Dec 1 2010

Versatile Nopales

Melissa Crytzer Fry

What do you see in the photo below? A series of interconnected pathways? An artery-like roadmap? A peeling away of layers? Artistic interpretation? Boring brittle plant remains?

This is actually a fun glimpse at the insides of prickly pear cactus pads – known as nopalitos, or nopales.

When alive and healthy, nopalitos are a succulent food source for animals – javelina, cattle, deer, rabbits – as well as humans. The best time for humans to harvest is springtime, when the pads have just formed & have not yet produced needles & glochids (the tiny, harry stickers). To me, they have a zucchini-like taste and can be roasted, cooked in a frying pan or grilled. Quite tasty! Click to enlarge.

When I came across this withered desert plant during a hike this summer, I knew it was going to become a future blog post. After all, seeing things in different ways has become a bit of a mantra for me over this past year.

I confess, though … I had no idea that an x-ray view of a prickly pear cactus might reveal this artistic, skeletal pattern beneath. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? Just like human skin, the cactus skin protects an intricate series of veins and arteries – the lifeblood of the plant. When torn away, the pad that was once 90 percent water shrivels, and the innards die, exposing elaborate pathways and connections.

For Writers: This photo immediately brought to mind the complicated “innards” of a novel. When you think about all the elements that must come together to form a cohesive, spellbinding novel, it can become a bit intimidating.

You have to remember not only what color Aunt Edna’s hair is in chapter one, but also her back-story, previous comments, and future hopes/dreams. You also must keep track of the physical seasons of a novel, internal character complications, external plot lines, timelines, acts I, II & III, subplots … If you’re not careful, the “connections” that are so natural in the prickly pear pad can quickly become disconnected in your novel.

How do you connect the dots so that your plot flows, your characters grow, and your seasons show? What devices do you use to keep track of story elements and to keep all of the details organized in your mind?

The most helpful tools I use:

  • Giant white-board: I am a visual person, so a big white board is essential. On it, I borrow from the Hero’s Journey to loosely map out my plot points, acts, and story arc (on a giant circle divided in fourths). I even have a smaller white board on which I transfer actual chapter descriptions after I’ve written them so that I can visually see what happens from chapter to chapter and how well they fit within the story arc.
  • Character profiles: I know I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This is where I have every detail about my character: her motivation, her hopes, dreams, physical descriptions, dialogue tags, plot ideas for future scenes. It is an indispensable reference and a great way to keep track of essential details (each character profile is in a binder for easy reference).
  • Chapter lists: As I’m writing, I keep a chapter-by-chapter description of the action in each scene. This proved quite helpful during the editing stages of my first novel, as I could quickly see which scenes I could cut and/or edit. Besides, it’s also truly motivational to see this document grow. It’s also helpful for synopsis writing.

What organizational tools do you use? Do you find the magnitude of writing a 200-plus-page novel daunting? I have often said that writing a novel has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done professionally. And, like the prickly pads of napalitos, I’m “sticking” to my story. It is still the most difficult – but rewarding – thing I’ve ever done.


10 Responses to “Versatile Nopales”

  • avatar M. McGriff Says:

    Really cool picture! My first thought was a decayed muscle of some sort (I’m weird like that I guess!)

    I keep a series a notebooks which I will eventually change over to an excel spreadsheet. In writing my fantasy novel, I keep one notebook for random thoughts, another for backstory, one for plot, etc. When I physically write things down it sticks in my memory much better than typing it!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I think it’s great that you saw decayed muscle (how eerie would that be … if I had a photo of THAT?) I, too, find the human body fascinating, so I can see where you’re coming from. Love the multi-notebook-to-Excel organizational method!

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  • avatar Rachna Chhabria Says:

    Lovely Picture, Melissa. I use the Chapter Profiles Method and the Character List. I like the idea of a Giant White Board.

    I also write detailed notes in a book, of what my characters are undergoing emotionally in each chapter, of what they hope to accomplish in each chapter, of their internal and external journey and goals and motives. In this notebook plenty of random and stray thoughts that actually do not have any connection with the story at that point are also jotted down. In one case these stray sentences turned into two chapters that have added surprise twists to my story.

    Thanks for this wonderful post.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    You touch upon such an important subject, Rachna: character motivation. I think it is critical to the telling of a good story. In fact, I think that ‘knowing’ your characters is more important than plot and regimented ‘structure.’ As Marion Dane Bauer says, “Good stories stand or fall on good characters.” So your character notebooks with goals, motivation, internal and external journeys are priceless!

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  • avatar Sharon Bially Says:

    I really love the way you’ve drawn lessons from visuals of nature. Great concept. As for your question, wow. I don’t know! I tend to store a lot in my head then just throw it down on paper and correct it as I go. Maybe that’s why I’m such a slow writer! (Twitter’s been slowing me down, too!)

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Aren’t we all slow writers, really, when it comes down to it? My husband chuckled at my recent writing revelation. I said, “Honey, I’ve decided I’m definitely NOT a pantser.” After I explained the notion of “fly by the seat of your pants – i.e. pantser,” he laughed. “You don’t know how to NOT plan anything! What a surprise.” I guess it’s all about our individual comfort levels. I admire your ability to store the info. the way you do! My brain doesn’t quite work that way any longer!

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  • avatar Hallie Says:

    I’m still working on this thing you call…organization, was it? I am afraid it is still a foreign concept. Going back through my first draft is going to be painful but also a great time to get my act together. Great analogy!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Trust me … it’s something I really, really have to work at. It’s easy to throw organization to the wind and ‘just write,’ but I always regret it!

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  • avatar Nopalea Reviews Says:

    Nopalea (made from the prickly pear cactus) is renowned for its anti-inflammatory properties. It is said that inflammation is the root cause of many diseases and chronic discomforts. It is also believed that Nopalea juice is chock full of antioxidants and a property called betalains which contains many of the B vitamins and minerals.

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  • avatar Nopalea Reviews Says:

    Nopalea is nice drink, I am using since 2 months.

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