About Sarah McElrath

A seeker, looking to find truth and wisdom in the world and through art, I work as a school librarian, writing and painting when I have time.

Becoming A Story Genius

School’s out, which means I’m able to be more of a writer. This summer, as I revise my novel, I Feel For You, I’m studying how to be a story genius. The “textbook” I’m using is Story Genius: how to use brain science to go beyond outlining and write a riveting novel. 

According to author Lisa Cron, a story is basically “about how someone grapples with a problem they can’t avoid, and how they change in the process.” (pg. 30) Story is, therefore, the internal struggle and change–compared to plot, which is the external events. The book not only talks about why our brains crave story, but it also helps provide what the author calls “a blueprint” for your novel. The blueprint talked about in Story Genius “is not a general outline of the things that happen in the plot; it’s a fully realized synthesis of the internal and external layers of your story from beginning to end.”

Throughout the book there are sections the author calls What To Do.  I stop and work on those in my IFFY novel notebook — which is just a notebook (see above picture) where I put ideas, thoughts, diagrams, drawings, explanations… whatever has come up in the course of writing I Feel For You. For me, it is easier to allow imperfection when I write on paper. Something about switching to Scrivener (the writing software I use) makes it feel more like it has be to be… well, good. So I do the brainstorming on paper.

Story Genius would be great for those who have an idea, but haven’t started writing yet. I’m revising, but it is still helpful for that as well. The shitty first draft has been written, but I knew I needed to ratchet up the tension. Unfortunately, I wasn’t exactly sure how. Working through Lisa Cron’s book allows me to pin-point WHY the lack of tension, the absence of urgency–and it is also helping me know how to build that urgency into my manuscript.

I’m far from finished, but I definitely have a better handle on what my STORY is — and a blueprint for the plot events that need to happen to create that story.

Are your settings multi-tasking?

Utilizing setting to deepen your storyold-1130731_1280

Last night I met with my writing group, and it brought home yet again why writing groups are so important. As a writer, I don’t always realize how much is in my head, but not on the page. My writing group is very good on pointing out what is missing–or what is leading them a down a different path than where I’d intended the reader to go.

In our group, the author reads her piece of writing while the others follow along on their own copy. Then the author sits back like a fly on the wall while the “readers” talk about the piece of writing. So last night after I read my scene, the very first comment went something like this: “I can’t see them–I mean, I can’t picture where the characters are–and that makes it difficult for me to visualize what they are doing.”

Oops, I did it again (to quote a popular but definitely not favorite song). I knew where the characters were, but I forgot to look around and describe it for my readers. The scene started with this sentence:

After school, we headed back to what I called the training room, having finished eating hummus and chips in the kitchen. Grandma Lange led us through the practice of Grounding, and I dutifully imagined roots growing into the floorboards beneath me…..

So okay, we have a time of day–after school–and we have a place–the training room. But that didn’t give my readers enough to see what the characters were doing. Were they sitting? If so, on what? Maybe they were standing–and if so, were they close to each other? Far apart? We can’t SEE them, and that makes what follows confusing.


Not only did my lack of description of the setting make the scene confusing, but I missed an opportunity to deepen the story.

So what can setting do for your story?

In The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Space by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, setting is described as “a powerhouse of storytelling description that deepens every scene.” Not only does it root the reader in the events–or fail to do so, in my case–but it also, if chosen carefully, can “help characterize the story’s cast, deliver backstory in a way that enriches, covey emotion, supply tension, and accomplish a hot of other things to give readers a one-of-a-kind experience.” (p. 1)


In The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places also by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, setting is described like this:

They’re places that hold meaning for the character and evoke emotion. They provide opportunities for conflict and personal tragedy and growth. As such, birthplaces, bedrooms, schools, workplaces, hangouts, and vacation spots play a pivotal role in shaping who a character is and who he will become. [ ] Written effectively, this emotional connection reaches out to include the reader too.”(p. 1)


Setting, done right, can help a writer:

  1. allow the reader to visualize/understand what is going on in the scene
  2. develop character
  3. provide backstory that both advances plot and/or develops character
  4. supply tension and/or a source of conflict
  5. convey tone/mood

Let’s look at another example where I think I did a better job making the most of my setting.

     After bundling up in winter gear, I stepped into a blinding world. Wherever the sun struck the snow, it sparked a million different colors, like diamonds in the firelight. Wiping watering eyes with the back of a mitten, I headed down the street. My breath plumed out clouds, and the cold air stung the tip of my nose.

     In the neighborhoods closer to Lake Michigan, the houses grew bigger. Not that the Williams lived in a mansion, but it doubled my house. The sidewalk ended, and I headed across the street to where it picked up again on the other side just past the entrance to the Lake Forest cemetery. A blanket of untouched snow covered the ground and tucked around the gray and black tombstones and mausoleums.

     Once, I’d admitted to Eva that those little stone houses both creeped me out and fascinated me because I imagined someone opening the door and coming out.

     Eva had rolled her eyes and said with mock chagrin, “Only you bleeding heart religious sorts believe in anyone coming out of the grave. Stick to scientific fact, you’ll sleep better, I promise. Cemeteries are a waste, just dead space. I plan to donate my body to science. My mom tells me it’s hard for the university medical program to get enough cadavers for student use.”

     That’s Eva in a nutshell, I thought, turning to walk the rest of the way to her house. If she can’t test, slice, dice, or document it in some way—it doesn’t exist.

DSCF0087.JPG IMG_1861

I’d like to think that in this passage, I used setting (the neighborhood and the graveyard) to do more than just help the reader visualize what is happening in the scene. The description of the houses in the neighborhood inform the reader that Eva’s family is richer than Jane’s family. 

Having Jane walk past the graveyard allowed me to practice what Fleda Brown (a poet who was a speaker at a writing conference I attended) called going out from where you are. This means using something in the story (in this case, the mausoleums) to travel somewhere else–or some when else. Think about it–our memory often works by association. So a writer can provide backstory in a way that seems natural by using something a character sees, hears, smells, does, or tastes to trigger a memory. In my example, the sight of the mausoleums reminds Jane of a previous conversation she had with Eva. 

Adding this bit of backstory triggered by the setting created (or at least, indicated) a source of tension, setting Jane’s view of the world against Eva’s. That tension hints at the larger conflict involving the struggle to accept that which cannot be scientifically proven.

Could my setting do even more? Maybe. I’ll keep working on making my settings multi-task. That’s the joy of re-writing.

Is your setting doing all that it could for your story? 



What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

Bedroom Bookshelf

Bedroom Bookshelf

Being a reader, a writer, and a librarian, I have a lot of bookshelves in my house. So many in fact, that you’d think I’d have plenty of room for the new book I’d recently purchased—it wasn’t even a thick book, only 249 pages. But no, when I attempted to squeeze it on the bookshelf in my room, it wouldn’t fit. Nor would it fit with the books on the top of my husband’s dresser. No room on the living room bookshelf either — and certainly not on the shelves downstairs, crowded three times deep.

As I dug through my books, wondering if there were any I could bear to get rid of, I pondered what would be gained, and what would be lost if we went to all ebooks. Obviously, on a virtual bookshelf I could have thousands of books and never run out of shelf space. But on the flip side, bookshelves instill character and personality in a room. If books aren’t a Feng Shui thing, they should be. All those stories, ideas and possibilities create good mojo—I’m sure of it.

IMG_6269When I go over to someone’s house, I love to look at two things — what they hang on their walls, and what is on their shelves. I don’t like to think I’m judgmental about bookshelves, but I probably am—just a little. Mostly if the person doesn’t have any books at all on the bookshelf. I mean really, that’s as sad as having an ice cream cone with no ice cream.

So take a look around you. What does your bookshelf (or bookshelves if you are like me) say about you?

IMG_6270Maybe it should be a new type of personality test. All Fiction on your shelf? You’re an F: a dreamer, an escape artist, and a traveler. You are empathetic and can often see multiple ways of looking at an issue.

All Non-Fiction on your shelf? You’re an NF: a realist, someone who believes in the here and now—as well as in the power of the past. You feel more comfortable with facts than with possibilities, and you believe the more you know, the better off you will be.

IMG_6266Does you bookshelf host a number of both fiction and non-fiction books, like mine? You’re an FNF. You don’t believe you can really dream, reach for the stars, or try new things until you know the facts about this life, this world we live in. You are a realistic dreamer or a dreamy realist. Start where you are and go from there.

Stay with me here, I’m just warming up.

IMG_6268How about Literary or Genre reading? An L type of bookshelf says the reader is well educated (or striving to be), likes to go beneath the surface of things. Often more reserved, this reader tends to observe and analyze things before jumping in. L readers appreciate the story and the language as a form of art. A G reader, on the other hand, likes to get what they want, and quickly. They tend to be action-oriented, and don’t believe in beating around the bush.

Office Area Bookshelf

Office Area Bookshelf

How am I doing so far? Look at those shelves. Do I know you yet?

Some people like their bookshelves arranged in a certain order. Organized—or O bookshelves—have some sort of orderly system. Books are arranged by size, color, theme, genre, author. This person is efficient, organized, and likes to have things make sense. Being a librarian, I know all about this dewey decimal (or should I call it OCD?) mentality—but my shelves at home? Not so much.

Basement Bookshelves (top shelf)

Basement Bookshelves (top shelf)

Random–or R people–accept that life can be random. Their bookshelves are a mishmash of titles, genres, sizes, knick-knacks, and treasures of all sorts. No particular order means searching for things, but the R person believes life is all about the journey.

Sparse bookshelves speak of a thoughtful person who believes the value of something lies in the quality of that item, person, or experience—not in the quantity. For S people, less is more—if that less has meaning. They easily let go of that which does not serve them (to use my yoga teacher’s words—and yes, I hear those words a lot. Maybe eventually they will even sink in.)

Basement Bookshelves (middle shelves)

Basement Bookshelves (middle shelves)

Cluttered bookshelves on the other hand, speak of an energetic person with multiple interests and curiosity. An idea person, this bookshelf displays a multitude of attempts, successes, and failures. Oddly enough, even though to an outsider there does not appear to be any sort of systematic arrangement of the books and other things on the shelf, C people will often notice if something is moved. (Not that I go moving things on someone else’s bookshelves… at least, not often.)

Basement Bookshelves (bottom shelves)

Basement Bookshelves (bottom shelves)

Then there are the Trinkets versus the No Trinkets. The NTs are purists at heart. Like the O bookshelf people, they like things to make sense, to have a clear purpose, and to do that purpose well. T bookshelf people are those who like to mix knick-knacks or trinkets in among their books. They are typically good at multi-tasking, and tend to be big-picture people rather than detail orientated.

Living Room Bookshelf (I'm not allowed to overfill it)

Living Room Bookshelf (I’m not allowed to overfill it)

Does your bookshelf contain mostly new books? Or do you love that old book smell and feel—yes, they do have a particular smell and feel about them. No doubt because of the paper used. OBs are seeped in tradition and NBs actively seek out the next great thing, the next experience.

Paperback or Hard-cover? PB people are frugal. Often they read to be entertained, and therefore want the freedom to travel far and wide, to read whatever suits their fancy. HC book lovers are the loyal, committed sort. Certain authors are like members of the family, and HC people want that relationship to stand the test of time.

Living Room Bookshelf

Living Room Bookshelf

There are the Self-Help book people (SH = independent, over-analyzers), the How-To manual sorts (HT = Detail people who like to follow the rules), the Memoir/Biography/Autobiography collectors (MBA = a people person, this individual is fascinated with how others live), the Inspirational book readers (I = those looking to deepen their spiritual experience), and the TextBook people (face it, TB people are either students who paid way too much for their books and consequently don’t want to sell it back for a fourth of the cost, or teachers who are never sure where or what they will be teaching).


And finally, any good bookshelf analysis would be incomplete without mentioning the people who collect (and even sometimes read!) Poetry books. P people are deep—or want to be anyway. They are always looking for the essence of things, of life. Emotional—though they may not show it—these are your dreamers, your artists, your never-take-anything-at-face-value sorts.

Living Room Shelves

Living Room Shelves

So what do my bookshelves say about me? That I’m a FNF, L, G, O, R, C, T, NB, OB, P,B HC, SH, I, TB (only the Shakespeare book, I swear. It cost me half a year’s worth of meals.), and yes, a P.

Although, now that I think of it, it might just be easier to say I’m a reader and a writer.

Husband's bookshelf down in the man cave.

Husband’s bookshelf down in the man cave.

Summer Reading (from 1 of my libraries) -- kept in a bag because there is no room on the bookshelves.

Summer Reading (from 1 of my libraries) — kept in a bag because there is no room on the bookshelves.


Writing Distractions


Distraction is common experience for me. Granted, more often than not, I am trying to write and real life distracts me. The opposite is more rare, but does happen upon occasion. For instance, this Saturday I had every intention of getting many things done, really, I did. I even started off good, getting up early (though not by choice) to drop my daughter off for drama practice.

The writing distraction part happened on the way home. Driving in the car is a little like showering for the writer me–the monkey in my mind is busy, so my other thoughts can be heard. I got thinking about the novel I’m working on, I Feel For You. (maybe because I was listening to the playlist for that novel.) Specifically, I got thinking about the protagonist and the way she views the world. Jane has grown up in an unpredictable home. Because of that, she has developed a fascination of disaster scales and safety rules in an attempt to predict and stay safe from the storms in her house.By the time I arrived home, all thoughts of doing laundry or vacuuming were gone. Here’s what I did instead –

Storm Scales

If Jane is obsessed with it, then I need to know enough about natural disasters and storms to be able to use the correct terminology when sprinkling in her examples and metaphors.







( Writing Distractions)

The Purpose of Fairy Tales

Dragon's of Grief

I painted the card for my niece and then found the quote in the front of the book The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim, by E.K. Johnston. I loved the book — the world building and characters are unique. You should definitely get it from your library or nearest bookstore and read it. The sequel, Prairie Fire, came out and is on my pile of books to read. Can’t wait!

(The Purpose of Fairy Tales)

Plot Revisions


Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an app for revisioning plot? Like a map app or something. I could certainly use it right about now, when I’ve been away from my novel for too long (Oh how I’ve missed you, dear Work In Progress!)


Plot Mapping App

Sadly, as far as I know, there isn’t such an app (If you know of one, please share!). However, I bought a couple of books that have helped me to create my own map–albeit, not nearly as fancy as the one pictured. My plot map looks more like scribbles on paper, but whenever I start to get lost, I can refer back to it. plan, a map or sorts, to show me where I am headed. I suppose there are those who map everything out from the beginning, but I didn’t know enough about this world to be able to do that in the first draft. However, in the 3rd…4th? draft, I’m glad to have something to look at when I’ve been away from the novel for any length of time (as I have of late).

So the books that have helped me map my plot are Story Structure Architect and The Writer’s Little Helper. story structure architect

Writers little helper

Both of these books have some great tips on how to set up the structure of your story. I relied on the Writer’s Little Helper to get me started and then used Story Structure Architect to flesh out my plot and sub-plots.

Here is a picture of what my plot map looks like (messy handwriting and all):



Stay Tuned for more info about how to develop (or revise) plot.

Happy writing!

Re-visioning for PLOT

Right now I’m in the middle of trying to re-vision the plot of my 3rd novel, I Feel For You

Revision - the precision part of writing.

Revision – the precision part of writing.

(IFFY). I’m using Scrivener – and really loving the corkboard part of it for visualizing. One thing I’ve been working on is adding information based on the book The Writer’s Little Helper (by James V. Smith) to the summary (what shows up on the corkboard).

I’m adding all the information on “The Scene Card” (page 114 of the 2006 ed.) So each summary tells:

  • who is in the scene,
  • what happens,
  • where and when it takes place
  • whether it is a master, major, or minor scene (as described in The Writer’s Little Helper, 42-43),
  • what the purpose of the scene is,
  • and finally the ratings on the ACIIDS intensity scale (pg.

This is what it looks like:

Scrivener's Corkboard

Scrivener’s Corkboard


How to inspire a writer

happy-74654_640I recently celebrated my birthday. Now, in general, I don’t go much for big celebrations. This isn’t because getting older bothers me — I find the alternative is not so good. Really, it’s because I’m lazy. With my daughter’s birthday and Valentine’s Day both happening shortly before my birthday, I’m partied out. Enough work. I just don’t want to cook. That’s all. So we play it low-key.

But this year, my friend came up with an awesome gift that I have to share with all you writer types — or those who have writers in your life. Because it is SO cool. My friend gave

Writer's Inspiration Package

Writer’s Inspiration Package

me a Writer’s Inspiration Package. A very heavy basket, which, when I opened it, proved to be filled with all sorts of goodies –all wrapped of course, so I couldn’t guess what they were ahead of time. “You have to open them in order,” she instructed me. On the top was a sheet of paper, 10 Steps To Finishing Your Book. Each package was numbered to go with one of the steps.

Inside the basket

Inside the basket




10 Steps

10 Steps



Here are the 10 Steps To Finishing Your Book — along with corresponding gifts.

1. Get Rid Of Your Gremlins For Good.

Gremlin Killer

Gremlin Killer

Whew! Does she know me or what?!  Gremlins are those voices in your head telling you that your writing sucks, and why are you doing this anyway? Somehow, no matter what I do, they creep back in and get noisy every time I write. But now, they’d better watch out because I’m getting rid of them. For Good. I’ve got a pink hammer (so my husband doesn’t take it) and I’m not afraid to use it.

2. Get The Creative Juices Flowing. 

Thinking Putty

Thinking Putty

I don’t always have the chance to write every day, so when I do sit down to write, I have to prime the pump a bit. Music helps — I create playlists to go along with each novel, so my brain associates that music with the contents and emotions of that particular novel. But now I have another way to get thinking. Sometimes keeping my hands busy with a simple task (I know someone who draws spirals) frees up my brain to think, create. Showers work really well too.

3. Remember You Have Many Of Us Cheering You On. 

It helps to let people know you are

Go Writer, Go!

Go Writer, Go!

writing. It holds you accountable. It makes you embarrassed if they ask how the writing is going and you have to admit that you haven’t been writing — so that helps you to sit your butt in the chair and write. I love it when I know people are waiting to read what I’ve written. Inspires me to write even when I don’t feel like it. Nothing like a deadline to make me productive!

4. Set Time Aside Every Day To Write.

This can be hard. But even if you only have ten

Time Every Day

Time Every Day

minutes, it adds up. The more consistent you can be, the less “getting into it” time you will need when you do sit down to write. It’s like how when you get used to waking up at a certain time for school each day, you often wake up at that time on the weekend too. Same thing with writing every day. If you do it on a regular basis, your brain starts to expect it. You might even find you miss it when you don’t sit down to write.

5. Take Your Medication To Prevent Writer’s Block.

Writer's Remedy

Writer’s Remedy

Of course, if you write every day, you might find that writer’s block doesn’t exist. And it does depend on what you mean by writer’s block. Maybe you mean you don’t FEEL like writing — write anyway and you often find that you do feel like it. Maybe it means you don’t have any idea what to write about. That’s where using a prompt can come in handy. (Check out the list of writing prompts on the links page) Or just set a timer and write whatever comes into your head. That’s the idea behind Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages.

6. Write, Write, Write!!!

Fun Journal and Pens

Fun Journal and Pens

Doesn’t get any clearer than that. Butt in chair. One letter, one word at a time. Write. On paper, on the computer… whatever works for you. When I get stuck in my novel, I’ll switch to journaling and it often helps free things up again. But nothing gets on the page unless I sit down and take the time to WRITE.

7. Make Sure You Are Well Nourished.

Usually this isn’t a problem for me. Although I have been known



to get so caught up in the writing that I forget to eat. (That doesn’t happen often.) Chocolate and Peanut Butter — what’s not to like? Even has protein. Of course, my number one writing candy is… SKITTLES. It’s something about being able to arrange them by color… Not that I’m ocd or anything… : )

8. Stay In Your Seat And Write Some More. This Should Help Keep You There. 

Writer's Helper

Writer’s Helper

Yup, it always comes back to sitting your butt down and writing. Duct tape = love. And now it comes in all sorts of awesome colors and patterns so you can be stuck in your seat but still coordinate.

9. Print and send it off to the editor and agent.

At some point, you need an audience. Join a

Send it out.

Send it out.

writing group, blog, send your awesome story/poem/novel off to a contest. Query an editor or agent… Get it out there. It’s scary, but the writing process isn’t complete until you have a reader. Otherwise you could just keep it all in your head — that would be a lot easier. But not nearly as rewarding as connecting with someone using your written words.

10. Celebrate!!! IMG_3417

And finally, take time to celebrate. Finish a rough draft? Great job! Celebrate. Got through a first edit? That took some hard work. Celebrate. Shared your poem with an audience? Super! You are brave and you should celebrate. Recognize that even though writing itself is a rather solitary occupation, you can have a community to support you, encourage you, and celebrate with you. And for those of you who know a writer — this Writer’s Inspiration Package is a great way to help.

Thanks Betty Jo. You Rock!


Where words and visuals meet

eye-111855_1280When you write, do you see pictures in your head? Video? I remember one of my co-workers and a writer friend of mine, Mary Zitta, talking about how when she wrote, it was like a video playing in her head. She’d have her eyes closed, fingers dancing on the keyboard just trying to keep up.

That never happens to me. In fact, for the longest time I thought it meant I wasn’t really a writer. Most of the time when I write it is



like chipping away at stone. I know there’s something in there–although I’m not always sure even what it is. It is a matter of chipping away rock to reveal the story, the poem, the essay underneath. It’s hard work, not very exciting–and definitely labor intensive.

Of course, the longer I’ve been in the business of writing, the more I realize there many different ways to right-238370_1920write. Heather Sellers believes in writing slow — as in dipped-pen-in-ink slow. Some writers believe in writing fast — no revision until the whole thing is done (think NANOWRIMO). Some authors outline, some don’t. So while I no longer feel like my chipping-away-stone style of writing is wrong, I’m always searching

to make it better. Faster would be nice too.

It took me some time to realize I DO visualize things. It just doesn’t tend to happen AS I write. Sometimes I get a picture in my head and then paint, draw, or WRITE to describe that visual in my mind’s eye.

button-146461_1280Sometimes the visual follows the words–like in foreign movies where the dubbing is off sync and the actor’s mouth moves after the words have been spoken. Even then it is a matter of rewinding and playing again as I try to get the visual right. So maybe for me, the visual comes more in the revision stage. In looking at the words on the page, and deliberately “seeing” the picture they create in my head. Does the picture match the scene, the emotions? If not, I revise. If so, I move on.

Since I have started dabbling in painting and drawing, I’ve found I can play up the visual to enhance the writing — and vice versa.

1. Sketch or storyboard a scene BEFORE you write it. (There are many different storyboarding tools. I’ve linked to Storyboard That which is a free tool.)

2. Pick some music fits the content or mood of what you are writing. Close your eyes and listen to it BEFORE you write. Pay attention to what images form in your head. When you write, play the music again.  I create playlists for my novels–music or lyrics that fit with the plot and /or emotion of the piece. Not only do they help me sink into the writing stage, but also they help create images in my head as well as make me feel the emotion of the piece. (This makes sense if you think about it. Music soundtracks add to the tension/joy/sadness… of a movie.)

3.  After you have written a scene, videotape yourself acting it out. Granted, clapper-board-152086_1280depending on the scene, you might want to make sure no one is around before you start. Acting it out helps not only with the movement in a scene (sometimes I find I’ve written something that just isn’t physically possible), but also with dialog. You’ll hear when the dialog isn’t working. Trust me. **Even if you don’t videotape it, it’s still worth acting it out.

4. Draw your characters — or find them in magazines or real life. Does the picture you are looking at match the person you described?

5. Sketch/Storyboard the scene AFTER you have written it. You wrote it, can you “see” it enough to storyboard it?

6. When stuck for words, look for images. When stuck for a visual, play with words.

How about you? What is your style of writing–and what do you do to “enhance” it?

A small example from my writing practice: (keep in mind that I do not consider myself a poet. However, sometimes content choses form. But that’s another post.)

So, there’s a poem I’ve been monkeying with–not that I knew it was a poem when I started. It started with a visual–that of a loved one dying.

I spent the last few weeks in August helping give hospice care to my mother-in-law. Strange, sad, difficult, and wonderful days. Some of the hardest moments in my life–but something I was so blessed to be able to do. The stillness in her face held such a sense of… timelessness and urgency, waiting and great activity, all at the same time. The papery white cheeks, the breath–shallow and rapid–moving the ribcage up and down.

Those days stayed with me, and I needed to write about them–so I started with the visual of those last days.

cheeks pale white roses rosa-167111_640


wings limp, damp

heart beats

hummingbird fast


The word “wings” brought me another visual — that of a chrysalis. So I chipped away at that image.

stillness, waitingcocoon-butterfly-209085_640

moth pale skin

the minutes, days, years

wrap around

cocoon you waiting

for transformation


Looking at the words on the page, I kept seeing the chrysalis part of things, but not the becoming a butterfly part–not the transformation, beginning part. And when I was in that room, the warm golden light of the sun streaming in the window, Frank Sinatra crooning in the background — I had the sense of beginnings as well as endings.

Two weeks cocooned

now come and gone

and still breath

rises and falls

in its ribbed cage


eyes under thumbprint lids

move back and forth

seeing joys and sorrows

in the caterpillar past?

or dreaming of a winged future

soaring into the light

away from this inching physical form


How much longer

before full transformation?

released from this shell

spread your wings

and fly home


I’m not convinced it is there yet, but by going back and forth between the words and the visuals, I think it is getting closer to what I wanted it to express. Next, I want to paint it. Stay tuned!



To Title Or Not To Title–That Is The Question.


The Problem…

I’m in the great mists of revision and I’m wondering about whether to title my chapters or not.

I realize this is, to a large degree, a matter of choice. Still, there must be benefits and drawbacks. If I go to my middle school library shelves, I can find examples of both. The Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan have chapter titles that definitely added to the reading experience. My daughters and I laughed over many of them. Lish McBride’s books, Hold me closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone also have chapter titles. All of hers are titles or phrases from old songs–mostly from my era so I loved them. Don’t know that my students get the connection, but my daughter still found them amusing, so I would still call that a plus.

Research Says…

Of course, being a librarian, I always believe I should research an issue, see what others have to say about it. So I did a search on Google (of course), and it pulled up a link to the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which is a great site for getting professional information about writing. It gave some great examples (and not YA examples) of how writers have titles chapters. And it ended with this:

So while titles are certainly not necessary—many novels don’t have them—they have the potential to create unity or add another layer to the reading experience. If you use them, make sure they’re contributing in a meaningful way. The reader will be looking for associations.


At least this gave me something to base my decision on. Could I title my chapters in such atreasure-map-153425_1280 way that they add to the reading experience? If not, then I probably shouldn’t title them — after all, I found many websites listed on google where writers talked about how they hated chapter titles that “gave things away.”


Not yet sure about what I wanted to do, I picked up Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer. When I skimmed the Table of Contents (yup, she titled her chapters–but it is a non-fiction book which does make a difference), I found a chapter called Details. It starts off by telling of a story the author had been told about a class where writers learned to tell their true life stories more effectively. The first volunteer tells the story of how she lost a leg to a bout of childhood cancer, but went on to become a world-class skier. The second volunteer waited until the room was silent and then pronounced, “in a sort of growl, a graphic term for a sex act that, he said, he liked to do with his wife.” His story was so well told, that even though it was pornographic and downright aggressive, the audience hardly even breathed. On the third day of class, the one-legged woman asked if she could tell another story. She said it was a story she’d never told anyone other than her therapist. With that, she proceeded to tell the class how she’d lied about how she lost her leg. It was because she’d gotten bit by a cat and the wound had turned gangrenous. The woman told it with unwavering conviction and there wasn’t one person in the room who didn’t believe every word–the details about the father who was a passionate carnivore and the mother who was a strict vegetarian, how the dad said the smell of the infected wound smelled like the mom’s tofu.

nose-156596_1280Finally the one-legged woman got to the end of her story. She waited a few beats, and then said she’d invented the story about the cat. The class was shocked, but eventually came around and laughed a bit. All except for the man who’d told the pornographic story. He was so angry he left and never returned.

Now, the whole reason Francine Prose said she included this, is because of something her friend (who’d told her the story) said.

He told me that the whole reason the class believed the woman’s story [ ] was entirely because of the detail about the father’s love for steak and the mother’s passion for tofu. ‘Trust me on this,’ my friend said. ‘God really is in the details.’


Francine Prose goes on to talk about bad liars piling on tons of details, but good liars, adding those single priceless details that make the target relax. (You really should read her book — both readers and writers should.)


And the Verdict is…

But, more to the point, why did I include this story in a post about titling chapters? Because to me, it says that good writing means knowing which details to include, and which to leave out. If I am going to put titles on my chapters, they have to be a detail that makes the book more believable. Otherwise, they are just extraneous.

Poll Time!  What do YOU think about chapter titles?