Pantser vs. Plotter: The Vacation Edition

You’ve probably heard writers drone on and on about whether they were plotters (people who outline and plot their book before they draft it) or pantsers (people who figure things out as they go along AKA “writing by the seat of their pants”) and all the pros and cons that come with their method.

While I find both methods fascinating (Pantsers—what do you mean you pantsed your way through a multi-POV and multi-timeline story? How could possibly keep everything straight? Plotters—a 30-page outline? Before you even started drafting the story? What the what?), I always considered myself a hybrid or “plantser”: I know the general story beats before I start writing and have even started writing a short synopsis before I draft. However, my “outline” is basically like, ten scenes I know I want in the story and then after that it’s me figuring out how the heck to get to them.

What really intrigues me though is what being a plotter, pantser, or plantser says about your personality in general. I can’t help it, I was a sucker for all those personality quizzes in Teen Beat and Cosmopolitan (and now occasionally on Buzzfeed). While I don’t sort all my characters into Hogwarts houses, I know that I’m a Ravenclaw, the MC of my ComiKon story is a Gryffindor (weird), and my cozy MC is a Slytherin who thinks she’s a Hufflepuff. What does that even mean? Well, it makes sense to me.

That being said, I’ve learned there is no situation more telling of one’s personality than…traveling. Are you the kind of person who checks and double checks your itinerary (and important documents, like passports) a million times? Has a checklist of the items you’ve packed? Has already researched and made a schedule of places to go and things to eat? Or do you prefer to go with the flow? Explore the location and go wherever your whimsy leads?

Surprise surprise, I’m a bit of both. I believe in being prepared, having a general list of places to eat (especially if it’s a different country and you know they have several must-try dishes; food is the most important part of any journey) and visit, and then working in free time around those places I know I want to check out.

I’ve been on vacation with people who want everything planned to the last detail (suffocating) and people for whom plans and punctuality mean little to nothing (frustrating). You want a real test of your relationship (romantic or otherwise)? Go on vacation together for more than three days, preferably abroad. People will show you who they are.

Las vegas sign and strip street background taken on public street

That being said, I’m currently plantsing my trip to Las Vegas next month. It’s a delayed anniversary trip for me and my husband (such a pantser) and my first time visiting Vegas as an adult. Would love to hear your recommendations, Dear Readers, and make sure to let me know in the comments: When it comes to vacation, are you a plotter, pantser, or both?


Honoring My Father with a Simple Recipe

My dad passed away exactly one week ago. He was only 60 years old.

I don’t think I have it in me just yet to write about what he meant to me, how his death has affected me, all the sadness and regret I feel about someone so important to me being taken so soon.

So I’m going to talk about food.

My dad was a quiet, stoic man, and not very demonstrative when it came to showing affection. But in typical Asian fashion, his love for his family was abundantly clear in his food. When I was growing up, he worked long, hard hours all week at a printing factory to help provide for the nine-person household. And every weekend, he would set out early with my maternal grandmother to hit up various markets to find the best, freshest, and cheapest ingredients for the weekend feasts he would prepare for us.

One regret I’m willing to admit is never getting his Filipino recipes. My dad was one of the best cooks I knew. He cooked in that old-school way, without any real recipes. He just sensed, felt, and tasted his way through and, more often than not, his meals were absolutely delicious.

He was in the hospital twice before he passed: the week before Thanksgiving and then the week after. The first time he was hospitalized, I tried to get his recipe for lumpiang shanghai (Filipino pork egg rolls) and his verbal recitation of ingredients and steps involved no measurements, temperatures, or times. I was just expected to feel my way through.

Sometimes I wonder if my tendency to mess with baking recipes and pants my way through my stories comes from my father’s approach to cooking.

I thought about sharing that recipe with you, but decided on something else: his last request to me. That same hospital visit, we were talking about the dishes I had planned for Thanksgiving since I host every year. Near the end of his life, food was one of his few pleasures, though we did try to temper it due to his dietary restrictions.

So when I asked him what dessert he wanted, he requested something sweet and simple and very Filipino: Pinoy Fruit Salad.

Cast of characters: Table cream, condensed milk, fruit cocktail, macapuno, and nata de coco

Just about every ingredient is from a can or jar, and I’m pretty sure it came into popularity during the American colonial period when the U.S. military presence brought an influx of canned goods to the Philippines. Some of the ingredients may be unfamiliar or seem rather strange (cheddar cheese?!), but trust me, it’s all delicious.

He didn’t come to Thanksgiving at my house since he was still weak from his hospital visit, so I didn’t make the fruit salad then. I thought I would make it for him for Christmas, but I guess I won’t get that chance. Instead, I made it last weekend for his memorial.

In honor of my father, I’m going to give you the recipe that he dictated to me. It’s not word for word since I didn’t think to write it down, but definitely in his spirit.

Miss you, daddy.

Pinoy (Filipino-style) Fruit Salad

  • 1 or 2 cans of fruit cocktail
  • Macapuno OR buko
  • Nata de coco
  • Can or two of Nestle table cream (my dad said it HAS to be Nestle)
  • Condensed milk
  • Shredded cheddar cheese (optional)

Drain the first three ingredients very well. Put them in a big bowl and add the table cream, condensed milk, and cheese (if you’re using it). Mix well and refrigerate overnight. Enjoy!

Celebrating the Small Victories

This post is inspired by Bess Carnan, a fellow Guppy and writer of unconventional cozy mysteries. We’re both young(er) writers that are agented, but still unpublished. We’ve both experienced the extreme highs and lows that come with writing and the business side of publishing. And we both know what it’s like to fight through these doubts and keep on writing.

Image from Another Level Fitness

Over on the SinC Guppy listserv, in the cozy subgroup, Bess started a weekly thread titled “Non-Publishing Victories.” In her first post, she explained the concept, saying:

A running group I’m part of does weekly “NSVs,” or Non-Scale Victories. It can be anything, from losing an inch around your waist to hitting a personal record in a race to walking 100 feet for the first time in a year.

We could probably use something similar in our line of work, where it’s super easy to focus on big milestones, like getting that publishing contract, immediately followed by Hollywood calling. So what are everyone’s most recent Non-Publishing Victories (NPVs)? What have you achieved in writing, editing, promotion, etc.?

I love this idea, don’t you? Especially since November is winding down and SPOILER ALERT: I am NOT going to win at NaNoWriMo (which has been referenced by me and other Mysteristas here, here, and here).

And that’s OK. I have to remind myself that, although I’m not going to hit my goal, I’m still so much further than when I started and that is still a win.

So I figured, instead of writing about all the things I’m thankful for (though I did write a short piece on Thanksgiving over on my personal blog, along with a recipe), I thought we could share our November Non-Publishing Victories, both big and small.

sincc panel 11.17.18
Sisters in Crime Chicagoland Panel on First Book Experiences 11.17.18; photo by Cam Robbins

In no particular order:

  1. Reached 22,379 words for this month, bringing me up to a total of 42,601 for my WIP
  2. Spoke on a Sisters in Crime Chicagoland panel about First Book Experiences with Tracy Clark and Layne Fargo, with Lori Rader-Day moderating
  3. Wrote an article for the Mystery Writers of America Midwest newsletter
  4. Wrote a blog post for Mysteristas
  5. Got my driver’s license

I consider that last one writing-related since the only reason I decided to finally get my license is because I’ll need to get around to my various  book events, and the CTA can only take me so far. Is this me being presumptuous since I’m already planning ahead for these hypothetical events?

Nope. The way I see it, if you want to make it in this business, you have to keep telling yourself that it’s not “if” but “when.”

So how about all of you, Dear Readers? What are your Non-Publishing Victories (or Non-Scale Victories if you’re not a writer)? Let me know in the comments!

Can You Write a Novel in a Month? The NaNoWriMo Challenge

Did you know that November was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)?


NaNoWriMo is an annual event that’s held every November (with smaller Camp NaNoWrimos held in April and July). Essentially, you create a free profile and sign up to write a rough first draft of a novel in 30 days. If you write 50,000 words between November 1st and the 30th, you’re a winner!


It sounds crazy, but if you do the math, it averages out to about 1,667 words or roughly 6 pages a day. Totally doable, right? Well…

It me

I have yet to “win” at NaNoWriMo. The first year I tried was 2016, and for the first few days I was meeting my word count with relative ease. But then the elections happened, and I abandoned all creative pursuits, instead spending the next few months watching The Great British Baking Show on constant repeat as I battled depression.

I miss these two (and Mary Berry) so much

I didn’t participate in 2017, but for a much happier reason. I was a Pitch Wars mentee, and November was the Agent Round. I spent that time querying rather than writing anything new, and at least this story has a happy ending since I came out of the experience with an amazing agent.

However, I plan on scaling the NaNoWriMo mountain this year. I’m taking the challenge for several reasons:

1) I need to get in the habit of writing quickly.

So far, I’ve only ever finished one novel and it took me over 2 ½ years to complete it. Yes, it was a learning experience, but if I ever hope to be traditionally published, I need to get used to writing to a deadline.

2) It forces me to make time for writing.

I’m the kind of person who needs external motivation, so this provides the push I need as well as public accountability.

3) To prove to myself that I can

I’m a fairly competitive person, and the fact that I’ve never been able to complete it is rather galling.

Plus, I’m going to a writing retreat this weekend and hope to end October with 20k down for my cozy WIP. If I finally beat Nano, that puts me at 70k, which is the perfect amount for a rough first draft (I write pretty lean and insert later).

I’m a slooow writer and need lots of outside motivation to push on with my writing, so if you’re also doing Nano, add me to your buddy list!

What about you, Dear Readers? Have any of you done NaNoWriMo before? Also, is there something that you’ve insisted on sticking with despite not being successful at it? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Some best-selling novels first started life as Nano books. One can dream, right?


Everyone Loves Fall (except me)

Unpopular opinion time: I don’t care about Fall or Halloween. AT ALL. They do nothing for me.

boo-humbugI always feel like such a humbug about this since my friends get so hype about being able to wear sweaters (I hate pants and long sleeves), no longer sweating (I love summer), and planning their costumes for Halloween (admittedly fun, but I’m cheap, lazy, and not crafty).

wonder woman halloween 1
Luckily, my husband’s crafty, so I can wear things like this

However, I’m not the kind of person to crap on someone else’s excitement just because it’s not for me. So it’s just a lot of smiling and nodding (and coughing and sneezing since this is allergy season for me) as I scroll past pictures of decorative gourds, plans for spooky movie marathons (I’m also a coward and avoid horror), and skeleton-themed everything.

Hocus Pocus is the exception. There is ALWAYS time for Hocus Pocus ❤

Things I do enjoy about this time of year:

fall fashion
Click picture to go to the Youtube video this image is from

The fashion. I know, I know, didn’t I just say I hate being all covered up? Aesthetically, I think Fall is the cutest and has the most versatility. I love scarves and boots, I like the way tights look even if I don’t like the way they feel, and as a teacher, you better believe I have one heck of a cardigan collection. Layering is cute and fun and creative and I really appreciate the way it looks, even if lazy Mia prefers just slipping on a summer dress and calling it quits.

apples and cider
Apple everything! (click on image for source)

The food. Good food is always a plus in my book, and I think Fall is the perfect transition between light summer meals bursting with fresh produce from the farmers market and heavy winter food with nary a non-potato veggie in sight.

In Chicago, the farmers markets stay open until the end of October and are bursting with some of my favorite produce, such as sweet potatoes, apples, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and even grapes.

Last month, I talked about how I hate cooking but love baking. Yet who wants to turn on the oven when it’s 80+ degrees outside (and inside, since we rarely turn on the AC in my house)? Fall is all about filling your home with the smell of warming spices, comforting baked goods, and roasting vegetables to bring out their inherent sweetness. Turning on the oven brings me such joy.

And while I don’t care gourds as decorations, they sure bake up into tasty treats. My current favorite recipe is pumpkin bread from Smitten Kitchen.

Along with baked goods, this is the perfect season for tea! Last night was the October meeting for Graham Cracker Comics Ladies’ Night. This group meets monthly and is meant to be a safe space for geeky women, genderqueer, and non-binary folk to get together and chat about comics and all the nerdy things we love.

For our October Ladies’ Night meeting, we partnered with David’s Tea for a Gothic Tea Party! Attendees were requested to:

– Bring a spooky snack

– Wear a goth outfit

– Enjoy seasonal tea samples courtesy of David’s Tea

Again, I am not a spooky or goth-type person. BUT I LOVE ME SOME TEA. And themed tea parties are absolutely my jam (debating having a Clue-themed tea party for my birthday).

So while Summer > Fall, IMO, at least I have a few things to look forward to as I grumble my way through the season.

How about you, Dear Readers? Are you happy that the temperature has started to dip or are you a Fall Humbug like me? Also, please share your favorite teas and Fall-themed recipes!

Developing Recipes (plus Ube Rice Krispy Treats!)

Full disclosure: I am an immensely lazy cook. As much as I love food, when it comes to preparing my own meals, I am perfectly happy cooking up a giant pot of something and eating it for a week. My desert island food is sandwiches (or noodles) since they are so easy to prepare, fast, and have endless possibilities.

I eat a lot of hastily-thrown together sandwiches at work. One day, I stepped away for a moment to go do something and came back to this commentary on my lunch.

What I do love is baking. Mostly simple stuff, and never anything pretty or that requires finesse. I love reading food blogs and culinary cozies. I’m so blown away by the idea of someone creating their own recipes, particularly when it comes to baking. My cooking involves me just tossing a bunch of stuff together and then figuring out what else it needs after I taste it. With baking, once it’s in the oven, that’s it. So you kind of have to know what you’re doing ahead of time.

Right now, I’m working on a Filipino-themed culinary cozy and I’m having SO MUCH FUN reimagining classic baked goods with a Filipino twist. Pamela A. Oberg recently wrote about “Seasonal Magic,” which made me realize just how close we are to the end of summer. That means saying goodbye to cheap, delicious summer produce.

And what veggie tends to dominate the summer, filling your fridge and CSA boxes and garden with so much produce you have no idea how you’ll get through them all?


Suddenly I remembered a tweet from Michi Trota, a Chicago-based Filipino-American writer in the SFF field, who posted about a batch of pandan-zucchini bread she’d just made. I was OBSESSED.

Pandan (or the screwpine plant) is used in Southeast Asian cooking much the way vanilla is in other parts of the world. It’s wonderfully aromatic and has a lightly sweet and floral flavor. I knew this was a dessert/snack that I wanted to incorporate into my WIP.

Only problem? As much as I love zucchini bread, I have yet to find the recipe that is THE ONE for me. They’re either too sweet or bland or heavily spiced. I need something that’s slightly sweet and with only a modicum of spicing since I don’t want them to compete with the subtle flavor of the pandan.

Dear Readers, can any of you help me out? Point me in the direction of your favorite zucchini bread recipe or share tips on how I can start creating my own recipes? I’m a little scared of all the trial and error (and money and dirty dishes) that just futzing around will bring.

In return, I’m sharing a very pretty and VERY easy Filipinized-version of Rice Krispy Treats that I tested out on my students.

Ube Rice Krispy Treats

ube rice krispies treats
Not a great pic since I was doing it one-handed, but check out the gorgeous color! So yummy and sweet ^^


NOTE: Ube is a purple yam that is ubiquitous in the Philippines. It is pretty and delicious and few things make me happier than the deep purple of a tasty ube dessert.

NOTE 2: Ube extract is available at most Filipino/SE Asian supermarkets, such as Uni-Mart and Seafood City. If there are none in your area, you can buy it online, but it’s considerably more expensive. This is the brand I’ve always used.


1 stick of salted butter (4 ounces; if using unsalted, might want to add a pinch more at the end)

1 10-oz bag of marshmallows (preferably mini since they melt faster)

6 cups of puffed rice cereal (Rice Krispies or the equivalent in your area)

¼ tsp sea salt (or to taste; Optional)

1-2 tsp of ube extract

  1. Melt the butter on medium-high heat, either on the stovetop or in the microwave, and let it cook until it’s a deep brown and smells deliciously toasty and nutty.
  2. Lower the heat to the lowest setting and mix in the marshmallows and salt until they’re completely melted and well-incorporated with the brown butter.
  3. Turn off the heat and mix in the ube extract until the mixture is a deep, uniform shade of purple.
  4. Add the cereal and mix thoroughly, then pour into a greased 8×8 inch (you can use a 9×13 inch pan if you like them thin)
  5. Spread the cereal mixture out quickly, and let cool before cutting them into squares. Enjoy!

Podcasts: Love ’em or Leave ’em?

This topic is partly inspired by past posts from Mysterista 3 no 7. She wrote about true crime and audiobooks, which brought to mind a form of media that I’m starting to warm up to: Podcasts.

My boss and many of my co-workers are absolutely obsessed with true crime and follow several true crime podcasts that they’re always trying to get me to listen to. The fact that I read and write crime fiction means they’re usually talking to me about this or that crazy true story, but I have to be honest with them: I’m not a huge fan of true crime. No judgment on any who are, but it’s just not for me.

However, I do enjoy comedy podcasts that rip apart bad movies in a fun way. They brighten up my day during my commute, and I get to walk into work with a smile on my face. The only negative side effect is that I’ll randomly burst into laughter on a crowded train and get the weirdest looks.

Me and my husband with one of the hosts of We Hate Movies

Writing-related podcasts are something that I’m slowly getting into. I’m not great at auditory-learning—my brain just can’t focus on the words for too long. That’s the reason I prefer my comedy ones. If I space out and miss a joke, no big deal. But during a podcast that’s supposed to impart wisdom or a good interview/story, if I miss one part, I have to go back for the rest of it to make sense.

Dear Readers, do any of you have this problem with audiobooks and podcasts? Which ones do you listen to? Leave your recommendations in the comments below!

Writing-related Podcasts (that I follow)

  • Social Media Deconstructed A (very new) podcast dedicated to teaching writers how to best utilize social media
  • the bastard title Angel Luis Colon, a NY-based crime fiction writer, interviews fiction writers from all different stages in their writing journey. I was recently a guest on his show. Check it out and let me know what you think!
  • 88 Cups of Tea A podcast for writers, readers, and storytellers of all kind. Yin Chang interviews not only authors, but agents, editors, and other industry professionals
  • Write or Die Claribel Ortega shares the REAL stories of what it takes to be an author; stories of people who didn’t give up and are now living their dream.

Writing-related Podcasts (that were recommended to me and still need to check out)

  • Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire Mindy McGinnis asks published/agented authors and industry professionals all the questions she had when she was still “aspiring”

Non-Writing-Related Podcast

  • We Hate Movies WARNING: Comedy podcast, so the jokes and language are NOT for everyone

True Crime Podcasts (recommended by my boss and co-workers)

  • My Favorite Murder My boss and co-workers’ favorite true crime podcast. It’s also humorous, so WARNING: raunchy jokes and language
  • Criminal From NPR, it’s described as stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle
  • Dirty John An investigative journalism podcast
  • Sword and Scale Covers the the despicable acts of the criminal underworld. WARNING: Graphic content and topics