Plot Twists and Story Snares

God has a sense of humor. We call it “coincidence.”

Yesterday it took the form of a hair brush that my eighteen-month-old accidentally left at church. I happened to notice it missing two hours after church, which then sent me walking back to retrieve it, which ended with a rendezvous with someone I needed to talk to but wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to.

But lately most of the coincidences in my life have to do with a mouse.

I’ve been thinking about the moment in a story when you recognize a plot twist: how sometimes it’s obvious in an instant because of a major coincidence, and how other times coincidences are inconsequential enough that the plot twist sneaks up on you until all the small coincidences start to compile and you realize that something big is happening.

The mouse thing, which might also be called a cat thing, was the latter kind.

I should begin by saying that I have never wanted a cat and don’t even particularly want a pet at all. If if I did, I’d lean toward a dog, hands down. Hubby is the same way.

But a couple of months ago we went to a neighbor’s house to pick up our kids after date night. We have been doing a babysitting swap with these neighbors for two years now, so when a beautiful cream-colored cat greeted us by rubbing against my leg, I asked, “When did you guys get a cat?”

The swap hostess laughed and said, “About three years ago.”

“Why have I never seen it?”

“It hides a lot. We hardly saw it ourselves the first four months it lived here. I only knew it was alive because it ate the food.”

This idea intrigued me. Could a pet really be that easy and unobtrusive?

That same month I also bought house plants for the first time in my life after reading about the health benefits (purifies the indoor air), and I happened to also read health benefits about having a pet (fewer allergies, colds, etc). But I still didn’t want one.

Then, last week, I heard nibbling sounds from behind the wall in the kitchen late one night. I froze, thinking, “Oh crap! What am I supposed to do about a mouse??” But then the corresponding thought was “I guess I’ll get a cat after all,” and that satisfied me enough.

Until I actually saw the mouse.

Two nights later my sister and I were at the kitchen table when a dark furry thing scurried across the floor and darted under the fridge. I called my parents, my in-laws, my hubby — asking everybody for advice. But the more they described poison and various traps, the more sick I became over the whole idea.

That’s when the other coincidences became noticeable. My kids had been watching Dumbo for like a week straight, and suddenly I pictured those stupid elephants freaking out about a mouse and felt dumb about doing the same. My eighteen-month-old has been in love with a lift-the-flap book called Follow the Prophet by Val Chadwick Bagley and his favorite page, about the boy Samuel in the Bible, has three or four cute little mice on it. Then my sister joked about “Gus Gus” from Cinderella and how we should give our mouse shoes and a shirt.

Snares! All of them!

Stories have this way of catching and changing us, don’t they? And it’s like we need only be reminded of them and suddenly they change our course: a story snare and a plot twist.

The next plot twist was the husband.

See, by this time I’d become pretty convinced that these coincidences and thoughts and feelings were adding up to the idea that God is suggesting, in His ever-so-humorous way, that we need a cat. So I prayed and told God, “Um, I actually don’t want a cat. I don’t want an extra living creature to take care of. I have three kids! But, if we’re really supposed to get a cat, and if it would be a good idea” — because I’ve noticed that God’s plans generally work out better for me than stubbornly opposing them (note the picture of the elephants above) — “then, God, you’re going to have to convince my husband. I’ll do the research and get ready for an extra family member; you use your coincidences on Hubby.”

The husband’s initial response: “Hell no!”

We talked about it. I explained my position. I gave him my reasons and plenty of concessions, like the fact that I agree with him and I didn’t actually want a cat either, but that I feel good about it for whatever reason. But though the conversation went well, nothing I said made him budge at all.

“No cats. No pets.”

“Don’t worry,” I assured him. “I won’t get one until we’re both agreed on it because that wouldn’t be fair.”

“That’ll be never. We’re never getting a cat. God would have to send a whole army of rats to convince me to get a cat.”

Amusingly, a few hours later, after I’d already gone upstairs for the night, Hubby happened to be the last one in the kitchen. He heard/saw the mouse scurry from under the fridge to under the oven. When he came up, his eyes were a little bit wide as he said, “I just met Ralph. I’m going to get traps.”

I had to explain that I can’t kill the mouse because all the story snares — now including his reference to Beverly Cleary — had gotten me thinking of it as an innocent creature we can’t kill for no reason.

“But you’re okay with a cat killing it?”

“Or chasing it away. A cat fits into the natural order of things. Poison and traps do not.” (Though four years ago, the last time we had a mouse, I poisoned it without blinking. Again, those darn story snares! Those plot twists that change our course!)

Before I knew it, Hubby was talking about naming the cat after the Yankees, how he wants a black-and-white cat he could call Pinstripe, and we were discussing where to put a litter box and a scratching post.

Funny enough, the person I talked to thanks to the hair brush yesterday mentioned something about choosing to see God in the coincidences — the plot twists — of our lives.

I totally agree.

Nice work, God. I’m impressed. 😉

Goals, Obstacles, Epiphanies

A month ago when my mother-in-law came over to help with the kids one day, I saw her cleaning the crumbs out of the cupboard under my kitchen sink. She’s sweet like that, always looking for the little ways she can help me tidy up.

But the very next week, the crumbs were back. I noticed them when I went to do my usual task of opening the cupboard to empty the dustpan into the garbage can that’s under the sink.

An epiphany struck. Those crumbs weren’t sneaking in on their own. I was creating a mess every time I swept by shoving the dustpan into the cupboard.

So I changed my ways. I took the garbage can out from under the sink, then emptied the dustpan more carefully, so as not to spill, then returned the garbage can to its home.

I reported this to my mother-in-law the next time we got together and lamented that this is the trouble with my housekeeping skills: I have so many bad habits that I don’t even realize are bad habits, and each little thing I’m doing wrong causes other problems, and reverting my habits requires first having an epiphany about each and every little thing that’s not working!

As another example, remember that goal I made months ago to clean my kitchen as I cook? I wanted to meet that goal, I dedicated myself to that goal, I determined that I would conquer it. But there were still so many obstacles impeding my progress that by February I’d about given up.

Among them was the fact that our eighteen-month-old is so strong-willed and forceful that we’ve nicknamed him Attack, and one of his favorite things to attack is the inside of the dishwasher, so I felt like I could never leave a single dish in there. I had to hurry and unload them once clean but then leave the dirty ones in the sink all day until I could wash them after he went to bed.

This is probably stating the obvious, but having a sink full of dishes was an insurmountable obstacle for me. I absolutely could not keep the kitchen clean without room in the sink to wash/rinse things off. And the problem caused other problems, like elevating the stress levels of myself and my family.

Long story short, I finally drove myself to the hardware store and bought a child-proof lock for the dishwasher, and the kitchen has been clean ever since — the cleanest it’s been in our entire marriage. That goal I made back in September was a great goal and I’d visualized it and was all set to meet it, so once I removed the obstacle, I prevailed!

Of course, life is full of obstacles — most of them much bigger than a messy house.  It breaks my heart to see or hear about people who keep failing to achieve their goals because of challenges. Teaching at a community college, I see so many moms and dads in tough circumstances, trying to get an education and turn their lives around for their families, and every semester a few of them just disappear, stop coming to class, can’t make it past whatever obstacles have cropped up in their lives.

But at the same time, every few semesters I see a truly courageous student pass my class despite enormous problems, whether medical issues or family issues or transportation or job issues, often a combination of more than one, and it reminds me that it’s not the obstacles themselves that stop us from meeting our goals; it’s how we respond.

And I think the response is the same regardless of the size of the problem.

For college, my personal obstacle was paying my own way, so I went without a car or a computer or a cell phone (true, this was 2000–2004), using the bus and the school computer labs and the campus phones. I remember one time my checking account got down to 19 cents until my next pay-day, but somehow I survived.

For keeping the kitchen clean, it was as simple as buying a $3 appliance lock. I could have done that in September and saved myself five months of grief!

For my writing, the obstacle was fitting it in around teaching, so I had to take a hard look at how I was spending my time and decide on and commit to a schedule that would allow my writing to be a higher priority. Consequently, my manuscript has come together after years of partial neglect, I’ve met every weekly writing goal I’ve set for myself the past two months, and I’m on track to send it off to agents May 1.

I think the secret is to stare the obstacle in the face with absolute determination, with your mind made up that you are going to get around it somehow. Your brain will throw you a bone; you’ll come up with a plan, so long as you don’t give up.

Epiphanies appear when I refuse to let obstacles impede my goals.

Best of all, the more success I have at conquering obstacles and realizing goals, the more empowered I feel to achieve even more.

I can’t even tell you how on top of the world keeping my kitchen clean always and writing daily have made me feel. I’ve been happier and more excited about life in the past month than I remember feeling before. Ideas that have been in the back of my mind for ages suddenly feel possible.

Yesterday, for example, I decided that this upcoming school year I want to do class at home for my kindergartener and second grader, who have been begging me to let them try it. I’ve met so many amazing families who home school, have read so much about the benefits and been so convinced of the good it could do for our kids, but until now it felt 100% overwhelming. I thought there was no way I could continue to write novels and teach college if I taught the kids at home. But the other successes have taught me that I am capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and yesterday the needed epiphanies came and I feel not only ready to tackle this but thrilled about the possibilities. It’s not definite yet, we could still change our minds, but I’ve committed myself to the goal of getting organized and prepared by July.

I know it’s March and not New Year’s. Maybe it’s a strange time to talk about goals. But to me, goals are an ongoing process of setting, working toward, conquering, and selecting the next. And in all my recent enthusiasm I couldn’t help sharing.

May you have an epiphany for every obstacle you encounter, may you meet every goal with success!

What do you think? How do you work past obstacles that get in the way of your goals? What goals are you excited about right now?

Leave a comment!


Hubby closed his eyes and moaned over the chocolate frosting he’d just put in his mouth.

“So it’s good?” I asked.

“Oh yes.”

“Does it need more cocoa?”


I grinned and took the spoon from him, then headed back into the kitchen to frost the cake. Hubby is the final taste-tester around here, since my tastes tend to be a little different from the rest of the family. He is the safe bet when I’m making something to present to others, like the birthday cake I’m bringing to the in-laws tonight. His mom had requested a healthy cake, but obviously I still wanted it to be as yummy as possible.

As I returned the cocoa and honey to the pantry, a bag of pecans caught my eye and made my mouth water with an idea.

“How do you feel about nuts on a cake?” I asked Hubby.

“On a chocolate cake?”



I laughed — and ten minutes later decided to do it anyway. While it’s a joint celebration tonight, one of the birthdays is my own, and I adore pecans.

My first thought was to put them on half the cake, but I thought that would look silly. So instead, I lined the cake with pecans and figured all those nut-haters out there can have the middle pieces.

While I’m too chicken to have shown it to Hubby yet (it’ll be a surprise!), it seems like a pretty good compromise to me.

And it got me thinking about compromises in general — and specifically, compromises in writing.

Last night we went and saw the new silent film The Artist. I had no idea what the story was, and all along the way I found myself guessing where it would head next: oh, he just bumped into the main actress, so now they’re going to hook up, but oh wait, he has a wife, but his wife doesn’t seem to like him, so maybe . . . but wait . . .

I thought about how much the main character’s pride affected the twists of the movie — which was obviously what I was meant to think about, since his pride was showcased as a big element of the story from the beginning. He wouldn’t have had to struggle so much if he could have worked past that hubris sooner, right?

As a fiction writer, I thought about the compromises we make with our characters. We naturally want what’s best for them. They’re like our kids. We want them to be wise and kind and make good choices.

But the trouble in fiction is that we need to see struggling characters. We need to see them overcome. And often the struggles are from their own making. So it becomes a compromise between allowing the blasphemy of bad choices and steering them toward the good ending we want for them.

And of course the resolutions themselves are usually compromises. George Valentin struggled not just because of hubris; it was also that he couldn’t think of a compromise that would work. His initial idea was a bust. Sometimes compromises occur to us quickly, like putting the pecans on only the rim of the cake, but with bigger issues it often takes much longer to see how the good ending can possibly happen. So another compromise for a writer is trading off between letting the character fail and succeed.

Ha, maybe this whole metaphor is a little crazy — as usual. After all, I do like nuts. But The Artist makes me want to consider the fatal flaws in my characters a little deeper this week and make sure that I’ve made the necessary compromises in my story, so that the characters can make mistakes and struggle and yet still arrive at the resolutions readers will hope for.

I want characters who are fundamentally good in the center — so delicious that we’ll react the way Hubby did to the frosting and forgive them for being a little nuts around the edges. 😉

(The frosting, by the way, is simple: 1 cup cream cheese, 3/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup butter, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. No need for compromising there! Healthy = real food around here, so butter and cream cheese totally count.)

What are your thoughts on compromise? What character examples can you think of who manage a good balance between successes and failures?

Leave a comment!


The Undoing of Things

It’s New Year’s Day 2012, and I’ve been stuck dealing with a 2011 mess.

This is the view I’ve been tackling for the last hour:


It might be hard to tell what exactly is going on thanks to that tangled mass of yarn, but the tangled mass is what’s going on. Or what’s going out.

I volunteered to crochet some hats for charity, and as I was working on the blue-and-brown one a few weeks ago, my toddler and preschooler had a little too much fun with the skein of yarn. I got to a point where I couldn’t even use the yarn anymore until I stopped to unravel it.

And the unravelling is taking forever.

20120101-143249.jpgSimilarly, on Friday I bought myself a desk out of the classifieds. It called to me the second I viewed it, after paging through hundreds of other desks, this one full of character and exactly the size and shape (and price range) I need to move my writing station off our kitchen table and into our basement.

But it wasn’t in much better shape than my skein of yarn. I spent all afternoon Friday sanding and staining until my right arm was so dead I couldn’t use it to even wipe my nose that night.

As I sanded, I thought about the undoing of things. I thought about how much I wanted to jump to the polishing stage, how ridiculous it felt to be taking the desk apart before I could put it together better than it was.

20120101-143157.jpgIn many ways the original desk seemed closer to being done than the sanded desk I spent hours on, as you can see in the picture of the not-yet-sanded drawer next to the sanded one.

And I thought how it feels that way with writing too. Sometimes it feels like I’m going backwards, undoing things in my story by deleting scenes and rewriting sentences. It’s hard to feel like that’s actually progress when I want to be at the polished stage.

I just have to remind myself that unraveling the story is essential. I have to sand it down until I’ve got everything in place, every piece ready to proceed.

Sometimes the undoing of things is the first step toward creating something better.

Soon I’ll have a ball of untangled yarn ready to become another hat. And as of yesterday I have a polished desk ready to hold a laptop, a printer, a manuscript binder, pens and scratch paper and all the other essentials, so that I can start 2012 off right, ready to be the year that I send off a polished novel to be published.


The desk will still be the site of more undoing as I cut more scenes and trim more lines. But it’s all in the name of progress.

Sometimes undoing is what has to be done.

Unique Embellishments

“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique.”

~Stephen King’s On Writing

The weekend before Halloween is upon us, and like many other moms around the country, I’ve been scrambling to prepare costumes. Today I sewed a cow-print vest for my four-year-old — complete with a hidden pocket in the back that holds a retractable string. Next up is a pirate vest complete with gold embroidery-type stuff to look all Baroque or whatever (noticed this when checking out Johnny Depp on the cover of the latest Pirates movie).

And while I’ve been making trips to the nearest craft stores to find supplies for these one-night wonders, I couldn’t help grabbing materials for a more practical project that’s been on my mind for a while — and that quickly became more intricate than I intended.

The one type of jewelry I like to wear (besides my wedding rings) is necklaces. And yet even while I’ve been collecting more and more of them over the years, I’ve had nowhere to hang them. I’ve looked for jewelry trees but never had the serendipity of finding one that I liked and enough money to buy it. Then a few months ago a friend mentioned the idea making my own by putting hooks on a plaque. Genius!

Anyhow, I found a plaque with a good shape and then thought, “Well, it’ll need paint.” And then I thought, “Ooh, and wouldn’t a fabric background look cool? I’ve got that Mod Podge stuff . . .” And then once I picked out fabric, I decided ribbon was a must. Next I looked for hooks and couldn’t find anyone ordinary ones that I liked — and then happened to walk through the Aisle of Knobs (doesn’t that have a fun ring to it?).

Serendipity struck: The knobs were 50% off.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of hanging necklaces on knobs. And this did sort of end up being slightly more expensive than other jewelry trees I’d seen (the knobs were still $20 after the discount). But I love it. And if nothing else, I know that this exact combination of materials is one of a kind.

And the evolution of the project is also sort of indicative of how I write.

I swear that my novels start out simple enough. But then once I actually start putting them together, well, all these other ideas begin to jump out at me. I swear that I’m choosy about the ones I incorporate. I don’t just throw in the kitchen sink. But very quickly my manuscripts become way more intricate than I intended.

At times I have doubts about whether I can actually pull it off. As I bought the knobs I asked the clerk twice, “Um, I can return these if it doesn’t work, right?”

Funny enough, I decided on coordinating eight different knobs, which is roughly the same number of point-of-view characters I’m trying to coordinate in my current novel. It’s riskier, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy the ordinary hooks any more than I could ignore the niggling notion in my head saying, “This story is bigger than just Wendy. We need to hear from all of them.”

Also, it takes longer. I was still hot-gluing ribbon to the edges at midnight last night, four hours after I started drilling holes through the wood (having to change drill bits every time for the different-sized knobs). Likewise a more ordinary, less complicated novel started in 2009 would have been finished by now.

But here’s what I’ve decided:

You have to write what makes you happy.

For me, I love complexity. I love asymmetry. I love to stretch boundaries just a tad and see what I can come up with. I love balance and compromise, but I’m not happy being ordinary.

This week, it’s been fun to have the challenge of adding a pull-string to my four-year-old’s Woody costume (we bought the hat in Disneyland in May; the rest has been up to me) and to assemble a pirate outfit (also based around a Disneyland hat — and Jack Sparrow dreadlocks). I got excited about the necklace display as the pieces came together: the plaque, the fabric, the hooks.

And I get excited to work on my manuscript, even through the challenges of complications I’ve brought upon myself.

Besides, if nothing else, it will be one of a kind.

What sort of project person are you? What do you love and what makes you happy?

Leave a comment!

Power of a Picture to Persuade

Last week something pretty insane happened.

I began cleaning my kitchen as I cook.

It’s insane because I am a tornado in the kitchen. Hubby will get the whole thing sparkling clean before we go to bed at night, and by the time he comes home (after I’ve cooked two meals and am in the middle of the third), the poor guy’s effort has been all undone.

Yes, I can see how that would be frustrating for him. I can see exactly why, even when I’m in the middle of cooking and still using the measuring cups around me, he sometimes swipes my cooking utensils and throws them into the sink, just for the sake of making more of the counter top visible.

Cleaning house is not my strength, and yet the constant state of disorganization frazzles me almost as much as it frazzles my poor husband. So when a blog I subscribe to mentioned the e-book One Bite at a Time: 52 Projects for Making Life Simpler, which only costs $5 and would give me amazing tips like “Eat your frog first,” let’s just say it’s the first time I’ve bought an e-book without hesitating.

The author’s recommendation is to choose where you want to start, and after reading through a dozen or more of the projects, I knew “Clean your kitchen as you cook” was the winner for me. I read it while nursing the baby upstairs for his nap and then came down and announced my intentions to Hubby, expecting him to be thrilled.

“What?!” he choked. “I’ve been begging you to do that for nine years.”

Poor guy.

But it made me think about persuasion. How had these couple of pages in an e-book succeeded where the man I love had not?

Sadly, Hubby’s main point didn’t work well enough for me. Yes, crusty, dried-up food takes five times as long to clean off as it would before the food cakes. But I figured I didn’t have time to deal with it while cooking. Cooking is not a leisurely activity around here. It’s a stressful effort, accentuated by cries of “Mom! I’m hungry!” So I always dealt with tossing dishes in the sink once the food was in the oven, etc.

That’s where the e-book spoke my language by showing me how cleaning as I cook would actually simplify my life. And it did that by using an image that gave me an instant association: what a professional kitchen looks like. The author of the project says she learned to clean as she cooks in her first day of cooking school.

That was when it started to click for me. Oh! Of course! A professional cook would quickly wash and put away a cutting board before moving on to the next step. I could picture that, and then could visualize myself doing the same.

And thanks to that effective analogy, everything else clicked into place for me.

I could see how important that would be in a professional kitchen, how they need the cutting board and other kitchen tools to be always ready for the next thing. How many meals have been delayed at our house when I discovered that the needed bowl/knife/measuring cup/chopper/blender/etc I needed was buried in the sink?

I could see how washing those things immediately and putting them away would also save me time trying to push things aside to create enough counter space.

I could see how other tips like having a bowl for scraps next to me while chopping veggies would mean my veggie chopping wouldn’t create a mess.

I could suddenly picture myself cleaning as I cook, and that allowed me to begin doing it.

It’s ironic that in the e-book the “Clean as you cook” project doesn’t come with a photo (other than the author’s portrait). What I mean here is simply the pictures created with words. When someone is trying to persuade us to change, I think that helping us visualize that change is essential to the transformation. We need the right details, like the “garbage bowl” and the analogy of the professional kitchen, to catch the enthusiasm of the idea and adopt it in our lives. And we need to see how the change will actually overcome the obstacles we thought prohibited it in the first place — like not having time to clean while cooking.

Yes, it might take me several weeks to fully master this first project and conquer my tornado habits, but visualizing the change has already made a huge difference.

Are you as visually dependent as I am? What does it take to persuade you to start a new project or transform a habit?

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