Writing for One in a Million

8 July 2013

Kip Langello wrote 9 novels and sent them out diligently to various agents and publishers. All were rejected. He even received contradictory feedback from industry gatekeepers, one person telling him that his plot was great but his characters were weak, another telling him — about the same story — that his characters were great but his plot was weak.

But then, a breakthrough: his 10th manuscript was accepted and published. Not only that, but he received a six-figure advance, a two-book contract, and a TV movie option. And has published 4 books since.

What made the difference?

“Before writing No. 10,” Langello writes in the September 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest, “I asked myself who was going to read my book. I visualized one person …. The same way I create characters when I write, I created a reader — my ideal reader … And I gave her a name: Peggy.”

“Peggy forced me to use a consistent voice and style, to be consistent and focused and true to a single reader, representative of a larger niche readership. And so my novel read that way — consistent, focused, true.”

In writing The Mystery of the Jade Avenger, my “Peggy” is named Seth. Seth is almost 9 years old and is certifiably Gifted & Talented. And he’s a real person — my nephew — which makes it a lot easier for a beginning novelist like myself to figure out how to write to a young audience, since I can simply ask him questions and be showered with his many thoughts on any subject. By writing for him (and often with him since he is generous about sharing his many ideas!), I can focus on entertaining him, focusing on what interests him, frightens him, and engages him.

I love this technique because it really does help keep the focus on that one person in a million that you are writing for.

My Partner in Crime

8 July 2013

My 9-yr-old nephew Seth and I have talked for hours about the Mystery of the Jade Avenger. He’s provided invaluable insight for me into a young boy’s mind and likes/dislikes but has also sidelined all my main characters in favor of his own! Not sure who will get the last word on that one.

Initially, I wanted to write the Mystery of the Jade Avenger as a surprise for him. But this collaboration is working out much better. He has come up with a ton of ideas. One thing that was a pleasant surprise was that two of his great plot ideas, I’d already thought of! Which was good for the old ego. At least it confirmed what I thought a young boy might like in a novel.

One thing I found interesting and insightful was that he basically pushed all my adult characters out of the way (most of my characters were adults and I hadn’t even realized it) and replaced them with children characters. My two heroes used to be Richard (11) and his sidekick Antonia (7) but Seth basically buried Richard in a gang of boys who are friends and who form the “good guys” and poor Antonia has been totally sidelined. Well, actually, he eventually condescended to give her two other girl friends who are also 7, and whose names all start with an A.

We spent 3 straight hours today discussing plot and characters. When I was talking, he often interrupted with “Can I ask a question?” or “I have an idea!” He is very enthusiastic, has an abundance of ideas, is really great at figuring out plot possibilities and reasons behind people’s actions. I could go on. He’s going to be a very talented writer if ever he decides to get serious about writing a novel. He gave me lots of great ideas, and also invaluable insight into a little boy’s mind.

Last night, he asked me very hesitantly and with great embarrassment if I was going to put in more female characters. He thinks I should. When I guessed that it was so there could be some crushes on the part of the boys and girls, I expressed surprise, saying I didn’t think boys his age liked that kind of thing, he said that they do. And lots of violence!

A “First Class” Start

27 February 2013

Creative writing teachers will tell you that bad experiences make for good stories. It’s true.

And I’ve had my share. The “wisdom” behind posts like Tips For If You Miss Your Flight usually comes from really stupid things I’ve done while traveling — like missing my flight because I’m sitting at the wrong gate or I’m waiting at the gate for a plane that’s going where I need to go and I think it’s my flight but, oh, it’s not my airline. I’ve slept overnight in airport lounges enough times to feel like a supporting cast member in Tom Hank’s movie The Terminal.

But every once in a while an experience falls into your lap that’s too good not to share.

Thanks to my uncle who trains pilots for a major airline, I was flying “non-rev” from Dallas, Texas to Norfolk, Virginia. Flying non-rev is a gamble: sometimes you don’t get a seat and get bumped to the next available flight, sometimes you manage to slip into the last seat available on the plane, usually a middle seat. And sometimes — blessed times — you get to fly First Class.

Yesterday was one of those blessed days. As I sat there in my luxuriously roomy seat watching the other passengers go by, I was trying to look sufficiently calm and composed on the outside while I was doing a happy dance on the inside. Thank you, Uncle Robert, thank you, thank you for your choice to work for the airline and support your family members’ addiction to travel. You are my hero.

I’ve already described in detail the pleasures of flying First Class, and how humbling it is to be given this gift through no merit of my own, symbolic in a way of that Other great gift we’ve been given through no merit of our own. So I’ll limit this post to describing what I had for lunch at 30,000 feet: grilled shrimp and cheesy grits. And they were surprisingly good.

This writers’ retreat week is off to a great start. Bring it on, Lord. I’m ready.

“Hatteras Girl” provides much-needed inspiration

25 February 2013

I was searching for information on the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk for a story I’m writing. The local library’s online catalog brought up about 4 or 5 promising titles, mostly in Children’s Nonfiction. I scrolled down to the bottom of the page and noticed a listing for a fiction book called Hatteras Girl by author Alice J. Wisler. Cape Hatteras is in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, as is Kitty Hawk and the Wright Brothers memorial, hence the computer-generated connection.

I read the summary and was intrigued. The heroine of the story, like me, was a journalist and was, also like me, an older single who has had her share of unpromising blind dates. Another thing that caught my attention was that the book was put out by a Christian publishing house, Bethany House. The last time I read a “good” mainstream novel there were so many bad words and compromising scenes in it that I had to put it down in disgust, even though it was captivating, well-written, and had won numerous awards.

Because of life’s craziness and lack of leisure time, I haven’t read a book “just for fun” in about six months. I decided to indulge — and read the book in three days. I liked how the author created such a warm and complex main character and also the inviting way in which she described the Outer Banks, with so much local color sprinkled in. There was a lot of real, human emotion in the book.

As I read, I was reminded of a novel of my own I had begun many moons ago but put aside to pursue more “serious” writing, i.e. the kind that pays the bills. Currently, the manuscript sits in my laptop under several layers of virtual dust. The file has the optimistic label “My First Novel.” I first started it in 2003 and haven’t written in it (or thought much about it) since 2005.

Tomorrow, I head out to the East Coast for a writers retreat in the Outer Banks. I’ve decided to take “My First Novel” with me and see if I can’t resurrected it. Might even give it a more exciting title. Thanks for the inspiration, Alice J. Wisler!

Homemade Hummus and Pita Chips

1 August 2012



A few days ago, I was on vacation in Greece eating souvlaki and swimming in the Mediterranean (not at the same time!). So today, to extend the experience a little, I decided to make that staple of the Mediterranean diet — hummus.


This recipe, posted by ROYHOBBS at Allrecipes.com, is super simple and easy to make.


1 (19 oz) can garbanzo beans, half the liquid reserved

4 TBS lemon juice

2 TBS tahini (I put in 3)

1-2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 tsp salt

black pepper to taste

olive oil


1. In a blender, chop the garlic. Pour garbanzo beans into blender. Place lemon juice, tahini, chopped garlic and salt in blender. Blend until creamy and well mixed, adding in liquid from can as needed.

2. Transfer the mixture to a medium serving bowl. Sprinkle with pepper and pour olive oil over the top.



The recipe for baked pita chips has been modified from an online recipe located at theshiksa.com.


4 pita bread rounds (I use whole wheat)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil



1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush your baking sheet with olive oil, coating the entire sheet evenly. Brush the top of a pita round evenly with oil oil. Sprinkle pita with salt to taste.

2. Cut the pita in half, then in quarters, then in eighths to make eight equal sized triangles.

3. Place pita triangles seasoning-side up in a single layer on the oiled baking sheet. Repeat process for remaining three pita rounds.

4. Place baking sheet in the oven. Let the pita chips bake for 8-10 minutes, turning the sheet once during the baking to ensure even heat distribution. Chips are done when they’re golden brown and crisp. Towards the end of baking keep an eye on the chips, as they will brown quickly and can burn if not watched.

5. Remove chips from oven and allow to cool. Serve the chips on their own or with a dip like hummus or baba ghanoush. Store in a sealed Tupperware or Ziploc bag.

Nat’s Notes

* Hummus can be served with vegetables as an even healthier alternative

* Chickpeas contain loads of fiber and nutrients

* Hummus makes a healthy snack as well as a great sandwich spread



Smart Money: Cash Passport

11 July 2012

Sorry, folks. Traveler’s Checks are a thing of the ancient past. They’ve been replaced by debit cards, credit cards and most recently … Cash Passports.

I’d heard about Cash Passports for several years but was skeptical about them: I always felt deep down that it was some kind of scam. However, after reading some positive testimonials, I decided to try one this year for my trip to England.

You can get a Cash Passport at the exchange company Travelex, found in the international terminals of major airports. You put an initial sum on the card (you get the best deal on exchange rates if you go over a certain amount, like $700) then use it as if it were a debit card, either as a swipe card or to withdraw money from ATMs. It’s widely accepted here in England.

So why use a Cash Passport instead of a debit card? Several reasons.

(1) It has a “chip and pin” system which makes it very secure for use in Europe; over here they consider our non-chip US cards (both debit and credit) very unsafe as it’s much easier to steal information from them.

(2) The amount of the card is in British Pounds (you can also choose Euros) so you only have to deal with exchange rates one time, upon purchase of the card at the airport, and the rest of the time you can figure out everything in British Pounds based on the remaining balance on your card.

In my opinion, it beats having to monitor the exchange rates on your checking account as transactions go through, as well as being charged a percentage for each transaction. The advantage of a Cash Passport over a credit card is similar to that of a debit card with the additional advantage that the CP lets you withdraw cash without charge, whereas a credit card would charge for a cash advance.

You can check your balance online (supposedly — I’ve just been keeping a tally of all my expenses) and if it gets lost or stoelen there’s a number you can call immediately to deactivate the card and you’ll be issued a new one with the remaining balance.

Bottom line is that everyone has a different system and preference for how to handle their money abroad. I’ve tried the CP this year and been very pleased with how it’s worked for me. I think I’ll continue using the CP in my travels in the future. You might want to check it out, too!

View From My Window

26 June 2012

Western Road Rowhouses, Oxford, England

An English Breakfast: The Stuff of Dreams

24 June 2012

Ahhhhh! A traditional English breakfast. The smell wafted up to me on the top floor of Abingdon House as I woke up this morning, my stomach rumbling in anticipation. The fare did not disappoint.

An English Breakfast

Eggs, “bacon,” mushroom, tomato, hash browns, sausage plus toast, croissants, fresh fruit and berries and several options of cereal, juices, milk and coffee. It’s the breakfast of kings. What a great way to start a Sunday morning!

Prayer: Shoulder Someone’s Burden Today

30 May 2012

“God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you.” 1 Sam. 12:23

It’s a classic scenario. A friend approaches you with a need, asking you to pray. Eagerly, you nod and assure your friend, “I’ll be praying for you” … only to forget about it approximately 30 seconds later. And then there’s that twinge of guilt when you see the friend again: you meant well, but you totally forgot to pray.

Praying for someone in need is arguably the most unselfish thing you will do today. Committing to pray for someone means that you are willing to shoulder their burdens until the Lord provides answers or relief. But developing the habit of prayer takes discipline. Here are some things to remember:

  • You are not responsible to pray for all the requests of the world. Pay special attention when someone comes to you and asks specifically for prayer.
  • When you “take on” a prayer request, treat it as what it is: a divine commission.
  • Ask God for reminders and take advantage of them when they come; don’t be surprised if they occur in the middle of the night.
  • Don’t rely solely on divine reminders. Get the proper systems in place as memory aids. Keep a prayer journal to facilitate recall.
  • Schedule a regular time for prayer, just like you would anything else of importance in your life — like exercise and meal times.

Just saying “I’ll be praying for you” may get you some points with your friend in the here-and-now, but it doesn’t make much impact unless you follow through. But the exciting thing is the more you pray, the more you will see God’s hand working in mysterious ways to answer your prayers!

“Gracious Holy Spirit, so much of my life seems to revolve around my interests and my welfare. I would like to live just one day in which everything I did benefited someone besides myself. Perhaps prayer for others is a starting point. Help me to do so without any need for praise or reward. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” (From Richard J. Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home)

Praying but not getting answers? See post titled An Explanation for Unanswered Prayer?

Quote of the Day

24 May 2012

My love for you, Lord, is not an uncertain feeling but a matter of conscious certainty. With your word you pierced my heart, and I loved you … But when I love you, what do I love? It is not physical beauty nor temporal glory nor the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, nor the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, nor the gentle odour of flowers and ointments and perfumes, nor manna or honey, nor limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God.

Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and  a kind of embrace when I love my God — a light, voice, odour, food, embrace of my inner man, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.

— St. Augustine in Confessions

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