10 Books I Read and Loved in 2016

Here are ten books that I really loved in 2016, in no particular order. If you’re making your 2017 reading list, any of these would be awesome additions.

Fiction that inspired me in 2016:

I’ll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson

Pure YA, amazing character building, incredible voice. If you’re thinking of writing for teenagers, this book is a great example of how perfect YA contemporary fiction can be.

Hood, Stephen Lawhead

I have a slight obsession with the Robin Hood story. This iteration was a straight-up pleasure read for me. Loved it.

Man in White, Johnny Cash

I spent some time in Nashville this year and went to the Johnny Cash museum. As soon as I got home, I tracked down a copy of his novel. I’m always, always attracted to people who are just straight up intuitive writers. Johnny Cash is one of those people.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

Fair warning: this book made me cry so hard that my kid got worried. Utter heartbreak. Beautifully written middle grade story. I won’t be watching the movie. I can’t do that to myself. But I’m glad I put myself through the book.

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler.

I love this book so much. I re-read it for my MFA and really looking at it as a writer was a fantastic experience. Octavia Butler is my favorite writer and this is my favorite of her books.

Grasshopper Jungle, Andrew Smith

This was my surprise favorite read of 2016. Quirky, off-beat, and so perfect.

A Separate Peace, John Knowles

This is a classic that I’d somehow missed until this year. I really enjoyed it. Very timely and still fresh after all these years.

One-on-One, Tabitha King

This book is another favorite that I re-read for my MFA this year. There is something about this book that has drawn me back to it over and over for twenty years. Maybe more than twenty. It’s the characters. Every once in a while I just get a deep urge to visit them.

A couple of craft books that were new to me this year, and excellent:

Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin

Wonderbook, Jeff Vandermeer

Here are a few other things that are writerly, but not books, that I really loved in 2016.

First, I bought an Echo Dot this year. This little thing is like a palm-sized personal assistant. I love Alexa! She’s so responsive. I got my first iPhone this year, too, and I’ve been loving Siri, but Alexa is even better. This is the best $50 I spent all year.

I’m still learning how to use all of Alexa’s skills, but she’ll play music for me when I need some background noise, she’ll Google for me, and she’ll send me reminders. Also, I use her alarm feature to help me organize my time. I’ve set a ten minute timer on my Echo Dot about a hundred times so far.

I found a new favorite notebook. The Rhodia 6″ by 8 1/4″ stapled notebook is the perfect size. It’s got a cool, simple design. But mostly? The paper. OMG. The paper is so high-quality. I didn’t even know they made paper like this. I love when I find something that feels luxurious and special, but doesn’t cost the Earth. These notebooks cost less than $6 and are humble enough that you won’t be scared to actually write in them. And when you do write in them? Heaven.

I just ordered a few more of these so I’m all set for the new year.

If you’re going to have a notebook as awesome as the Rhodia, you want a cool pen to write in it with, right? This year I found the Preppy Platinum fountain pen that has a great hand feel and writes really well. For less than $10 you get the pen and five ink cartridges. Can’t beat that.

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Life, Curated: Recipe for a Fresh Start


The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is, really, the perfect time for a Fresh Start. It’s my favorite week of the whole year.

I have this thing that I do, every year, during this week. A little series of things that help me to reboot before the new year starts. A recipe, I think, is the the best way to describe it.

I started doing this twenty years ago, at least, and I’ve added and taken away and tweaked the whole thing until it’s just what I need. Not just before the New Year, but anytime I find myself stuck or slacking or otherwise needing a Fresh Start.

Sometimes I do it during the week before my birthday. Or when I’m between writing projects and I’m just not sure where I’m headed next. Or when I’m unhappy with some part of my life.

The Fresh Start Recipe opens up my head and my heart to new ideas and possibilities and puts me in the right frame of mind to take action.

There are seven steps, so it fits perfectly in a week. There are daily tasks that build on each other and culminate with a routine that supports your Fresh Start going forward.

The Fresh Start Recipe is designed to help not only focus creative energy, but to organize yourself so that you have the time to devote to those creative pursuits. Not hours and hours. Minutes.

Minutes that you can give to your writing, guilt free. Minutes that will make you a professional.

It starts with the 7 Super Habits. I wrote about those right here.

It moves on to goal setting and time management and all sorts of game-changing fun stuff.

You can get access to the Recipe for a Fresh Start course by joining the Ninja Writers Club. (Use the code ANITRY to get your first month in the club for $7.) Scroll down the bottom of that page and click on Life, Curated: Recipe for a Fresh Start to learn more about the course.

It’s really important to me that anyone who wants to a Recipe for a Fresh Start can have it, so if you can’t afford $7, I have scholarships available. Just drop me a line at shaunta@whatisaplot.com.

There’s a Facebook Group for Life, Curated. This is a year-long project and I’d love to have you join us for the journey.


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The Plotting Workshop: Scenes for Act III


The first act and both parts of the second act of your plot board are all filled out. Don’t those sticky notes with your ideas written on them look gorgeous? A filled in plot board is seriously one of my favorite things in the world.

We’re almost done now. Just Act III to fill in.

Act III is shorter than Act II. It has a fast pace. You’ve done all your world building, developed all your characters–Act III is pure story. When you get to the point of writing this part of your book, it’s the most fun because you can see the end and the story just races toward it.

Let’s see how your race goes.


Plot Board, Act III

Act III encompasses two sequences: seven and eight. It has two climactic scenes, with the big one being the third act twist around the end of sequence seven. Go ahead and fill that one in.

Now, go back over your notes and read The Road Back, Ressurection, and Return with the Elixir. Everything you need to round out your story is in there.

You’re going to have scenes of your main character coping with the main climax–which was probably a very dark moment. Your character will rededicate themself to his quest. They’ll have a moment when they realize what they’ve gained. And another when they share it in some way.

The eighth sequence will have some scenes of resolution, tying up the ends of your story. If you’ll have an epilogue, the notes for that are probably your climactic scene for the final sequence.

Act III should have 15 to 20 scenes. Make sure that you’re resolving all of the major story points. If you had love scenes in Acts I and II, you need to make sure you satisfy your reader with regard to that relationship in Act III. If the antagonist had a subplot happening, don’t leave it hanging.

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The Plotting Workshop: Scenes for Act II

scenes-for-act-iiHopefully the left-hand wing of your plot board is nice and full of sticky notes now. You should have what happens in Act I all down.
Can you see how valuable it is to be able to see your story all at a glance? And the sticky notes are so impermanent. That means you can rip one off and replace it, or move it somewhere else, with zero problem. For me, that’s super important. I need my plot board to be flexible, because a novel is a long piece of work and things change when you’re actually writing it.
The point of all of this work isn’t to chisel your story into stone before you even start to write it. It’s to build it up and give your brain a chance to see the full potential of it now, which will make writing it so much easier.
Trust me, anything that makes writing a first draft even a little easier is worthwhile.
Today we’re moving on to the scenes for Act II. Remember, Act II is considerably longer than Act I or Act III. In fact, it’s about half of your story–or about 30 to 40 scenes.
Ready for this?
Act II encompasses four sequences: three, four, five, and six. That means you have four climactic scenes. The two biggies are the mid-point climax at the end of sequence four and the main climax at the end of sequence six. Go ahead and start with those.
Now, look back over your notes at Tests, Allies, and Enemies, Approach to the Inmost Cave, The Ordeal, and The Reward.
You’re going to need two more climactic scenes, one for the end of sequence three and one for the end of sequence five. Keep that in mind as you look at your story.
Leading up to the mid-point climax you’re going to have scenes where your hero meets other people who are important to the story. You’ll probably have a first run-in with the villain, a few tests of
your main character’s resolve, maybe a love scene.
Your MC is going to make their way closer and closer to the place where the mid-point climax will take place, and bad things will happen to them along the way. Each of those things is a scene.
Think of the scenes in Act II, part one, as the rocks you’re throwing at your hero once you’ve finally coaxed them up the tree.
After the mid-point climax, you’ll have scenes where your hero reacts to the Ordeal. Probably another love scene if there’s any romance at all in your book. The rocks will pick up again and things have to get bad enough to reach Dark Night of the Soul territory by the end of Act II, part two.
Just like with Act I, if you find yourself with a build up of scenes in any one sequence, then you need to think about the pacing of your story so that you can get to the climactic scene that leads into the next sequence.
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The Plotting Workshop: Scenes for Act I


Be sure to click here for instructions on how to set up your plot board.

This is my favorite part of this whole process. I love implementing my plot board! You might be tempted to just whip out your sticky notes and have at it, but I’m going to encourage you to slow down and take it Act by Act.

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that we’re going to start with Act I.

Before we dive in, let me give you a little note about what you’re going to do.

A full-length novel generally has between 60 and 90 scenes. Some kinds of novels have more than others. If you’re writing a 120,000 word high fantasy epic, you’ll probably have more scenes than someone writing a 60,000 word category romance. You don’t have to worry about hitting an exact scene count–just be aware of what’s typical for a novel.

All you’re going to do is write a few words about each scene on a sticky note. Each scene gets it’s own note. When I say a few words, I really mean just a few. For instance, if you have a scene where your hero meets your heroine, you’ll write TARZAN MEETS JANE (use your own character names, please!) on a sticky note. You won’t write something like TARZAN MEETS JANE WHILE SWINGING THROUGH THE TREES. JANE HAS GOTTEN HERSELF LOST FROM HER CAMP. HER FATHER IS LOOKING FOR HER. TARZAN FALLS IN LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT . . .

Too much. Just the basics for your plot board. You’ll thank me later. You’re not writing your novel here. You’re just placing markers along the road.

Grab your sticky notes and a pen (I like to use a Sharpie so that I can see my notes from a distance.) Let’s do this.



Remember that Act I of your novel has two sequences: one and two. That means two climactic scenes. One is going to be your inciting incident, at the end of sequence one, the other is your lock in at the end of sequence two.

Go ahead and make those notes and stick them to your board in the appropriate spots.

Two down. Good.

Now look back over your notes for The Ordinary World, The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting the Mentor, and Crossing the Threshold.

Ask yourself what happens before the inciting incident. What scenes let your reader know about the hero’s ordinary world? Do we meet anyone important before the call to adventure happens?

Write out notes for those scenes and stick them in sequence one.

What happens between the call to adventure and crossing the threshold, or the lock in? Which scenes show your main character’s struggle with entering the special world of the story? Which scenes convey the stakes for your MC if they choose not to leave their comfortable ordinary world? What characters are introduced in this part of your story?

Those notes go in sequence two.

You want about a quarter of your total number of scenes to land in Act I–so aim for 15 to 20. But, again, don’t get hung up on getting the number of scenes right. If you find that you have a couple of dozen in sequence one–well, take it from me, you’d rather know that when all you’ve done is write sticky notes than after you’ve written 20,000 words that haven’t moved your story forward.

Story is all about pacing. Every scene in Act I needs to move your MC toward the special world of the story–otherwise known as Act II.

Make sure to come by Facebook and share your work.

If you want to see this whole course on Teachable, for free, click here.

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Life, Curated: The Basics


A few days ago I told you about this new thing I want to do in 2017. Life, Curated.

Today, I thought I’d share the basics.

The very first basic: I’m learning a lot of this stuff right with you. Let’s call it learning out loud. I’m so happy that you’re along for this ride, because I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to do on my own.

Also, I think it’s going to be AWESOME and there isn’t anything better than sharing AWESOME with people you love.

So, here goes.

There are six pillars of Life, Curated. Number one is: Community. Because we are in this together.


Here are all six:

  1. Community
  2. Systems
  3. Tools
  4. Themes
  5. Habits
  6. Mentors


There’s a Facebook Group. I don’t want to flood Ninja Writers with posts about organizing your hall closet or ideas for delegating laundry to someone else. And I want a place where we can talk and be honest and help each other.

I’m not entirely sure what’s going to go down in our Facebook Group. I’m thinking at the very least, I’ll link to the Life, Curated posts there. And challenges? I love a good challenge.

I hope you’ll come join us over there. Help shape this community.


Systems are just what they sound like. Little automations that keep Life, Curated rolling right along.

A system for making sure that you meet your most important life goals.

A system for getting dinner on the table without eating up all of your writing time.

A system for making sure you’re not one of the all-work-no-play types.

You get the idea.


Some of the tools we’ll use are analog. A bullet journal. A couple of different planners. Notebooks. Etc.

A couple are digital. Like Evernote and your email service and a cool program for keeping track of submissions to agents and editors.


Themes are the heart of Life, Curated.

They’re life, broken down into parts so that you can get at it all more easily.

Every month for a year, we’ll focus on one theme.


If Themes are the heart of Life, Curated, habits are the soul.

We’ll be building sustainable, life-changing habits that will not only help us curate our lives so that there’s space for art, but will bring all of our biggest, boldest goals into focus. And reach.


Finally, I have this idea about finding mentors. Not necessarily in person (although that would be awesome, and you never know!) But, mentors where writer-types live: in books.

I really can’t wait to see how this all unfolds.

If you want to join me on the journey and you’d like to see these posts in your inbox, fill out the form below.

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The Plotting Workshop: Return with the Elixir

return-with-the-elixirThis is it! The last little bit of this series that deals with The Writer’s Journey. Once you’ve finished this assignment, you’ll have your entire story arc planned out. There’s a lot of work left to do, but I’m so proud of you for getting this far.

Today we’re going to focus on the part of the Writer’s Journey that Volger calls the Return with the Elixir. Your main character has survived their final brush with death and now they’re on their final journey home–wherever that may be–with their prize.

We’re going to think about what your hero gains at the end of their journey, and what they bring back to share with his new ordinary world. Vogler calls that ‘thing’ an elixir.

The Elixir itself can take on any of several forms–definitely read “Return with the Elixir” in The Writer’s Journey. Your hero might bring something physical home to share, or their elixir might be true love or a heightened sense of responsibility. If you’re writing a tragedy, the elixir will be that tragedy and it will be the audience that learns from it, rather than the hero.

Read “The Elixir” in The Writer’s Journey.


The Twist

This last section of your story starts with the final of five key plot points: the third act twist. Something happens to change your MC’s fortunes once again, this time toward the tone of the end of your story.

Unless you’re writing a tragedy, that means that when all seems completely lost after the main climax of your story, a twist happens to turn things around. If you are writing a tragedy, then of course the twist turns things from the high of the climax to something very dark.

After the climax, the dark night of your hero’s soul, they might not know how they’re going to survive. Something, some twist, happens right here that will show them the way. Think about your favorite books and movies. What happens about three quarters of the way through that changes everything? Go ahead and reply to this email, let me know what you come up with.

You need to think about what your MC is going to bring back to their new Ordinary World with them from this adventure. What are they going to share with their little bit of the world (or, maybe, the world at large)?

Vogler writes that the reward, the elixir, should be proportional to the sacrifice that the hero has made. Also, if your hero has failed to learn an important lesson, there should be some sort of a punishment.

This is also the time to think about whether or not your story needs an epilogue. Most stories don’t, but if yours needs a final bit of closure, this is the place for it. Often an epilogue skips ahead, giving the reader a deeper peek at the new ordinary world the hero now inhabits.

Okay, grab your notebook. Label the next page “Return with the Elixir” and answer these questions.

  • What is the elixir your hero brings back? Is it physical or emotional?
  • Does your hero take on more responsibility in their new ordinary world than they had in their old ordinary world? Have they become a leader in some way?
  • Is there a romance in your story? How does it resolve?
  • Who is the hero at the end of the story? Have there been any disappointments or surprises?
  • Does your story have an epilogue? Describe it.

Make sure to come by Facebook and share your work.

If you want to see this whole course on Teachable, for free, click here.

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The Plotting Workshop: The Resurrection


We’ve reached the part of your story that is often called The Dark Night of the Soul. It’s a second meeting with death for your main character and the very biggest moment in your entire story. Unless you’re writing a tragedy, this part of your story will be the darkest, worst moment for your protagonist.

Your hero’s Resurrection starts with a brush with death which is your story’s main climax–the fourth of five key plot points. Your character, at this point, will make a final big push toward change.

This lesson has one assignment. Read “The Resurrection” in The Hero’s Journey.


The Dark Night of the Soul

Your character has been through a lot so far. They’ve changed drastically, their old Ordinary World probably seems a million miles away. Maybe by now they know that the road that they’re on will never lead them back to their comfortable place.

In this scene, you have the chance to show (rather than tell) the change that’s happened in your MC. This scene is hard to write, because it can be tough to be mean to a character you feel so connected to. But the main climax is the time when everything your MC has learned and every change they’ve been through comes together.

You need to think about your protagonist’s stakes now. They have to be high. It isn’t just themselves that they’re saving. This is the time when they become a true hero, saving everyone in one way or the other.

Your protagonist might have a big, important choice to make here. Do they get married or leave someone at the alter? Do they make the kill or go with mercy? Do they risk everything or play it safe?

If you are truly writing a tragic story, rather than a dark moment, the main climax of your story will be a soaring win for your hero. You’ll have to lift them up high here, so that when they fall, they fall hard.

Get out your notebook and label the next page “The Resurrection.” Answer these questions.

  • What negative traits has your MC picked up? This is a good way to gauge their change.
  • Which flaws will your MC retain through to the end of the story?
  • Describe the main climax or final ordeal of your story. How does your MC face death one more time? How are they ressurected?
  • Is there a physical showdown between your MC and the antagonist?
  • How has your MC changed?

Tomorrow we’re going to finish up with The Writer’s Journey! Can you believe it? We’ll be talking about your hero’s return with the elixir.

Make sure to come by Facebook and share your work.

If you want to see this whole course on Teachable, for free, click here.

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The Plotting Workshop: The Road Back


All right, here we are in Act III. Can you believe that we’ve made it this far? By now, your novel has shaped up into something you’re excited about–and you can see your way to the end. When you get to actually write this part of your story, your work will take on a life of its own.

The Road Back refers to one of two things. It’s either the start of the hero’s return to the their original ordinary world, or the start of their journey toward some place completely new. Even if your main character is headed back to the beginning–back home, like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz–they have changed so that they aren’t going to experience home in the same way as they used to.

And either way, your MC is starting back toward the Ordinary World–either the one they already know, or one they haven’t reached yet. What they’ve learned and how they’ve changed will impact how they live in that new ordinary world.

But first, something has to happen that will propel your MC toward the end of their story. This scene marks the line between Act II and Act III.

Read the “The Road Back” chapter of The Writer’s Journey.



A couple of things are going to happen at this stage of your story.

First, your MC is going to find a new level of dedication to his journey. Usually, it won’t come easily. After the Ordeal, which was a big win, they might be happy where they are. Something has to take place now that yanks them back into the story.

Often this acceleration involves some sort of a chase scene. Something exciting, that will bring your story out of the slower pace of the second act and into the higher-octane third act.

Like the threshold your MC crossed to enter the story, this is the scene that will eventually take them back out of it. It will set them on the road home–whether that’s to their original home or to somewhere entirely new.

Vogler calls the thing that pushes the MC into the main climax a propellant. It boosts the story and forces them to push harder toward their goal.

Second, your villain will probably have a boost of energy toward their own goals. Remember, they are the hero of their own story as well as being the shadow in your MC’s. As the MC gets closer to success, the villain will need to fight harder, too.

This is a big reversal from the high of the Ordeal. It’s often something sudden that happens, with no warning.

Grab your notebook and label the next page The Road Back. Answer these questions.

  • How does your MC rededicated himself to his journey?
  • What does the road back look like? Is it a clear path? Does your MC have to muddle through it? Are they just plopped onto it by some force outside themselves?
  • Where does the road back head? Is your MC going back to the beginning, or somewhere entirely new?
  • What happens to accelerate the story at this point? What is your MC’s propellant.

Make sure to come by Facebook and share your work.

If you want to see this whole course on Teachable, for free, click here.

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Life, Curated: Art Matters. Make Room for it in 2017.

life-curatedI bet my life isn’t all that different from yours.

The things that fill yours up might be different from the things that fill mine up, but that filled-up-to-the-brim thing? We both have that going on.

Here’s my life:

I’ve got Ninja Writers going on, of course. That’s a full-time job full of passion and love.

I’m working on an MFA from Sierra Nevada College.

I have the same old stuff that any adult-type person has. You know, making sure we don’t end up on a very special edition of Hoarders. Making dinner. Getting some exercise. That sort of thing.

I have three kids. One is a twelve-year-old soccer player. One is away at college. And one is in his early-twenties and has special needs and lives at home still.

My parents-in-law live in our basement apartment. They both have dementia.

So, basically, my husband and I are the peanut butter and jelly in a generational sandwich.

Oh. And I write novels.

I love my life.

I truly do. All I’m saying, though, is that there’s just a whole lot of it going on. So much that the thing I tacked on at the end, my art? Carving out minutes for it in my day can be a monumental task that ends up being wracked with guilt and pretty easily passed over.

Sound like you? Work. Family. Home. Life. And your art way, way down at the bottom of the list.

I bet I’m like you in another way, too. I’m utterly right-brained. A creative creature whose brain works in one mode: Big Idea.

I’m fantastic at ambitious starts and struggle with finishes, because all the middle details get away from me.

I might not care so much about the unfinished things, if I didn’t have this one pivot point in my life when I was 24.

My mom died.

She was 48, so I was exactly half her age. I was a new mom with a marriage (to my high school sweetheart) that was on the verge of complete implosion (that happened a year later.) And I remember sitting in my grandma’s house, hurting everywhere, missing my mama so much,  wondering how the universe could expect me to do the rest of my life without her.

I started thinking about all of the things that she wanted to do with her life when she was 24.

She probably thought, before she got sick, that she  had a whole lifetime left.

She definitely thought it was okay to put a bunch of stuff off until her kids were grown up. She had no idea that she’d die the spring after her youngest child graduated from high school. Who thinks about that?

So, on top of having a strong orientation toward Big Ideas and a lack of the basic make-up that would make seeing those ideas through to any sort of fruition easy or intuitive–I have this strong drive to actually achieve the things I dream about.

That drive is strong. As a result, I’ve come up with some systems that help me stay true to my goals and figure out how to do what doesn’t exactly come naturally: all the little steps to get from Big Idea to Goal Achieved.

In the last eighteen months I’ve written two novels. I’ve lost 120 pounds. I started Ninja Writers, which allowed me to quit a day job that was sucking the soul right out of me. I started an MFA program and finished my first semester.

I still have lots of room for improvement. There’s always tons to do. But, my systems help. A lot.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to introduce them to you.

And I’ve got this idea for a plan (you know it’s a Big Idea) for making major progress toward my goals in 2017.

The Big Idea, which I’m calling Life, Curated is this: I hear so many people talking about being too busy to write. They put off their creative life in deference to literally everything else and give their art the left over scraps of time and energy.  I don’t think it has to be that way.

I believe that we can curate our lives in such a way that there’s time for all of the important things–including creativity, writing, art, music . . . whatever it is that feeds your soul and ignites your passion.

I don’t think you have to choose between writing and making dinner for your family. Or writing and making a living. Or writing and taking are of your elderly parents.

If you chip away at the stuff that doesn’t matter, what’s left can really shine, right?

If you’d like to come along on that ride with me, just leave your email address here. That will put you on the list to get new posts when they go live. I’ll send you my most effective tool…the secret weapon that’s helped me to meet my goals more than anything else ever has.

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