One Writer’s Journey

June 22, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Outlining a Mystery

About two month ago, I wrote a post about outlining your novel.  I’m in the pre-writing stage of writing a mystery and I’ve been working on outlining my plot.  The problem was that something was missing.  It had to be.  My list was only about 20 scenes long.  Even I know that’s not enough for a novel.

So I started reading cozies, paying careful attention to the plot.  What I quickly realized is that I had outlined only part of the book.  I had the mystery, as in the crime, all plotted out.  A mystery novel is so much more.

Scenes that show us the character’s life sans mystery.

What is your character doing when she isn’t solving mysteries?  For an adult mystery, it often involves a job such as running a knitting shop or catering.  In a book for young readers the main character might be in the marching band at school or in pom poms. Whatever it is, these scenes show us what life is like when your character isn’t trying to unravel a mystery.

Sometimes these scenes take place at the beginning of the story.  In Last Wool and Testament by Molly MacRae, the main character is traveling to her Grandmother’s funeral.  This may not be how she spends a typical day, but the focus in these scenes is on family and friends and emotion.  This emotion is important because it will help readers identify with your character.

So throughout the book you can throw in more of these scenes.  Show your character interacting with family and friends. You can spend several five-minute sessions laying out these scenes.

Red herrings.

Other scenes are needed to drop red herrings into the story.  Once that mystery is launched, you need a string of suspects.  These scenes supply you with these suspects.  Perhaps your character overhears an argument, is sent a threatening text or someone tells a funny story that in hindsight may also contain a clue.

Again, spent several five-minute sessions noodling over how to make several of your secondary characters look guilty.  I’m including someone with a temper, a robbery, and a character who is hiding a secret.  The red herrings will be more obvious than the scene that actually gives the clues to the murder.  I’ll have to see if that works.

Plot.  Red herrings. Everyday life.  A mystery has to contain all three.  Fortunately it doesn’t take buckets of time to layer them into your outline.



June 1, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Industry News and Cleaning Out Your Inbox

Keeping up on what is going on can seem really tricky.  Between  blogs, newsletters and tweets, which should you turn to?

Two of my favorites are:

  • PW Children’s Bookshelf which comes out twice a week.  I always read through rights reports and look for book reviews.
  • Shelf Awareness which has two newsletters – one for readers in general and one for those in the publishing industry.

At the retreat, Karen Boss of Charlesbridge recommended a variety of awards lists including the many ALA lists, the Amelia Bloomer book list that focuses on women and science, and the Bank Street College Education Best Books of the Year. Five minutes a day would let you skim a newsletter, read an article you had saved or request a book you’re interested in from the library.

But part of having time to read what you want, is getting rid of what you don’t.  I don’t know about you, but it is just to easy to sign up for this that and other thing all delivered to your inbox.  The next thing that you know you have 250+ e-mails coming into your email every day.  I decided to do something about it.

For the last week, I’ve spent five minutes or less each day unsubscribing.

  • First to go where the places I used to like to shop but haven’t bought from in years.  Or the places that I like but seldom need kitchen ware, furniture or whatever.  I can go to their sites when I need something.
  • Then I got rid of the things that between Facebook, Twitter, blogs and e-mail are duplicates.
  • Next to go were the writing sites I now ignore.  Some used to be good but have declined.  Others lured me in with a “get this for free if you sign up” but I haven’t read them in months.

The number of e-mails I receive a day has dropped by 100 and I’m still deleting.  The more I can get rid of, the more time I have to read what matters.


May 11, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Write Something New

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:49 am
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You may be up to your fanny in alligators – okay, grandad didn’t say fanny.  His phrase was more alliterative.  But even if you are up to your you-know-what in gators you can take 5 minutes to write something new.

In ten days, I have to write a new nonfiction book (2000 words), rewrite a nonfiction book (15,000 words), and critique 6 manuscripts.  It is, to put it mildly, going to be a race. But I’ve signed up for a May-long challenge to write something new every day.  Julie Duffy is the one running the challenge,  Obviously, Julie’s goal is to write a new short story every day for a month.   But Julie is also a practical person who knows that we each need to set our own goals.

A short story a day?  With my to-do list?  I knew that wasn’t going to happen.  But I also think that Maya Angelou is correct when she said, “You can’t use up creativity.  The more you use, the more you have.”  So I’ve been writing a poem a day.

Just to make sure that my brain understand that there are not work, I’m not keying them in at the computer. I am writing them in my journal.  I have a set of unlined pages in the back and I just pick a spot on the page and write.  Some poems run top to bottom. Sometimes I rotate the journal and write with the gutter at the top of the page.  It’s a mess but I’m just having fun.

So far I have a chant about birds, a violet haiku, a free verse poem about my never-ending pink bedroom, a morning-glory haiku, a chant about writing, and more.  They are definitely a bit of a mess but that’s okay because they are fueling my creativity in those two nonfiction books that I’m working on and the decluttering that I’ve also undertaken.  What can I say?  Creativity is driving me to get to work.  With that in mind . . . off to rewrite.



April 27, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Outlining Your Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:33 am
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Sometimes I outline. Sometimes I pants.  Admittedly, I pants most often on short pieces, especially nonfiction.  Longer nonfiction has an outline but it isn’t very complete.  I am definitely outlining my current fiction project because it is a mystery and an adult mystery at that.  There is no way I’ll manage to keep it all straight without an outline.

So how do you go about creating an outline in 5 minutes?  You don’t.  Instead you work on it in 5 minute increments.  It isn’t as hard as you might think.  I just completed #2 below and I already have 15 scenes.

  1. Do you have the turning points or big moments in your story?  Jot those down in chronological order.
  2. Do your turning points have complications?  Add those in at the appropriate points in time.
  3. What about things that happened before your story? The essential bits of character back story.  This can help you determine why one character doesn’t trust another and, essential in a mystery, the reasons for all the mistrust. Go ahead and jot those scenes down too in the order in which they happened.  No, they may not all become scenes but that’s okay.  Keep track of them along with your scenes.
  4. Take a good luck at your pivotal scenes.  What is likely to happen before this?  After this?  Write it down.
  5. In my case, I’m working on a mystery.  I need to add the murders events in as well as they fit within the larger timelines.  No, I may not write any of them up, but I need to keep track of them within the larger structure.
  6. Starting from the top, see where you have too great a gap between one scene and the next.  Ask yourself questions to fill them in.

Admittedly I have a love/hate relationship with outlining fiction.  I worry that it will destroy any spontaneity but I also have to acknowledge that especially with a mystery this is essential.



April 13, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: When It Looks Like Someone Ransacked Your House

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:11 am
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I’m not houseproud but when someone who has never been here before stops by, I don’t want it to look like enemy agents were looking for the code key which, at the moment, is pretty much how it looks. Unfortunately, my son’s engineering study group is meeting here on Saturday afternoon.

But I have a book due a week from today with two more chapters to draft as well as the back matter.  So I can’t stop writing, but I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique – 25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break.  Even a busy writer can have a non-terrifying house by doing five minutes spot cleanings.

Here are 15 tasks you can complete in five minutes.

  1. Clean the sink and toilet.
  2. Pull the shower curtain closed and clean the bathroom floor.
  3. Pick up in the entry way.
  4. Pick up in the living room. This one requires having other people clean up their stuff.  If they say no…
  5. Box up other people’s living room clutter.
  6. Write the ransom notes for the clutter you have commandeered.  No, I’m serious.
  7. Box up the dining room table clutter.  We are packing up my dad’s house.  Things that have migrated have nested on my dining room table.  It’s going to have to move so time to box it up to go through after my deadline.
  8. Dust mop the living and dining rooms.
  9. Pick up in the kitchen.
  10. Pick up in the kitchen again.
  11. Clean kitchen table.
  12. Sweep kitchen floor.
  13. Mop kitchen floor.
  14. Pick up in family room.
  15. Vacuum family room.  We have very little carpet.  5 minutes will do it.

No the house won’t be spotless but in my experience dust offends me more than it does most other people.  So that will just have to wait. But this plan will get the public areas clean by Saturday afternoon.  Five minute spot cleanings will help you meet your deadline without your house looking like a crime scene.


April 6, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Picture Book Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:18 am
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On Saturday I’ll be attending the KS-MO SCBWI Agent’s Day in Wentzville, Missouri.  In addition to getting feedback on my own manuscript from an agent, I’ll be leading a picture book critique group.  With that in mind, I’ve got picture books on the brain.  Fortunately, this short form lends itself to a wide variety of 5 minute activities.

First things first, you need to familiarize yourself with picture books which means you have to read a lot.  Seriously.  Read at least 50.  No you can’t do that in 5 minutes but here are things you can do:

  • Read one picture book.  Most picture books are super short.  So read one and read it out loud.  Picture books are meant to be shared with pre-readers so they are meant to be read aloud.  Page attention to page turns and pacing.  It’s going to take a while to get 50 in at 5 minutes a day but that’s okay.  Slow education beats no education.
  • Type up the text for a picture book.  This way you can read it without the pictures and see which parts of the story are text only.
  • “Read” one picture book, but only look at the pictures.  You want to see what parts of the story are told by the illustrator.

Now that you’ve got a feel for picture books, its time to see if your manuscript fits the format.

  • Print a copy of your manuscript and mark the spreads.  Do you have at least 14?  A picture book is 32 pages long so you’ll need at least 14 spreads (28 pages).  If you have too few or too little, adjustments need to be made.
  • Each spread needs to be unique.  Take a look at one spread in your story.  Study the actions, characters, setting, emotion and tone.  I always make sure that there are at least two changes from the spread before and the spread after.
  • Pay attention to the details on your spread. Visual details can be left to the illustrator.  Sound, scent, taste and feel are all yours.
  • Is your text tight.  Every word needs to serve a purpose so start cutting.  I try to cut 30%.
  • Read your spread aloud.  Look for fun picture book language.

Fortunately it is fairly easy to work on a picture book in bite sized chunks.  Good luck!


March 30, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Plot before the Outline

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:03 am
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Before you try to outline it helps to have some idea where you are going.  You won’t immediately know every step in your plot but it helps to figure out some of the key moments.  These include the inciting incident, the climax and various turning points.  Since I’m currently working on a mystery, these have to do with things like Finding the Body, Jumping to Conclusions, Setting a Trap.

Once you know what these key moments are, you might also want to consider how to make them BAD.  One way to do this is with the setting itself.  If your character is afraid of heights, she ends up on a skywalk or in a tree.  If she’s afraid of snakes, you might force her to meet another character in the herpetarium at the zoo or perhaps beside a tank of baby boas at the pet store.

Other ways to complicate things is through characters.  Force her to confront her prejudices and they don’t have to be racial.  Maybe she has to deal with kids from the enemy school or someone who hangs with another clique.

Another way to increase her discomfort would be to increase the stakes.  I’ve done this to a point in that one of my character’s best friends is a suspect and the other friend is sure she’s done it.  You could also have your character accused of something and the only way to get out of it is to accuse someone else.

A fourth way to complicate things is to add constraints.  Set the scene in a small space such as a space craft or a boat.  You can also limit the time which the character has to solve things.

It sounds like a lot so you may be wondering what you can accomplish in 5 minutes. Here are some suggestions:

  • List your Key Moments.
  • Examine each key moment for ways to add complications.  Add at least 2 complications per key moment. Three is even better.
  • Re-examine your complications for variety.  Personal stakes may be the issue at one point with constraints coming into play later on.

Clearly you aren’t going to get this done in one sitting.  And that’s okay.  Once you’ve come up with both key moments and complications, think about them again.  Make changes to increase tension or stakes.  I altered who the first suspect is because I wanted to expand my cast of characters to make the mystery harder to solve.

The hope is that by improving things before you staring writing, before you even start outlining, the writing and rewriting will be a little bit smoother.  Fingers crossed!


March 23, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Premise

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:28 am
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One of the things that you need to know before you write your novel is your premise.  Simpley put, your premise is what your novel is about.  Think of it as a mini-outline. This can be a huge help when either you outline your lovel or get to work because you don’t d outlines. Either way , a premise can help you stay on track.

Some of what you might want to include in your premise:

  • Who is your POV character
  • What is the story about
  • What does you character have to do
  • What is at risk if she fails.

I have to admit that I froze up in trying to consider these items and work up my premise. Somehow it was just too much to pull together.  Then I read author K.M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel in which she suggests that you ask yourself a series of questions.  Each of these questions became a five minute task.

What if…?

This one is a chance to explore various ideas.  Noodle over your characters and in general what the story is about and jot down whatever comes to mind.  I came up with things like:

  • What if a former foster child is accused of a murder he didn’t commit?
  • What if a volatile figure in local politics is killed during the May Festival parade?
  • What if he put it around that he and Emmie had had an affair?
  • What if he had stolen money or somehow cheated the church?

Not everything that you come up with like this is going to make it into your story but as you play with these ideas some of them will strike you as doable.  I quickly eliminated the first one but decided that the other three could work if I reshaped them a bit.

What is expected?

What are the things that your readers will expect?  Some of this may be impacted by the type of story you are writing or who your characters are.  Again, in five minutes I came up with four ideas

  • It is expected that someone will die.  Because my story is a cozy mystery.
  • It is expected that the main character or people close to her will be suspects.
  • It is expected that she will follow false leads.
  • It is expected that people will mislead her although some may do it unintentionally.

This line of thinking lead to the main suspect for the mystery so it definitely paid off.

What is unexpected?

I have to admit that I didn’t do as well with this since I only came up with one – It is unexpected that Clara will be willing to lie to the police to cover for a suspect even if she thinks the person might be guilty.

After considering these three questions, like me, you may be ready to write your premise.  Surprisingly, after struggling with it for days, I git it done in from five to ten minutes.

Spend five minutes a day for a week brainstorming answers to the questions above and then give your premise a try.



March 9, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Setting

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:14 am
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When we discuss writing strong fiction, we spend a lot of time discussing characters.  After all, we want them to feel real enough to walk off the page.  But the setting through which they roam has to feel real as well.  The more complete your setting, the more real your world will feel for the reader.

Think about Hogwarts and The Hub.  After reading Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, those places feel real.  The authors developed them down to the last fantastic staircase or junk covered table.

But what can you do to develop your setting in only five minutes?  More than you think.

  • Spend 5 minutes brainstorming place names for your town, city or street.  This is a tough one for me because my setting is loosely based on the city in which I live.  Change the name of our city and you change our identity.  That’s how a setting should be, but I don’t want actually use the name of my city. I’ve played with a few names but I just need to sit down and brainstorm a huge list.
  • Floor plans.  Be sure you know the layout of important rooms in the buildings in which your story takes place.  You can draw your own floor plan or find one online.  I did this with two character’s homes in my WIP.  I just typed “Craftsman floor plan” and “mid-century modern floor plan” into Google images.  I had to pick through a bit to find what I wanted but each took about five minutes.
  • Decor.  Your setting what feel real if you don’t know what’s in it.  Spend a few minutes determining what style the appropriate character likes. I pinned living room, dining room and bedroom furniture for my main character and her sidekicks.
  • Paint Colors.  This is a separate item because you have two sets of decisions to make – colors for private spaces and colors for personal spaces. Why break it down like this?  Because for some people they aren’t one in the same.

This isn’t everything that you need to know about setting but these four exercises will get you started.  Let me know how they work for you!


March 2, 2018

5 Minutes a Day: Some Days It Just Doesn’t Happen

You plan, you organize and you should be able to get it all done. But sometimes things just don’t work out.

Maybe you don’t feel well. Or it could be that you didn’t sleep.  The reality is that you aren’t working at peak efficiency.

Or it could be that the world is out to keep you from working.  Power outages and storms complete with bad weather sirens.

Whatever the reason, sometimes it becomes obvious that everything is not going to get accomplished.  This means that you are going to have to make some decisions.  Because I make a living at this, the things with contracts have to get done first.  I met Wednesday’s deadline.  I’ve met one of the two for today.  The other?  Still working on it.  Choir practice last night?  Didn’t make it.

But because of that, this is going to be super fast.  When I am working on a horrible deadline, I set a timer.  Work like mad for 25 minutes and then get up to move around for five minutes.

I tend to do housework – this may be the only time I voluntarily do housework but there you have it.  What can you do in five minutes?

  • Feed the cats.  Or fill their waterer.
  • Throw in a load of laundry. Move laundry from the washer to the dryer.
  • Take out the trash. Empty the recycling.
  • Sort and toss mail. Pay a bill.
  • Match socks.
  • Clean off the bench in the entryway.
  • Pick jackets up off the sofa.
  • Sweep one room or the basement stairs.
  • Clean a sink or swish a toilet.  And close the shower curtain.

And then as soon as I am done with one of those little jobs it is back to work.  I’ve moved.  I’ve gotten away from my desk – that’s essential. And the house doesn’t look like a complete disaster.  Now if you’ll excuse me – I have one more chapter to outline.



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