Write of Way: How to Write a Novel


In early August I'm going on a self-imposed solitary writing retreat for just shy of a week. Left to my own devices at home there are always a million reasons I come up with not to work on fiction: I have to work at my day job, I have a book review due, I'm sleepy, I have physical therapy, it's my turn for Words with Friends, etc.

At this particular retreat there will be no TV, no phone (save for emergencies), no internet, no kids and no day job – just me and my laptop. No distractions, no excuses. The place is immaculate, air-conditioned and has a kitchen. I'm bringing frozen dinners, simple breakfasts and lunches, and a whole butt load of coffee. Simple provisions for a simple week.

My goal for this time away is to get a decent start on a novel and work out the first draft of an outline. The first go-over of character names would be great, too, since I always get hung up on that. It's tough coming up with names that don't sound goofy to me and pretty much every name I think up sounds goofy to me.  Why, I don't know. I think it's a self-conscious thing, a fear they won't sounds genuine, fit the characters, etc.

But then, when I read a novel I'm not so much looking for missteps an author makes naming characters – unless it's desperately bad – as how those names are initially conveyed and subsequently used. An unnatural approach that makes me feel stabby concerns one character calling another by his/her full name every time he/she is addressed – more than one time in a conversation, etc. – lest the reader has the attention span of a wasp in a room full of women with fly swatters.

You have to give the reader some credit. Establish that person's presence, differentiate this person from others by usage of mannerisms and descriptives. Don't tell me the person's full name if s/he leaves the room and for god's sake don't tell me s/he walked "through a door"  unless there's something key about it. If s/he goes through a window, or walks straight through a wall, okay. But when one person leaves an interior scene I pretty much figure it's by way of a door.

Now we're getting into the actions of a character, messy devices lazy writers use to take the reader's attention away from the plot. Don't tell me anything I don't need to know. Instead, tell me about the character's reactions to the world around him. I don't care about the pattern of the wallpaper, unless it's significant to the character. Maybe it has a nursery design and the character's child died – or it's a infertile woman. If there's a cowboy print it may remind a man of Roy Rogers and watching the movies with his dad when he was little. If it doesn't matter to the character's story, it doesn't matter to me.

Use of character names, show don't tell and what else…? Oh, silly me, the plot! Once upon a time all plots were linear; now the whole thing is up for grabs. Experimental writing flops all over the place like I do when I have insomnia but refuse to give in.  Some fiction makes use of flashbacks or takes place solely in the past. Or the future.

The basic rule of thumb, when it comes to plot, is called Freytag's Triangle:




Inciting moment – hook(s) that draw the reader in

Intro of characters – fleshing them out as you go

Intro of setting(s)

Establish struggle/conflict -  Why does the reader care about these people? What's this story about?


Rising Action to Climax

Ordeals and complications – Characters struggle to come to grips

Major action


Falling Action to Resolution (Denouement) – Catastrophe or Reward

Epiphany/Knowledge – Characters solve problems or come to realizations

Transformation of characters – growth


Last Moment of Suspense or Resolution

Wrap up loose ends/Possible dangling ends (You don't have to answer every question)


Look how simple it is! Anyone can write a novel!


Of course nothing's absolute. Depending on how observant you want to be of classical story telling you can turn anything on its head. For my first run-through, though, I'm planning to follow the diagram set up as long ago as there have been stories, from "once upon a time" to "and they were all killed in a fiery explosion."


Next time around I'll talk about following the trail blazed by another writer, why that's okay and how you go about it. Why re-invent the wheel, especially when there are only, what, three or four plots every writer uses over and over?

As I read, somewhere or other, all novels can be boiled down to one of two things: someone comes into town or someone leaves town. True, or someone trying to look real smart-like?

Danged if I know. But I'll carry this on in my next post on the topic.


Daily Photo



Near Santa Fe, NM


When I took this photo the proprietor of this fine establishment actually leaned over the wall,  looking to see what I was taking a picture of. I’m thinking, Dude, you own a restaurant that  obviously caters to tourists, what do you THINK I’m taking a picture of?

Like everyone in New Mexico dries hot peppers by hanging them outside?



Time flies. So let’s re-visit Santa Fe, NM, 2011.


St. Francis Cathedral Basilica, Santa Fe, NM


Keeping way too busy between work, a series of water-related disasters at home, prepping for my daughter's senior prom, as well as various details related to college and so on. I've been reading like a fiend, it's just that all the associated writing I have time to do is for review or for book group moderating.

The household disasters are almost unbelievable, they've occurred in such a short space of time. First the second floor bathtub leaked through the first floor foyer/living room area, requiring that bathroom be completely gutted. Next, we discovered our water heater had been leaking, slowly but surely, leaving a pool of rusty water in our basement. So that had to be replaced. Then, our dishwasher – a mere two months old – started leaking, then gave up the ghost. Another appliance replacement.

So, in lieu of regular book posts I've been fighting the good fight against the wicked sprites that inhabit my house, juggling everything else. When I'm looking back through my posts, wondering why there are significant gaps, here's my explanation for this one. I'm sure Future Lisa will be very sorry for Present Lisa's many woes.

But here's the good news: the gorgeous Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis in Santa Fe, NM. Lovely, isn't it?




I remember our 2011 trip to the Southwest as two weeks of sweaty driving, covering hundreds upon hundreds of miles every day to get from Point A to Point B. Surprisingly, the scenery and attractions out there were more varied than I'd anticipated. My expectation was two weeks of glaring sun, sweat running down the divet along my spine, pooling at my waistline, the dry weather making me so thirsty I'd be biting off the tops of water bottle after water bottle to keep from shriveling up into a dry husk. And there was that.

But Santa Fe… After a long, long trek through the incredible dry heat, it was an oasis of cool. The air's so clear there, at a higher elevation than much of the surrounding desert, it's a photographer's paradise. Even this bumbling picture-taker found a lot of beauty spots.

Perhaps my most lasting memory of Santa Fe will be the frantic search for someplace to eat dinner after spending all day rumbling around the area. We were stinky and tired, famished and so thirsty our mouths had begun to form new, mini-desert ecosystems. Our retinas were burned from the unaccustomed glaringly bright, crystal clear atmosphere. Tempers were short, which doesn't distinguish our vacations from each other as much as perhaps it should, and no matter where we went there weren't enough comfortable places to sit and brood on our discomfort. At least not far enough away from each other to avoid touching, which, on vacation, is pretty much the first nerve to go.

So Paul got on the cell phone, searching for the perfect place to enjoy some Tex-Mex Southwest cuisine. Restaurant after restaurant was closed, until he reached a gentleman with a strong Mexican accent who told him that,  yes, he sold tacos but he was at home now. Turns out he was a sidewalk vendor with a mobile cart.

Thanks, Google maps!

Ultimately, we found it. An out of the way hidey-hole stuck in the corner of a sort of strip mall somewhere. It was trendy in that "We're trying to look like a secret place only the locals know, but we know you know that's not so…" kind of way. But it sold food. REALLY GOOD food. Expensive food. But, just as importantly, BEVERAGES. And it had chairs that allowed us to not touch each other! Too bad I can't recall its name, so I could recommend it. So sorry about that but researching one Tex-Mex restaurant in a city like Santa Fe is like looking for one specific person with the surname "Jones" or "Smith" in any U.S. city: way, way too much work, unless there's something serious in it for me.

Santa Fe was a lot more than a really good dinner (including a salsa I'll dream of the rest of my life, at a restaurant I can never find again) but that's what stands out when I think back on it from this rainy May day in 2012. Nothing like a really good dinner to turn weary travelers back into actual human beings. Long enough to get through 'til the next day, at least.



Vacation 2011: Route 66 – Seeing the Signs (Pt. 1)










The road signs along Route 66 are wonderfully retro, aesthetically beautiful and, at times, profoundly sad. So much of the highway has fallen into complete disrepair; what's been replaced is now cracked pavement (when it exists at all) sprouting grass.

The signs that haven't been restored are the ones I love best, but if no one ever restores them one day they'll be gone. Catch-22.


Vacation 2011: Route 66


abandoned gas station – route 66

Loads of cool photo opportunities along old Route 66, especially if you're into the rustic. Or rusty, maybe I should say.

Sad, though, seeing all these once thriving businesses gone to ruin. Once upon a time this was the most bustling road in America, the first trans-American highway. Generations of families knew this road, before President Eisenhower and the interstate system of highways. Just goes to show, for every feat of progress a little bit of culture dies.

This photo starts my series of old Route 66 pictures. Hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Vacation 2011: Hooray for Hollywood! Eventually.



The kids insisted we visit Los Angeles on our trip out West this summer, figuring this was as close as we'd ever get to it on a family vacation, especially now that our group trips are numbered. Opportunists! But yeah, they're probably right. It's unlikely we'll be driving that far again, at least in that direction, before they leave the nest for habitats unknown. After they go, maybe. But by then they'll be on their own, not on the parental dollar. Take it while you can get it. Nothing wrong with that. Unless my kids are reading this. In that case, it's wrong! So wrong! Go clean your rooms!

Paul and I certainly didn't have L.A. in mind when we started planning the trip. We've been to Boston, but that's probably the biggest city we've ever intentionally visited, for all the history made there.  But L.A.? It wouldn't have even occurred to us. Not so for our three off-spring. As soon as they heard the magic word "California" their eyes began to twinkle. And not because of Yosemite, let me tell you.

"Hollywood! Hollywood! Hollywood!"

Readers, they wore us down, like a river through a canyon eroding patterns in the stones. We're the Grand Canyon; they're the Colorado River. It was only a matter of time. And when it comes down to either caving to your kids or losing your last tenuous grip on sanity, you gotta go with the former. If  you don't have kids you can afford to tsk, tsk. And good for YOU. But if you're in our boat you'll get it. We have to stand together or they'll eat us alive. Circle the wagons! The natives are restless, and that's never a good thing.

And these are GOOD kids, people! Honor students, kids who never go missing late at night, partying or what not. No drugs, no smoking or drinking, no loser friends, no sketchy boyfriends or girlfriends… We can't really complain about them. Unless they're reading this. If so, don't you have homework?! Never mind school doesn't start again 'til Monday! When I was a kid I spent all my time studying. And I LIKED it that way.

Because they are my kids, National Parks have only so much interest for them, so I can sort of understand how they felt. I'd probably have felt the same way when I was a kid, before skanks like Paris Hilton came along, tarnishing Hollywood forever. And a person can only take so much camping, our family being as extreme an example (minus Paul, who was raised on camping vacations and still has a strong stomach) as they get. For the kids and me, we're pretty much ready to head out before we've finished setting up camp. So yeah. Maybe I wasn't as resistant as I plead.

Some of it was about being star-struck, wanting to see the studios where films and television shows (Glee!) (Conan!) are made. It wasn't as much about seeing celebrities, though that would have been a pretty big bonus. It was more about seeing where all the magic is made.

But I have to admit, I've never felt like so much a yokel as I did in Los Angeles. It's packed with tourists, of course, but we'd just come from a campsite. And it showed. We were rumpled and crumpled, probably reeking of campfire and bear scat. We, and other mere mortals like ourselves, walked past women in spandex dresses and stilettos, women who probably spend more on one hair appointment than we do on groceries for an entire month. I don't feel comfortable admitting I felt so self-conscious, because it's like admitting they're better and I know it, but I can't remember feeling so out of place. I wanted to molt out of my old skin and pop out nice and shiny. Long story short, didn't happen.

For my sons the draw was all about the exotic cars. Move aside, Top Gear! Hollywood has the real thing, as in real life. In addition to the Ferraris and Lamborghinis they saw by serendipity, we took them to car dealers: one selling Lamborghinis and Bugattis, another Aston-Martins.

The leggy young hostess (could there be any other sort?) was surprisingly tolerant of two boys star-struck by cars. Not that they were the only ones. At both dealers we saw two other boys (obviously brothers), carrying around cameras, looking like they'd just died and gone to car heaven.  The hostess let them climb in and out of a Lamborghini, just the one but believe me, that was okay with them. They were breathless with excitement, like I am when I come upon a bookstore…




Overall, though, I think we're in agreement the highlight of Hollywood was Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Seeing the Walk of Fame, the hand, foot (and wand!) prints in the cement in front, that was all obligatory. But the theatre… Incredible.




The city was like Disney on crack, with silicone implants. It was hot, crowded, filled with gift shop after gift shop, tour hawker after tour hawker, all trying to get our money. That gets old really quickly. My mood took an almost immediate plunge once we left the courtyard of Grauman's. I don't do well in heat. I wilt, sweat and generally become an unpleasant person to be around. Plus, the further we walked the more seedy the area became. Strip clubs, stores selling S & M clothing and "accessories," scary people… You can't go that far in any direction before you end up in an undesirable part of town.

But before we'd gone too far we saw the ticket booth for Grauman's. The ticket booth selling tickets to the last film in the Harry Potter series. In 3-D, no less. Here it was, our chance to see the inside of a historic American icon, playing a film we thought we'd have to wait 'til after vacation to see…


After a drive down Rodeo Drive, through Beverly Hills and what not, we returned to the theatre. And it was awesome. The film was amazing, but seeing it there? It doesn't get better than that.




So beautiful. So plush, and finally a part of Hollywood I didn't feel we stuck out like a sore thumb. The premier was done, the celebrities gone. It was just us and half a theatre full of other tourists, sitting where movies have been debuted since 1927.

All I can say, thank god we brought the camera and no one was rushing us out the door. It was magical. By the end we were the only people there, aside from the cleaning crew. We were poking around, having a look at the original Harry, Ron and Hermione costumes (behind glass, of course), generally taking our time absorbing a piece of Americana we may never see the inside of again.

Turns out it wasn't just a highlight of this year's vacation. It's a highlight of all our family vacations. So maybe the kids were right. Okay, yes. I said it. But if the kids are listening…? Never mind. They already know.



Go Back East, Woman!

Just returned from two weeks' vacation in the desert Southwest, completely and totally exhausted. Ostensibly the trip was to Yosemite, but we made so many stops along the way – there and back – I can't even tell you where all we went. Aside from a few brief breaks, like a day spent in lovely (and temperate) Santa Fe, it all blends into one hot, dry mush. I also vaguely recall being in Hollywood, putting my hands in the prints left in cement by celebrities, and definitely remember seeing the last in the series of Harry Potter films in the famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre (you must go there!), possibly one of my favorite experiences ever.

Still blows me away yesterday morning we woke up in Nebraska, and by the evening I was doing laundry back home in lovely suburban Chicago. And that's without either a TARDIS or travelling at speeds in excess of 70 m.p.h., the speed above which our camper trailer will combust. People, that is a damn long way. A DAMN LONG WAY, especially when it involves hours spent driving through Nebraska.

Nebraska! As my older son opined, its state motto should be "We're a State," as it's a vast, barely populated area without an awful lot to recommend itself. No offense meant to natives, but there isn't much there but open land, cows grazing and tumbleweeds. Or, if there is, it managed to keep itself hidden. One distinction is has it was the birthplace of "Buffalo Bill" Cody. I'm sorry we didn't have time to stop and see his house, because that's the sort of thing I would actually care about, but otherwise… The less said the better.

During that long drive home through half of Colorado and the entire width of Nebraska (following our last stop at Zion National Park), and the state of Iowa (during which I was largely unconscious), neither did it help that the mercury hit 100, a temperature so offensive to my delicacy it doesn't afford me the inclination to care about anything save crawling from air conditioned space to air conditioned space. Were she not dead, I would knock down my grandmother should she dare stand between the chill in our van and that in a gas station or restaurant. I consider that  not so much unethical as my right as an American.

At the best of times I'm easy to please but impossible to thrill, so Nebraska, don't take it too personally. I also stood on the rim of the Grand Canyon for about three minutes before saying, "Okay. I'm good. Let's go." Because every view of the canyon looks pretty much like every other view. You may feel it behooves you to disagree, on principle, but I feel no such compulsion. If I can pick up a fifty-cent postcard featuring a better photo of a natural feature than I can take myself, that satisfies my curiosity. That, and a cursory glance in the general direction.

Took a fair amount of photos, handing over the camera to my husband around halfway through because national parks are his thing, not mine. I'm more a city/urban/anything but natural photographer, and he's into mountains and trees and all manner of wildlife. I took lots of photos of old Route 66 stuff: abandoned hotels and restaurants, rusty cars, the Cadillac Ranch and such. I'll share a few of those with you, along with travel-related anecdotes along the way. It'll be just like you came along! Only without the aggravation of hanging with me. Best of both worlds.


2010 – Glad to see your backside, dude.

Can't believe it's that time again, time to recap the year past, otherwise known as The Big Whine. This post covers the personal part; the reading part is to follow. If you're of a depressive bent it may be best you skip past this and go directly to that. Or, give it a go. You'll be glad to have your own life once you've finished. It's a great benefit to not being me - something few give enough credit.

Losing my nephew Michael, to a freak accident at age 23, was by far the most awful tragedy we endured. It still doesn't seem real, probably because we didn't see him all that often, so it's hard reconciling his absence being due to loss, rather than his living in another state and being busy with his own life. Not to say we don't miss him, and feel the gap his loss has left in the family. We do, but the reality takes a bit longer to sink in.

Next up, my ongoing troubles with my left knee, due to the arthritis that's 20 years more advanced than it should be at my age (so my orthopaedic doctor tells me). My surgery to alleviate this was in March, the week before we lost Michael, so I was on crutches and in excrutiating physical pain while also enduring the unimaginable sorrow of burying my nephew. Not to mention I fell out of bed, onto my bad knee, while we were downstate for the funeral, adding insult to injury. Literally. Leaving my purse at the hotel when we left for home was just the icing on the cake – not anything in the big scheme, but wearying nonetheless. And the knee surgery itself proved more painful than anticipated, and didn't do the trick at all.

Forcing myself to find a bit of upbeat to the year, there was our Maine vacation, though my husband wasn't especially glad to be there. This was our third visit out East, and his preference is the western part of the country. We've tried remedying that by alternating east then west, going a different direction each year, but that doesn't always work out that well. At least four out of five of us enjoyed it. Or parts of it.

To be honest, four out of five of us consider an ideal vacation to include a lot of rest, hanging out and not all that much activity. Then there's Paul, who loves hiking, sightseeing and general moving around. The rest of us are happy putting our feet up, in this year's case sitting on the deck of our rented house, gazing out onto the gorgeous harbor in Corea, Maine, taking the occasional short trip for a restaurant meal or souvenir shop, and that's pretty much it.

How do you reconcile the two? We argue, creating frustration and bad feelings all 'round. So no one gets to enjoy anything due to the guilt of knowing you're making someone else miserable. They call that "compromise."

Maybe we should stop taking vacations and just stay home. Why waste money (and therapy) when you can be just as unhappy in your own house? At least that way no one can say they miss their own bed, our animals, bathrooms aplenty and all sources of electronic entertainment.

And for Paul? Maybe a trip to the outback with friends, while the rest of us enjoy long, uninterrupted naps on the new hammock we'll buy with the money we'll save. I think I've just hit on the perfect solution, though it doesn't allow for family photos to frame or memories to share.

Otherwise, over the summer Paul painted the part of our house that's cedar (around half, the other being brick), we had a new driveway installed (Paul landscaping the edging and planting hostas, etc.), and we've ordered new carpeting for the upstairs of the house. We got a new kitten - wee Oliver - whose favorite place on earth is my chest, right beneath my chin.

Did I mention the new garage door, necessary because it came down onto the back of our van and did mucho damage to the van itself? No? How remiss of me! And the van's still not repaired. The damage is only visible if you're looking for it, anyway, the only immediate problem being the window washer fluid dispenser is completely ripped off. So in icy weather it will be difficult clearing off the snow enough to see – another fairly high priority that's been rendered low by life events. With all the road salt on it you can't even see the scratches and dents, though. Works for me.

Aside from bits here and there, this was our 2010. Not exactly a stellar year for Clan Guidarini. Maybe it's paranoid of me to say few of them are, but it doesn't help hearing my doctor affirm we are beset by more disaster than most. Thanks for the affirmation. We needed that.

Feeling better about your life yet? If not I feel very, very sorry for you. At least we're overall healthy, the kids are doing well in school, and Paul and I are employed. And coffee! Someone made another pot of caffeinated coffee this morning. Never underestimate the power of that God-given beverage. It's discouraged me from committing a wealth of felonies.

Hope for a better 2011 springs eternal, even if I say that every year around this time and so far the crap truck has backed up to dump on us every, single time. I don't know much about statistics, but isn't it probable life owes us a break? I can't help thinking "one of these years" we can get through 365 days without anything major sucking like a Bangkok whore.

Once? Just once? It would make for so much sweeter yearly wrap-up posts. At least we know I have my priorities straight. It really is all about blogging.

Goodbye, stinkin' 2010. Don't let the door hit you where the Good Lord split you. And stay out!

Photos of the Day



Previous to this summer's trip to Maine, we'd never seen a moose in a state supposedly full of them. We saw one out west, in Yellowstone I believe, but never, ever in Maine. They're shy creatures and usually keep out of the way of people bearing cameras. No wonder they're so difficult to spot.




But every year we've gone out east I've said to myself, with great optimism, "This will be the time! We WILL see a moose! I can feel it in my bones." And both times before this I was disappointed.




For once Mother Nature was on our side, and we spotted this superb animal. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer size of these creatures. Nor their majesty. They are out of this world magnificent. No wonder traffic piles up whenever they're spotted.

But when this bull moose finally got the hint we were looking at him, he started looking at us. That's around the time we started screaming, "LET'S GET OUT OF HERE!"

Because this thing, you'll have to trust me, is GINORMOUS. And I couldn't help but imagine his antlers in the side of our van. Or, worse, the side of one of us. I believe they're vegetarian, though I'm sure they could do all sorts of interesting things to creatures they see as threatening.

Another thing checked off the life list. We've officially seen a moose in Maine. And thank goodness for zoom lenses or I may not be here to tell you about it.