Thursday, June 14, 2018

Plot Tips: Spectacular Sun Rises, Stunning Sun Sets, and the Dry, Hot Middle of the Day

I recently attended an informal writing retreat in the middle of the desert at an abbey with a few of my long-time writing friends. The abbey rents out its facilities for retreats and the accommodations were sparse, but it was also far enough out of town that the mountains didn't block the sunrises or sunsets. It is this very desolation of the dessert that allows for such a beautiful, unobstructed sky.

It got me thinking about stories and how it's fairly easy for me to create a spectacular beginning and/or a stunning ending. It is often my vision of an exciting scene at either the beginning or the ending of a story that inspires me to write the story in the first place. Then there is the despair that happens in the murky middle where I have to invent plot twists just to keep the story slogging along. It's not unlike the dry, hot middle of the day when nothing much seems to be happening and I can barely put one foot in front of the other just to make it to the shade.

The beginning of a story starts out in the main characters (MC) Ordinary World. Then some inciting event and a Call to Adventure turn the MC's world upside down. This is followed by a reaction, typically a Refusal to embark on the Hero's Journey because the danger is just too great. A Mentor shows up to provide advice along with cool Gifts like ruby red slippers or an invisibility cloak. Then the MC Crosses over to the New World where we enter the middle of the story.

The story is still exciting at this point because the MC faces all manner of dangerous and often hilarious attempts to fit in. Soon there is a Problem to be solved or a Prize to be sought and a Plan must be made to achieve it. There is a Midpoint Attempt to solve the problem and/or gain the prize, followed by Downtime Response as the MC reacts to either the success or failure of the attempt.

This structure works quite well for a short story, a picture book, a play, or even a screenplay with a fairly linear plot, but what if you want to write a 300, 400 or 800 page novel? You're going to need more action in the middle.

Going back to the mid section of the story outlined above, there is a Plan, Attempt, Response sequence that may be repeated an infinite number of times. This is why the structure of an epic poem, a narrative picture book, and War and Peace all have a fundamentally similar foundation. The MC makes a Plan and then Attempts to carry it out and Responds emotionally to the success or failure which leads to the creation of a new Plan. Other elements may also be repeated such as Crossing over into additional New Worlds. 

Karen S. Wiesner discusses a similar structure for the middle of a story in First Draft in 30 Days: A Novel Writer's System for Building a Complete and Cohesive Manuscript.

Christopher Vogler explains the Hero's Journey structure in his book, the Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. I discuss how I use a combination of strategies for both writing my novels and teaching writing to children in The Secret Language of Stories.

As for the ending of the story, the Downtime Response is followed by Chase and Escape as the action twists in an unexpected direction. A Death and Transformation occurs either before or during the Climax and the story ends with a Final Reward where the MC gets what he or she deserves which is not always what was desired at the beginning of the story.

To learn more about this structure, check out the books by Christopher Vogler's, Karen Wiesner, and my page on the Secret Language of Stories. Also watch my Teacher Resource section for Teachers Pay Teachers activities using the Hero's Journey coming soon!

Sunday, March 18, 2018


I began a new adventure in December of 2017 as a tele-therapist delivering speech-language services in the public schools. I knew this would be a very new experience for my young students, so for my first session I created a power point where I introduced myself and showed pictures of my home and my family. Then I gave students a virtual tour of my office, showed them my guitar and bookshelf and talked about my hobbies. Next I asked about their hobbies.  One little five year old told me he liked to watch TV TEACHER. It was his favorite show.

At first I didn’t understand. I thought maybe it was a new PBS special or a Netflix original series. Then I realized he was talking about me.

I had just become the TV TEACHER. I thought briefly about explaining the difference between a TV teacher and a speech-language pathologist/ tele-therapist, but I decided to ditch the vocabulary lesson and embrace my new found fame.

I have learned so many things in just the last few weeks, I can tell this will be an amazing journey. Many people have questions about teletherapy. How could it possibly be as good as therapy in person? A recent STUDY looks at student progress and examines the evidence to support tele-therapy in the schools.

I’m sure I will have many interesting stories to tell over the next few months, but here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

1. TRADE THE GLUE STICK FOR LIPSTICK - I never paid much attention to my make-up when I was an on site therapist, especially not my lip stick since I often ate breakfast in the car, but now that I see my face staring back at me on the screen every day, I’ve started keeping lipstick on my desk. Students only see me from the shoulders up, and they are often focused on my mouth, so lipstick comes in handy. Added bonus - I no longer need to stock up on boxes of glue stick.

It did come in handy for my daughter’s wedding last year though. She had created a photo booth for her reception, but the pictures were not sticking to the album. I saved the day because I happened to have glue stick in my pocket. Maybe I should keep one stick handy!

2. SAY YES TO THE DESK - When I created my home office, I treated myself to something I’d been wanting for years - a standing desk. It moves up and down at the touch of a button so I can stand or sit. Alternating my position throughout the day has almost entirely eliminated the aches and pains I suffered from sitting for hours at a time. I ordered my desk through Versa IKEA also has options both manual and electric.

3. STAY CONNECTED- Hardwiring your computer to the internet will provide the best connectivity, but I was not able to do this because my husband also offices at home. His office is at the opposite end of the house and extending the internet cable to my office through the attic would have been difficult and expensive. We tried two different sets of WiFi extenders with poor results. Then someone suggested a whole house mesh. We installed one and it’s been amazing. My husband is so excited he texts me from the garage with the connection speed of 180. On our old system my connectivity was 9 or 10 on a good day. The brand I purchased was Orbi by Netgear. It boasts a >150 Mbps internet speed over a 5,000 square foot range including the yard.

4. HAVE A BACK UP SYSTEM - While I was having issues with our internet, prior to the Orbi, I purchased a Jet Pack from Verizon. It is a device the size of a phone that creates a personal hot spot. It is also password protected, creating a portable firewall for security. It is great for travel but also good when the WiFi goes out.

That’s it for now! Watch for more tips coming soon. Go to my CONTACT page to sign up for my free monthly newsletter.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Hunger Games Holiday Spoof Song

by Carolee Dean

G             Em                      Bm7  
Rabbits roasting on an open fire.
G             Em                     C    D
Tributes shooting from the rear.
G          Bm7            Em               D                                           
Mockingjays singing songs like a choir.
Bm7               C          D
Kids dressed up in combat gear. 
                   G                  Em                      Bm7      
Everybody knows some arrows and a few berries,
       G               Em                     C     
are what you need to win this fight.
    G             Bm7                  Em         D
But Mutant mutts with their eyes all aglow,
C                       Bm7  G
make it hard to sleep tonight.

                            F                                      G
You hope that medicine and soup is on its way,
                F                                                    G
and that Haymitch didn't drink the sponsors pay.
                 Bm7              C                               G
Though probably he's passed out now and sleeping,
              A                                               D
This happens every time that there’s a reaping

        G         Em               Bm7      
And so I'm offering this simple tale,
                            Em                      C         
about a bunch of kids with bad behavior.
                           Bm7          Em               D
Though its been said many times many ways,
                  C                       D     G
“May the odds be ever in your favor.”

I was cleaning out some old files and found this spoof on the young adult novel, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins that I wrote, complete with guitar chords) for a SCBWI (Society of Chidren's Book Writers and Illustrators) holiday party a few years back. We held the  party at Alamosa Books in Albuquerque, NM. It's one of my all time favorite independent bookstores. It has closed since then but the song brings back fond memories of all of my dear SCBWI-New Mexico friends. Does anyone remember being there? Stay tuned next week for more holiday spoofs.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

HELP WITH HEARING FOR THE HOLIDAYS: 7 Tips for Being a Better Listener

In last week’s post, I talked about Tips for Communicating with your Hard of Hearing Relatives and Friendsbut what if YOU are the one who is hard of hearing (at least some of the time)?

If you are over 18 years of age, there is a 15% chance that you have some degree of difficulty with your hearing according to The National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDOCD). The risk of suffering “disabling hearing loss” increases as you age. The prevalence is 2% for ages 45-54, 8.5% for 55-64, 25% for 65-74 and 50% for 75 and older. However, in the age group of 20-69, only 16% of people who might benefit from hearing aids have ever used them at all. 

With those statistics in mind, my first suggestions for being a better listener is to get your hearing tested.

TIP #1 - Get Your Hearing Tested by an ASHA Certified Audiologist 

If you suspect that you might have a hearing loss, get your hearing tested as soon as possible. A study conducted by John Hopkins and the National Institute on Aging showed that the brain naturally tends to shrink with age, but those with hearing loss appear to suffer more brain shrinkage and also more dementia. The “impoverished” auditory center may be shrinking due to lack of stimulation. Because of this, Frank Lin, MD, Ph.D, advocates for getting your hearing tested early.  “You want to do it sooner rather than later. If hearing loss is potentially contributing to these differences we're seeing on MRI, you want to treat it before these brain structural changes take place."

An audiologist can do more than just test your hearing. Many offer Aural Rehabilitation Strategies. These will help you make the most of your hearing whether you use hearing aids or not. I have outlined a few of these strategies below but you may find more at the ASHA page for Adult Aural/Audiologic Rehabilitation.

Note - I'm a speech-language pathologist, not an audiologist. This post contains tips from ASHA but also my personal observations. If you have concerns about your hearing, contact ASHA to find a certified audiologist near you.

TIP #2 - Learn to Watch Faces for Visual Cues

Formal speechreading training teaches you how the lips form speech sounds but you can learn a lot by simply watching people’s lips and becoming more aware of the difference between words like cat/cab, pit/pig, ham/hand. Facial expression and gestures also help us know if someone is “mad” or “glad.”

TIP #3 - Tell People What You Need and Be Specific

Simply telling someone that you can’t hear them may not help them be a better communicator. They will probably just talk louder or even yell. Being specific gives them a productive strategy to focus on. My husband frequently reminds me, “If you can’t see me, I can’t hear you,” because I have a tendency to start conversations from another room or with my back turned. “Could you slow down? I don’t want to miss what you’re saying,” is something else you could say. You may want to talk with your friends and family members about a catch phrase that will help “gently” remind them of your hearing difficulties. 

TIP #4 - Ask the Speaker to REPHRASE vs. Repeat

If you have asked someone to repeat themselves and you still don’t understand them, ask instead, “Could you say that a different way,” or “Could you rephrase that?” There are many reasons why rephrasing may be better than repeating which I discussed at length in last week’s post.

In addition, it helps the speaker if you let them know specifically what you missed. Having spent many years in classrooms, I know how frustrating it is for a teacher to give ten minutes of directions and then have a student say, “What?” or “Huh?” The student may have actually heard most of the instructions and really only needs one small part repeated. “What page did you say the assignment was on?” or “What book did you say we are reading next week?” Likewise, in a conversation with family or friends, instead of asking them to repeat everything, try to get them to fill in the blanks. “Who did you say was in the hospital?” or “What was it you wanted me to bring for dinner?”

Be especially cautious about contractions, words like “can’t, don’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t.” Many people soften the final /t/ sound so much that it can’t be heard. Clarify with questions like, “Did you say you can watch my dog or you can NOT watch my dog?” or “Did you say I should try Aunt Rita’s cheese casserole or I should NOT?” These small distinctions may save you from getting food poisoning or missing Christmas dinner altogether because you did NOT get a dog sitter and DID miss your flight to Texas.

TIP #5 - Watch Where You Sit

In your own home you can rearrange the furniture and the lighting to better see the faces of those you are talking to, but if you are in someone else’s home, you may want to ask to sit at the end of the table so you don’t have conversation coming at you from every direction. When you are eating out,  you may want to ask for a quiet table in a corner or ask to sit with a wall behind you. Carpet also tends to absorb background noise, so if you have a choice of rooms or restaurants, consider that as well.

TIP #6 - Educate Your Friends and Family

Be open about your hearing difficulties. Share my post from last week with friends and family by emailing the link or posting on Facebook. This may help you open up an honest conversation about your frustration and theirs. Talk about strategies that will help you hear them better. Tell them that you will be giving them gentle reminders about what is helpful to you because your relationship is important and you value what they have to say. Some audiologist provide recordings that simulate hearing loss. Sharing these with family and friends can be an eye opener as well as a conversation starter.

TIP #7- Be Kind to One Another

Above all, remember that communication breakdowns are difficult on everyone involved, not just the speaker...not just the listener. We are all bound to make mistakes in this area, but love covers a multitude of these errors.

Your family members may seem insensitive to your challenges and perhaps even uncaring, but if you assume good will, your remarks will come off as gentle reminders instead of rebukes. You are helping to educate them about your difficulties, not shame them for being a poor speaker (even if they are). Phrases like, “Why does everyone your age have to mumble?” are probably not going to help them know how to speak to you more effectively, but gentle and specific suggestions made with a smile will go a long way.

As for one additional tip for the SPEAKER, someone with a hearing impairment made a suggestion on last week’s post that I think is worth sharing. 

“Please try to be patient, although I understand that it's annoying to deal with someone who isn't all together tuned in. And please don't ask with that edge in your voice, DO YOU HAVE YOUR HEARING AIDS IN??? This question sounds/feels more of an accusation than a genuine query.” 

Patience and kindness go a log way. Communication is about Connection!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

WHAT DID YOU SAY? - 5 Tips for Communicating with Your Hard of Hearing Relatives and Friends During the Holidays

You’ve just spent Thanksgiving with a house full of noisy relatives along with your eighty-year-old Aunt Olive who mostly sits alone in the corner. You assume this is because she’s feeble minded or anti-social, but then you get stuck in the old folks section for dinner and realize she’s actually quite quick-witted and entertaining when she can hear what people are saying and take part in the conversation. She is also full of fascinating stories. She’s about half way through a tale of hitchhiking across Europe in her thirties and spending time in a hippie commune when, oops! Her ride is leaving and she has to go.

You’ll have to hear the end of the story at Christmas.

This little vignette isn’t just about Aunt Olive though. Your relatives in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s May also be experiencing some degree of hearing loss. You might even find yourself having difficulty catching all of the conversation in these loud, crowded communication environments.

I recently had a lengthy conversation with my father about how difficult it is for people with hearing difficulties to take part in large family gatherings. Interestingly, while my daughter was visiting from college she asked ME if my hearing was getting worse. This has given me the opportunity to look at the issue from both sides (listener and speaker) and to explore what can be done about these communication mishaps. It's prime time to talk about hearing loss because this issue will continue to grow as baby boomers age. At times we've all experienced communication breakdowns, but it's not always clear to us what we can do to repair them.

There are several small practices each party in the verbal exchange can employ to make communication smoother. This week I will discuss tips for the speaker and next week I will talk about tips for the listener. Note - I'm not an audiologist. These are my personal observations. If you have concerns about your hearing, contact an AN ASHA CERTIFIED AUDIOLOGIST.







Let's explore each of these in more detail:


When speaking to anyone, first be sure to get their attention. "Hey, Bob!" When you have their attention, establish eye contact. Then say what is on your mind. This is valuable not only for people who are hard of hearing but also for children who  may have attention deficits or even for creative people who tend to daydream and may not realize you are even speaking to them until you are half way through your message.


When someone says they didn't hear you, it may be tempting to raise your voice which might not be that helpful, especially if you end up shouting at them. Instead, increase your volume a little and focus on clearly enunciating the ends of words. These sounds often get so minimized during connected speech that they may be dropped completely. It's easy to observe this if you listen to someone speaking a foreign language. The words seem to run together and it is difficult to determine where one word ends and another one begins. This makes it difficult to distinguish the word boundaries. This is also why children often misunderstand spoken phrases in humorous ways.  Here are a few Christmas classics which I found at ABC News and Most Misheard Holiday Music Lyrics:

"Deck the halls with bras of holly."
"With a corncob pipe and a butt and a nose."
"Bells on cocktail rings."
"Olive the other reindeer."

Just be careful not to OVER enunciate which may have the effect of making your hard of hearing relatives feel like you are talking down to them.


People who have hearing difficulties often consciously or unconsciously rely on visual information to help them interpret a message. Facial expression can help us understand the emotional content of a message and lip reading gives important information about sounds. Some sounds are more visual than others. Those made at the front of the mouth /m, p, b, v, f, w, th/ are easier to see than those made near the back /r, k, g/. This small amount of visual information can make the difference in understanding whether Uncle Joe had a "fifth" or had a "fit," and whether Grandma is planning to serve "ham," "spam," or "lamb." My husband has tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ears. An audiologist told him that hearing aids would not help at this point, but that he should advise me that, “If you can’t see me, I can’t hear you.” (UPDATE: THE AMERICAN TINNITUS ASSOCIATION REPORTS THAT HEARING AIDS DO HELP RELIEVE TINNITUS FOR SOME PEOPLE. SEE THEIR POST).With my husband's gentle reminders I have been surprised by how often I try to start conversations in another room, or how I start a conversation and then walk out of the room, or how I try to multi task by talking to my husband while my back is turned to him and the water is running because I'm washing dishes. I'm not saving time if I have to repeat myself.



If someone has asked you to repeat yourself once or twice and you have tried the above tactics and it hasn't helped. Try to rephrase your message. Instead of continuing to repeat, "How ya doin'?" twenty times, louder and louder, think about how to restate the same question. "I heard you had heart surgery. Are you feeling better?" By rephrasing the question you are using different words and therefore different sounds, some of which may be easier to understand than others. Some sounds are quieter because they are unvoiced while others are louder simply because they are voiced. Say the following sound pairs and listen to the difference (/s,z/ /f,v/). Sounds that continue also offer more auditory information than sounds that stop. Listen to the difference between sounds like /z/ that can be held out and sounds like /b/ that stop more abruptly. Also, sounds have different pitches. The /s/ sound has a higher pitch than the /g/ sound. If a person has a high frequency hearing loss, they may not hear sounds that naturally have a higher pitch. See the Speech Banana Chart to get a better idea of what this looks like. Also, rephrasing a comment might make it longer which may give additional clues about the context of the message.


If a joke is worth telling, it's worth telling well. Have you ever missed the end of a joke and turned to a friend who was laughing his head off to ask, "What's so funny?" only to have him say, "I have no idea." Just because a room full of people laugh at your funny stories doesn't mean they all got the punch line. Slow down for the punch line, make sure you have everyone's undivided attention, then nail the ending. There is nothing worse than being asked to repeat the end of your joke. The timing is all wrong at that point. On the other hand, it's also uncomfortable to feel that everyone got the joke but you. My father pointed out to me that people have a tendency to rush through the end of a joke and actually lower their voice so they can barely be heard, but a professional comedian would never do this. They know how to build anticipation in their audience, so be a pro, don't kill your own joke.

As a speech-language pathologist working in the public schools, I specialize in communication difficulties, but that doesn't mean I intuitively know how to consistently practice good communication at home. I took courses in audiology for my master’s degree, so as I was contemplating this article, I looked up resources on the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association (ASHA) website. ASHA offers a poster that provides tips for communicating with people who are hard-of-hearing. The poster makes four broad suggestions with more specific actions outlined in each category.

1) Get and keep the person's attention.
2) Help yourself be heard.
3) Say it another way.
4) Make sure you were understood.

See TIPS FROM ASHA for additional examples under each category.

Finally, let's look at some signs that your family members are not understanding you:

- They frequently ask you to repeat yourself or to "speak up."
- They may complain that you mumble, though your friends seem to hear you just fine, thank you very much.
- They complain about loud restaurants or opt to stay in while “you kids go out.”
- They nod and smile and laugh, but their eyes tell you they have no idea what planet you are on.

Okay, that is a lot of advice for the speaker, but what about the listener, the person who is hard of hearing? What can they do to educate their family members about their difficulties and ease the communication exchange for everyone? First off, share this post along with the suggestions at the ASHA website. It can be a great way to open up the conversation about your hearing difficulties.

I will talk about more specific tips for the hard-of-hearing in next week's post. In the meantime, practice the communication suggestions outlined above. They are good ways of communicating with anyone, not just the hearing challenged. Also, focus on going out of your way to spend a few quiet moments talking with people who have communication challenges. That way when you see Aunt Olive at Christmas, you'll be ready to hear the rest of her story.

Do you have other tips for better communication? If so, please leave your comments below.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Writing Video Game Stories

free images from

When I worked at a local high school, many of my students wanted to become video game designers. Video games often contain great story plots! I created the powerpoint below to give struggling writers a simple way of creating a story using the format of a video game. Ideally the powerpoint would be downloadable for each student and they would write directly on the slides. I'm still working on a way to make that more accessible, so sign up for my newsletter on the CONTACT page if you want updates. In the meantime, you may share the link below to the power point/YouTube video with your students. You will have to pause each image or it will automatically move forward since it is a video.

A few years ago, I conducted a writing workshop with a group of dyslexic students, grades 5-12, at the Annual Conference for the Southwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association using this same power point. I spent 90 minutes talking to students about story structure using my story plotting technique called The Secret Language of Stories. Megan Shanley, Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Specialist, downloaded my powerpoint below onto iPads for each student and showed them several strategies for recording their ideas, such as the voice-to-print feature of the device along with apps for word prediction. Her husband, Dan, a high school English teacher, then helped us go around the room and assist students with creating original stories for the last half of our session. The results were phenomenal. By the end of our workshop, several students stood up and shared their insightful and funny stories. It was exciting to see students who struggled with the written word be so successful and creative with stories.

So try it out and let me know how it goes. I love finding new ways to inspire struggling writers.

How to Create a Video Game Story

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Three Time Saving Tips for Green Chile Chicken Enchilada Casserole

One of my favorite dishes growing up in Southern California was Green Chile Chicken Enchilada Casserole. My mother used canned Ortega green Chiles and I had no idea there was anything better until I got married and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico. My husband and I grew quite addicted to Hatch green Chile. Hatch is a town in southern New Mexico known for it’s exceptionally hot chile. Green Chile chicken Enchiladas could be found all across the state and “Red or Green” was offered everywhere from McDonald’s to Village Inn for everything from scrambled eggs to hamburgers. 

When we moved to Colorado, everything changed. Chile was available, but not nearly as abundantly or as spicy, even at authentic Mexican food restaurants. We had to do a thorough search of the freezer section of several local grocery stores to find Bueno Autumn Roast and I dusted off my old casserole recipe, with a few modifications. 

Quick Green Chile Chicken Enchilada Casserole
(Makes 2 large 9x12 inch casseroles)


2 cups water or chicken broth
1 - 26 oz can of cream of chicken soup
1- 13 oz container chopped green chile
4 cups finely chopped chicken
1 - 16 oz container of sour cream
1 - 22 count package of tostadas
6 cups of Mexican Cheese (or a cheddar and Jack cheese combination)

1. Preheat Oven to 350
2. Spray 2- 9x12 inch pans with cooking spray
3. Combine first five ingredients in a large pan and heat until bubbly
4. Spread a thin layer of this filling on the bottom of each pan.
5. Cover with tostadas. About 4-5 broken into pieces to fit. 16-20 total.
6. Spread another layer of sauce and 1 1/2 cups of the cheese.
7. Repeat steps 5-6. Top the final layer with cheese.
8. Bake one casserole for 30 minutes. 
9. Freeze the other casserole and save for another day.

Three Time Saving Tips:

1. Extra Crispy - Instead of cooking each tortilla, buy a bag of crispy, pre-made tostada shells. They will soften during cooking but won’t get soggy like fried or dipped tortillas often do.

2. Eat More Chicken - Instead of cooking or boiling a chicken yourself, buy a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken. With the leftover chicken, make another meal like this hearty chicken, vegetable, pasta soup. 

An alternative is to use canned chicken. To save money use more soup and less chicken.

3. Two for One - As long as you are going to all of that trouble to dirty all those pans, get in the habit of doubling the recipe and making another casserole to freeze. This recipe already provides enough ingredients for two large (or 4 small) casseroles. It doesn’t take that much longer and you will have an extra meal prepared for an especially busy work day.