The Fire Horse Girl and a listing of all the great books coming out this week on Adventures in YA and Children’s Publishing. It is a great site in general, so after you sign up for the giveaway, look around.

Also, I will be guest-posting an Inspired Openings blog post next Monday.

Hope you are having a wonderful holidays!



KERA Think Podcast

If you live in the Dallas area and are interested in a great writing program, click here to listen to Suzanne Frank, Dan Hale, and me talk about The Writer’s Path at SMU. And yes, Krys Boys  is as fabulous as you would think if, like me, you have listened to Think for years.



Back to school

Putting it All Together

If you have been following along on our journey to dig up the central conflicts and theme in your work-in-progress, now is the moment that we bring it all together.

I have to use a enumerated list…that is how exciting it is!

1. Gather up your three charts and a blank sheet of paper. If you missed making the charts, you can find the instructions for the character chart here. And instruction for plot and world charts here.

2. On the blank sheet of paper make three columns – Conflict, color, and character. Each column represents a key element of your story – the conflict the main character has with others, within herself/himself, and with society, the color that the setting provides, and the motivations of your main character. In the best stories, these elements connect, overlap, and interact. Hopefully this chart will help you see where that happens.

2. Go through the three charts you made and circle anything that has to do with character – their traits, their motivations, their past.

3. Underline anything that will cause conflict in your story – a new life, new goals, betrayals, limits, desires that are out of reach. Items circled in the last step might be underlined also. This is where you start to see how ideas are layered.

4. Highlight anything that reveals the color of your story. I think of this as the backdrop to the story – setting, society, culture, and emotion. Again, some items maybe be circled, highlighted, and underlined.

5. Take a moment and look over your charts. I like to look at the items that are underlined, circled, and highlighted. In the charts I did for The Fire Horse Girl the key elements cross all three categories: out of sync with society, strength, suffocating, vulnerable, promise of American dream, male-dominated society, heartbreak. It really brings those driving forces to the surface.

When I did the charts for the second book, the following showed up in all three categories – risk, competition, playing games, controlling perceptions, politics, status, passion, compassion.

6. I also make a fourth chart on the sheet of paper where you wrote the three columns. It lets me see what elements show up repeatedly, and which ones threads show up in one category, but have ties to the other two.

I hope that helps!



Chart – Plot and World

Here is more of the early brainstorming for Jade Moon.

Hopefully you have you character chart explained in yesterday’s post. To continue discovering the repeating images and themes in your story, complete two more charts.

On a fresh sheet of paper, brainstorm everything you know about your book’s plot. This might include what happens, what your character’s goals are, her failures, and her successes. I give myself about 5-7 minutes to think and write.


Finally, write down everything you know about your story’s world – the place, the time period, the people in charge, the rules, the beliefs, the economics, the social norms.

Save those and we will do the last step tomorrow!