Tag Archives: The Graham Cracker Plot

Sentenced to play probation

Nobody plays Lemony Snicket like Arabella, and nobody plays Legos like Kiera. Big sigh.

Nobody plays Lemony Snicket like Arabella, and nobody plays Legos like Kiera. Big sigh.

Lately, my “writing life” has been unworthy of the adjective. I’m deep into research, which is part of the writing life right now, but mostly I’m trying to grab some summer fun with my daughter.

She’s eight, almost nine, and my invitations are not quite met with rolling eyes, but almost. Eight years old.  Shouldn’t she still adore every minute with me and think I’m a beautiful mom-fairy who fixes problems and the world’s best cook and a playmate who whips up a Polly Pocket plot line like none other?

Like S.E. Hinton wrote, That was Then, This is Now.

My daughter has friends. She’s always had friends but now she has friends. They giggle but don’t tell me the joke. They close the door when they go into the playroom. When I call down to see if they want a snack, I get the look that says, what are you doing here?

A few weeks ago, when none of the friends could play, my daughter asked me to play with her. I’m thrilled because we are back. Downstairs we go.

She says, let’s play A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Me. My kiddo. Even our shadows were thick as thieves.

Me. My kiddo. Even our shadows were thick as thieves.

That’s a new one. Usually we come up with our own plots. So what? We are back! And so we begin. I make up a sweet but crazy old lady character. I expect to find the kiddo amazed by my creativity.

She plays along, but I can tell it’s not quite working. I ask, what’s the matter? You can tell me.

Well, she says hesitantly, you don’t play it right. You don’t play it as good as Arabella.

Really, my dear?  I write kids lit. I think I’m somewhat familiar with what constitutes “good play.”

I tell her, I’m creative and funny. This is fun. You are having fun young lady! I mean, you’re having fun, aren’t you?

She sighs. I guess it’s just that you haven’t seen the movie as much as we have and so you don’t know how to do it.

I’ve discovered my competition, and they are a gang of eight- and nine-year-olds. Kids I feed. Kids I adore. Kids who bring joy into the house. Apparently they’ve been plotting to steal my daughter.

I know I should be happy that kids like my kid and vice versa. And I am. Kids grow up. They change. They enter the push-pull relationship with mom.

But what if that happens to me as a writer? What if my young readers think, remember when we used to like books by Shelley Tougas? Too bad she doesn’t write it right anymore.

It’s going to happen eventually. Thirty years from now, I won’t understand their love of hologram games or why the hovering auto is cool or how they attend school entirely through the aps on their phones, which are holograms.

But that will be then and this is now. All is not lost. I have skills in phlebotomy. People don’t say you’re not doing it right when you’re about to stab them with a needle.

So I cling to my old job as a phlebotomist. With an ice cream bribe,  I might convince the kids to play plasma center.


The artists’ egg

The long-lost Tougas-Bunkert picture book, The Robin's Egg.

The long-lost Tougas-Bunkert picture book, The Robin’s Egg.

Mom gave me a hope chest for high school graduation. The chest came with a lock and key to protect my memories and treasures. I remember piling stuff into the hope chest after college, when I moved to Mankato for my first job.

And what a lock on that thing!

I immediately lost the key, securing everything inside it for 20 years, like a Shelley time capsule. I’ve picked a lock or twelve in my younger years, and let me assure you: the only way inside that chest was a chainsaw. When Mom gave me the chest, the first thing she said was, don’t lose that key. Want me to keep the key for you? Yes, I know you’re an adult, but I just know you’ll lose that key.

Obviously I never told her I’d lost the key. Would you? And I couldn’t go the chainsaw route, because she’d definitely find out.

This weekend a key was found and a lock opened. I honestly had no idea what I’d find in the chest. My memory is terrible. I can’t remember the sentence I just typed. (Did I mention my memory is terrible?) I guessed I’d find jewelry, some photo albums and, if I was really lucky, my grandpa’s coin collection.

Nope. The chest was packed full of notebooks and folders. More on that in my next post.

Because the real news (for me) is I found the first story I ever wrote. A Robin’s Egg. I wrote it; my best friend Denise illustrated it. We were seven years old.

Collaboration, 70s style.

Collaboration, 70s style.

Years later, when I’d searched everywhere for that notebook and couldn’t find it, I accused Mom of throwing it away. (Like I’d blame myself? Really. Do you people know me at all?)

My stepdaughter was here this weekend for the grand hope-chest re-opening. I wiped away tears and hugged the notebook.  My stepdaughter said something like it’s cool that you and Denise were just kids, and she wanted to be an artist and you wanted to be a writer, and here you are nearly forty years later, and you’re a professional writer and she’s a professional artist.

And we’re still heart-of-the-heart friends. Sisters.

Denise and I followed the same path. She dreamed of painting; I dreamed of writing. But we had fathers practical influences in our lives who insisted suggested we blend our passion with a real paycheck. So I pursued journalism and, later, public relations. Denise became a graphic artist.

I’ll never regret my journalism career. I lived a lifetime in those seven years at The Free Press. Eventually, news writing wasn’t enough.

Denise did it first: she leapt from the corporate world and landed in an artist studio. Since then, she’s become a respected artist. She’s been commissioned for major projects, painted in Monet’s garden, won juried exhibits, and published her work in a book of poetry. Look for her here.

None of that came easy for Denise. The money came in spurts. Rejections eroded her self esteem. She felt isolated. She had to fight against the tide of people suggesting she “get a real job.”

Inspired by her, I took the same plunge: small income, rejections, isolation, annoying people. I’ve done okay. I got lucky in the educational market with Little Rock Girl. It opened the door for my novel, The Graham Cracker Plot, which will be out in a year.

Back to the hope chest. An hour after I opened it, Denise called to chat. We shrieked about the discovery of The Robin’s Egg.

She asked, is it bad?

Terrible, I said.

Later, I knew I’d misspoken. The Robin’s Egg is perfect in every way. It’s the beginning of our friendship and our dreams. It’s us.

Mom never knew about the lost key – and since she’s not a blog reader, she never will. All those years, when she’d asked me about the hope chest, I’d smile and tell her it was a wonderful way to keep my personal treasures. She’d say, you didn’t lose that key, did you?

No way. Key. Hope chest. Me. We’ve come a long way together, Mom.

God I hope she never finds out.

A post on … what was I saying? … hmmm … writer’s block?

Recap from yesterday’s post: Writer’s block is an excuse to leave the page.

This your brain on writer's block.

This your brain on writer’s block.

Author Philip Pullman describes why writer’s block is an excuse:  “Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?”

And I wholeheartedly agreed – until I got writer’s block. It didn’t feel like howling nonsense. It felt like a condition.

For more than a decade, my job duties were primarily writing. First I had a tour of duty in a newsroom. Then came public relations. I wrote press releases, commentaries, web copy, brochures, speeches, reports, white papers, talking points, marketing materials, and signs. Yes, I wrote signs.

After work, I went home and wrote some more. My husband joked that I “wrote books while stirring soup while talking on the phone while folding laundry.”

I wrote two young adult novels and found an agent. We had close calls but no sale. So I wrote more. Short stories, the beginnings of new novels, essays, flash fiction, and memoir. I landed a ghostwriting gig and some nonfiction work.

Busy, busy! My keyboard was on fire. Then one day I just stopped.

I’d blame a personal crisis, but I actually stopped writing pre-crisis. I’d blame office overload, but I’d left my job. I’d blame my husband, except he was urging me to saddle up and hit the paper trail.

I’d open my computer files and tell myself, jump in. Pick up where you left off. Or start new. Just type. Just close your eyes and start pushing random keys. But every story idea was ridiculous. Dialogue was stiff. Descriptions were cliché. Characters were flat.

I froze in front of the screen. I was done. For ten months, my laptop served as nothing but an email and Internet tool.

I didn’t understand how I went from writing stories to staring at walls. I still don’t. I’d like to analyze the cause, or causes, and I’d love to offer a step-by-step guide to recovering your muse. (That guide would sell.)

Was my writer’s block “howling nonsense?” Was it fear of failure? Was it an excuse to quit? Was I tired, or just lazy? Or was it something quite real but invisible, a flood of stifling chemicals in the creative part of my brain?

Author Barbara Kingsolver says a writer must chain her muse to her desk and get it done. Maybe my muse had chained me to the desk. I wasn’t so much quitting as escaping. Snowbirds flee northern winters for sunny beaches, right? It’d been a long time since I’d had sand between my toes.

One day, my new boyfriend gave me a present. A new laptop. I’d told him I was a writer. He probably found it odd that I never actually wrote.

I played with the laptop for a while. So light and small and shiny. Pretty colors! Icons! Programs galore! I felt a ping of creativity, then a creative flare, like the Grinch’s tiny heart growing three sizes in one day.

I wasn’t cured with a new laptop. (It didn’t hurt.) But it made me think about whether I was a writer or someone who dreamed about being a writer. Not a newspaper writer or a brochure writer, but a writer who invents. A writer whose material comes from within.

Characters started talking to me again. Places turned into setting, and conversations revealed voice. Stories spun in my head. I had dreams of plot points.

I created my first document and named it TheGrahamCrackerPlot. Page one begins like this:

Dear Judge Henry,

I will tell you three things right now.

Number One. I am only eleven years old. I do not want to go to prison, even if it’s a prison for kids.


The Graham Cracker Plot sold in a whirl of emails and phone calls. It’ll be released in the fall of 2014.

If this happens to you, this big, bad writer’s block, try to reframe it as writer’s hurdle. That’s my only real advice. You can jump the hurdle. You can. It’s not as high as it looks.

And forget about your muse. You don’t need it. You never did.

The Greatest Gatsby

Dear Director Luhrmann and Author Fitzgerald,

Thank you for crafting both a novel and a movie with masterful dialogue. I’ve used many of your words in the following apology, because your words are better than mine. Clearly.

Many thanks,

Shelley T., author of the forthcoming novel The Graham Cracker Plot.


To: Baz Luhrmann, The Great Director

Dear Baz,

There was a green light flashing in the mist. It represented hope – my hope. Weeks ago, I’d hoped your interpretation of The Great Gatsby would stink and sink. I couldn’t fathom an American classic being twisted into a 3D rap music video. I couldn’t stand the thought of our Jay Gatsby – yes, he’s one of us, one of the dreamers and believers – being played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s working so hard for his Lifetime Achievement Award.

I was wrong, a silly little fool. That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, Baz, a beautiful little fool. But it takes two to make an accident like this: me with my prejudgment and you with the black cloud of Moulin Rouge.

Cheers, Leo. Cheers.

Cheers, Leo. Cheers.

Baz, your Gatsby was a triumph. There’s something very sensuous about it – overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into my hands right there in the theater, right next to the popcorn.

And so I apologize to you, Baz. (And to Leo, who’ll get that lifetime award if he ever looks older than 30.) Understand, Baz, that sometimes I’m a careless person, smashing up things and creatures and then retreating back.

Gatsby lovers, believe in Baz’s green light. It represents his hope and dream to make a better Gatsby, to, in fact, make the Greatest Gatsby.

Realized dreams are so rare, yet we chase them. Baz understands dreams elude us, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Many apologies,

Shelley T., author of the forthcoming novel The Graham Cracker Plot

Jowls be gone!

Welcome to my blog’s rhytidectomy. (That’s the smart word for facelift.)

Even though this blog was very young, it suffered from the cosmetic equivalent of eyelid creases and fatty deposits below the chin. (That’s the smart phrase for double chin.) Or, you could say the font was hard to read, the orange-mesh background made readers queasy, and the overall look screamed clutter!

When I started thinking of my blog as my web face, I felt like I’d gone to my class reunion with spinach in my teeth and fatty deposits under my chin.

Time for a blog facelift.

I think the blog is now simple, clean and reader friendly. Why daisies in the background? My protagonist (The Graham Cracker Plot) is named Daisy. Isn’t that just precious?!

The new look isn’t my ideal blog-web site blend. I still need to work on the pages, and things I’d like to tweak are “untweakable.”  That’s the reality of a free service. If you want custom stuff, you need a designer.

Someday. But right now, no designer until I’ve got some fatty deposits in my bank account. Ba-dum-bum-CHING! (That’s the smart phrase for “drum sound made after a bad joke.”)

Book Trailer Part One

I have more than one year to prepare for the release of The Graham Cracker Plot. One year to plan and worry. And worry and worry and worry.

My recent internal debate: Do I need a book trailer? If you haven’t seen one, book trailers are short previews (much shorter than movie previews) of the book. The trailer should capture the book’s tone and tease the plot. If you’re lucky, the video goes viral and creates buzz for your book.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the benefits of a book trailer, doing them on a budget, and some links to book trailers.

But today, I’m clinging to the old-fashioned novel experience. Going to the bookstore and wandering for an hour. Picking up book after book. Trying to narrow the purchase. Finding a gem that will keep me awake, a book so good I have to put it in my purse in case I have time for a page or two.

My purchasing decision involves these steps.

  • The cover and title. The attention grabbers. If they’re intriguing, I’ll read the jacket copy.
  • The jacket copy. For me, this is the book trailer, minus the video.  It’s the tease.
  • The author. If I’ve read someone’s work and loved it, I’ll buy everything they write until they jump the shark. (Stephen King jumped the shark with Misery. I quietly filed for a writer-reader divorce.)
  • Placement: I always look through the store’s special displays.  I love the tables with books already sorted for me. “Debut Authors.” “Best Summer Reads.” “Award winners.” “New in paperback.” And, of course, “Clearance.”
First flip-flop: In my novel, there's one woman who tries to keep her trailer looking nice. These are part of her yard decor.

First flip-flop: In my novel, there’s one woman who tries to keep her trailer looking nice. These are part of her yard decor.

I’m not sure I want the author – or the author’s marketing team – eroding the joy of discovery and imagination with a trailer. I want to create the characters’ faces. I want to map out the town. I want to see the room in which the characters argue. All of this should occur in my imagination. The book trailer is a spoiler even if it doesn’t give away crucial plot points. When the writer types, The End, my reader mind believes the writer’s job is done.

As the writer, however, I’m intrigued with idea of giving readers a peek at my vision for setting and character. I’ve already taken some photos that translate my brain’s vision. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them, but I had a blast taking the pictures.

So, yes, I’m a flip-flopper. I confess.

More tomorrow.

The second born


Message to Novel II. But will she listen?

Message to Novel II. But will she listen?

Writing is easy:  All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. — Gene Fowler

For weeks, I’ve been busy with projects. After my book deal (The Graham Cracker Plot) was announced, I gave myself time off for marketing plans and tasks such as helping my mom clean her basement. A massive job–35 years worth of what I can only describe as “stuff.” I threatened to light a match, but we got through two rooms without arson.

Now it’s back to the laptop and my second middle-grade novel. Novel II is the second child. I know it’s wrong to compare child 2 to child 1, but that birth order thing isn’t quack psychology.

Novel I: Mature. Quick learner. Understood the world around her. A rule follower. She listened to me. She wanted to achieve. She wanted my approval.

Novel II: A rebel. She doesn’t listen to me. In some ways, she tries to challenge Novel I. She carves her own path. No matter how I guide her, Novel II wanders away. Occasionally, she takes me to an amazing place. Usually, it’s off the map. No, Novel II, you are not a thriller! You are a comedy with relationship growth! She slams her door and screams, I hate you! You’re the worst writer-mother ever!

Today, I’m planning special time with Novel II. We’ll have a healthy conversation. We’ll talk about her future. May she see the error of her ways.