31 July 2009

Backstory / Flashbacks

Watch your delivery of backstory ~ the story of what (in the past) made the characters who they are today (in story time). 

Writers want to cram everything right up front. 

"I know all their history, why would I want to withhold it from the reader?" 
"I wrote it that way." 
"It's the good part." 

Writers spend lots of time imagining and writing every little detail about a character's past, be it for a child or an adult. So, of course, writers would want to tell everything right away. Perhaps, in the process, even show off a bit how clever they are. Until, one understands how curiosity works. 

Not telling everything makes the reader curious. Curiosity draws the reader deeper into the story world. The reader wants to fill in the "who," "what," "how" (the "where" and "when" have already been clearly established right up front to ground the reader). They keep reading. This is good.

Tell the reader only what they need to know to inform that particular scene. This is especially true in the Beginning (1/4 mark). During the first quarter of the project, the character can have a memory. But, for a full-blown flashback, where you take the reader back in time in scene, wait until the Middle. 

(PLOT TIP: If you're absolutely sure you absolutely have to include the flashback, try using one when you're bogged down in the middle of the middle.)

26 July 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Used Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak with a group of 15 8 - 10 year old kids. 7 kids opted for private secretaries made up of teen volunteers and other Friends of the Library board members. One of the seven needed brainstorming support only. The other six benefitted from someone else performing the fine motor skills necessary to actually write the story down on paper. Whether they wrote the story themselves or used the help of another, all the kids finished stories in 2 1/2 hours which will now be made into a book by a local publisher for the kids and local library.

Where the Wild Things Are is a classic example of the Universal Story (the paradox of life = that which is simple/small is actually huge. That which is big is actually not much at all.)

The Beginning (1/4) introduces Max, establishes his goal = to be a wild thing, shows his flaw = stubborn and belligerent, and strength = enormous imagination.

The End of the Beginning (page twelve of 37 pages) occurs when his bedroom is no longer a bedroom but a forest. 

The Middle (1/2) begins at the precise moment Max undertakes his journey. In the Middle, Max encounters antagonists = dragon of the sea, rough water, Wild Things. The entire middle (6 pages), has no text and shows the unusual, exotic world in which Max now resides = Wild Things making wild rumpus.

Crisis ensues ((3/4 mark = page 29) when Max turns lonely and longs to be where someone loves him best of all.

The End (1/4) begins when he smells good things to eat from far across the world. Though his new friends beg him not to leave, off Max sails.

The Climax comes one page before the end of the book when he is able to shed his wolf suit (metaphor for his wildness) and settle down enough to eat his dinner (something he was completely unable to do at the beginning of the story. He needed to go through everything he does in order to gain the skills necessary to appreciate his ordinary world.)

Simple? Yes. Timeless? The book has lasted for 46 years and the movie is soon to be released.

Sometimes we as writers make things too hard. This simple story is about character transformation which is the basis for every great story. Analyze the plot and structure of your story with this in mind. Hope it helps simplify the underpinnings so you can work your magic in the details.

22 July 2009

Universal Story Form and Plot

About a half an hour into her first plot consultation, the writer at the other end of the telephone settles into the process. I know something of her initial nervousness ~ the fear of not being good enough, not having done enough prep work, not being smart enough to grasp what is required. 

In anticipation of this, I jump right in, pulling the writer along with me. 

My immediate impression? She is drowning in ideas and plot lines. Her story incorporates suspense and romance, some mystery and lots of thematic issues. Before she goes all the way under, I catch her hand. 

Once I determine that the main plot thread for her project is mystery, I ask her to briefly recount all the scenes that advance that plot line. While she does that, I plot her scenes out on a Plot Planner for her individual project (which I mail the next day). Scene by scene, the weight of all those loose ends, straining to strangle her, lift.

As soon as we have the mystery plot line in place, it is easy to see the underlying structure of her story. And, lo and behold, the three most important scenes ~ the end of the beginning scene, the crisis, and the climax ~ were there and right where they ought to be. Ah, the magic of writing. This mystery writer's sense of relief is palpatable over the telephone. 

Of course, she still has lots of work to do, but this reveal reinforces my conviction that the answers are always right there in our stories. Finding them is the job of the writer (and sometimes along with the help of the plot whisperer).

When you're drowning in plotlines, blind from too many words, lost in your story and pulling your hair out, stop and take a breath. Then get out an oversized piece of paper and create a Plot Planner for yourself. Start with one plot thread. Hang it on the wall. Stand back and look. See if you don't feel a sense of relief wash over you, too.

19 July 2009

Plot Your Writing Career: Traditional versus Self-Publishing

A writer who is "sick of agents" and wants to take back control over her own life considers going the self-publishing route. Following is my "take" on the subject.

Writing a book is vastly different than publishing a book. Of the strengths and skills that make for a terrific writer zero prove much help when it comes to self-publishing. Yes, both writing and self-publishing involve hard work. But, writing is creative, artistic, and demands solitude. Publishing is numbers, business, and demands interaction.
Score 1 for Traditional Publishing

To make the leap from writer to self-publisher, what once is your "baby", the project you spend more time with than your own family, what you dream about day and night becomes a "product" for the marketplace. 

Want to learn the publishing business from the ground up? Then, yes, give self-publishing a whirl. But, get ready to learn everything you can about publicity, distribution, marketing, promoting, oh, yes, and since you are only as good as your last book, make sure you schedule time to write your next book, too.
Score 1 for Self-Publishing

Just because you write a memoir, novel, screenplay, short story, non-fiction book does not mean that anyone will FIND your work. 

Nielsen Books reports that sales in the UK were up 4.4% with 120,000 books published in 2008 over 2007. Bowker reports that book sales in US were down 3.2% with 275,000 books released in 2008 over 2007, but that print on demand and short-run books were up 132% of 123,000 titles produced. 

My point? How is your book going to stand out from all those 500,000 books, more or less, that will come out the same year yours does?

Whether you self-publish or are published by a big New York house, you have to help the book grow "legs", find a readership. Yes, some authors are so big that they do not have to worry about such matters, but they are the exception. Yes, you, too, may be the exception, but self-publishing teaches you about sales. After all, whether self-published or traditional, you only get paid on the # of books sold.

On a personal note:
Five years ago, too impatient to go the traditional route of New York, I formed Illusion Press, and published Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple. Illusion Press seemed an appropriate name for the unreal quality of the entire process from inspiration to publication. Five months and the book was in my hands.

What started as a short print-run for my students morphed into BBP. Today, I continue to invite writers to experience the freedom of structure. For most writers, the most difficult part of the writing process is the inability to see the forest for the trees. Blockbuster Plots for Writers dedicates itself to the structure of plot and has helped thousands of novelists, memoirists, and creative non-fiction writers master this elusive craft.

Miracles happen.
Score 1 for Self-Publishing

The real difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing?
Traditional publishers pays you $$ up front. 
Self-publishing, you put the $$ up yourself.

18 July 2009

Plot for a Non-fiction, How-to Book

Plot as a noun is what happens in a story. More specifically, the plot of a story is the dramatic action that transforms the main character and provides meaning. 

Plot as a verb is both to represent the plot of a story on a graph and connect the scenes (Plot Planner) and / or to formulate a plan with purpose.

For fiction writers and memoirists, I work with plot as both a noun and often as a verb, too. The writer tells me the scenes and/or ideas they have for their story. I assess their piece on both the plot and structural level either by plotting out the scenes on a Plot Planner or in the form of notes. I also offer guidance toward coherence and the continuity of their piece.

When I work with writers on a non-fiction project, I work only with plot as a verb = I help the writer formulate a plan with purpose.

"How-to" books are the biggest selling non-fiction books on the market today. More and more people, be they writers or not, are finding that their expertise can be turned into a book and sold either in the traditional form = a New York publishing house or in the more current form = as an eBook on the Internet.

The latest project involves a writer who knows more about her field -- a cutting edge, up and coming phenomenon -- than anyone else I have ever met. Her enthusiasm and knowledge is so contagious, I have to consciously direct myself to keep on task for her project when what I really want to do is pump her for information about all my personal ideas and projects and dreams!

Conflict of interest? Perhaps, but this writer, for all her passion and knowledge, desperately needs help to keep on track. In order for her to complete her book, which has the potential to be a best-seller both in the traditional route and the more current form, she knows herself well enough to know she needs help.

She is eager. She knows how powerful the final product can / will be. However, the instant she thinks about the book as a whole, she breaks down, becomes overwhelmed, and quits. 

Organization and accountability are the keys to her success. 

She craves discipline. Someone to take her by the hand and walk her through the process step-by-step. She demands blinders to put on. Given specific homework. My job is to break down the whole into manageable parts. I feel incredibly honored to be chosen as her guide...

15 July 2009

A New World Order

In the 60s, Curtis Mayfield sings of a new world order, a change of mind for the whole human race. Marie Elena Gaspari dances to it in the 90s. The old world order falling away.

Isn't that what the Universal Story form is really all about? Okay, go ahead. Roll your eyes. But stick with me here. 

The old world order (ordinary world) falls away at the 1/4 mark. The story launches into a new world order (exotic world of the antagonists / the Middle 1/2).

Antagonists from each of the Five Standard Antagonists serve to trip up the protagonist on her way toward her life goals. Rather than break down the secondary characters into the traditional archetypes of mentor, ally, etc, I focus here on the concept of all characters serving as antagonists because, for the most part, ultimately all the characters test, hold back, interfere with the protagonist achieving her goals. Some secondary characters may shapeshift from ally to antagonist and back, but nearly all the characters challenge the protagonist in one way or the other. 

Each of the characters hold up a mirror for the protagonist to better see herself. Yes, even the antagonists. Especially the antagonists.

I am a devout student of plot, the elements of great fiction, the Universal Story form, Character, Action, and Theme. I also am a devotee of physics / the study of energy. Forgive me when I interchange the two. 

The energy of a story pretty much ebbs and flow like the energy of our lives. It takes until the Crisis (3/4 mark) before the protagonist comes to understand what the antagonists represent in her life. For us? Sometimes, it takes until the very end of our lives before we finally understand what the antagonists in our own lives really represent to us and about ourselves. 

In the end, the character and, in turn, we come to understand that the antagonists, be they someone else, society at large, nature, machines, time, ego, is nothing more than a reflection of us giving up our own individual power to what we perceive as having some sort of authority over our lives.

In real life, we can play the victim. 

Not possible in stories. No matter how insecure the protagonist may act, or fearful, no matter how small they play their parts, how much power they relinquish, how poor, how weak, the protagonist in a story never allows herself to be victimized, at least not for long. Ever. 

An interesting message.

The Crisis causes the protagonist to rethink life as she has always known it and earns the protagonist a gift, a special skill, consciousness, enlightenment (thanks to the very antagonists who caused her the most grief).

In the End (1/4)(old), the protagonist goes back to the Beginning (now new). What she brings back ultimately, because of her transformation, also transforms and allows for a new world order to emerge. 

This is the work of heroes and heroines in stories... and of common folk, like you and me...

14 July 2009

The Downside of Critique Groups

Writers benefit from critique groups in a multitude of ways as writers will learn when my friend Becky Levine's new book -- The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide -- is released by Writers Digest early next year.

Personally, I've found critique groups a helpful place to:
  • Connect with like-minded people
  • Learn more about my own individual writing strengths and weaknesses, both from feedback on my own pieces and just as dramatically, if not more so, from giving feedback to others in the group about their own individual pieces
  • Improve at my craft
  • Brainstorm
  • And more...

However... I continue to believe for many writers, DO NOT SHOW YOUR FIRST DRAFT TO ANYONE.

This practice can prove detrimental in that many groups require that everyone submit. Still, I'm sticking to my belief.

Why? Because for most writers getting the first draft down on paper is like trying to capture the fragile thread of a dream. Whether you pre-plot or write by the seat of your pants, this generative stage comes primarily from the right side of your brain (for an absolutely terrific book about this, check out the non-fiction New York Times bestseller: My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.)

Yes, the two hemispheres are "neuronally integrated" and "two complementary halves of a whole rather than as two individual entities or identities." However, each side does process information in uniquely different ways.

For those writers with a preference for the right hemisphere and who excel at seeing the big picture and the "congruity of the overall expression", to bring in too much feedback, too early in a "linear form of creating sentences and paragraphs that convey very complex messages" (left hemispheric strength) can throw the writer into a tailspin and actually derail their progress.

Also, for most, with feedback too early, the writer tends to get ensnared in the lethal cycle of Going-back-to-the-Beginning Syndrome. Rather than forge ahead all the way to the end, writers attempt to please everyone in their critique group by going back over the critiqued information over and over and over again. Thus, a project that should take months, ends up taking years.

I feel like I'm ranting again, but I've just had two writers thrust into this position and it pains me.

We, as writers, bring enough of our own insecurities to the process. It takes discipline to shut out the inner critic during the first draft. Why allow in a group of critics (because isn't that what a critique group is made up of??? Supportive and helpful, but... According to thefreedictionary.com, critique has been used "to review or discuss critically" since the 18th century, and used to be a neutral verb between praise and censure, but is now mainly used in a negative sense).

I'm not saying that critique groups are negative, if so, run. But, too much analytical input too early can actually shut down the muse and you end up writing for your critique group rather than for that magical realm of the creative process itself...

Once you have written all the way to the end, especially speaking = the Climax, and begin your rewrite (and only then), get all the feedback you can from trusted sources.
  • Find yourself a critique group that excels in both praise and censure.
  • Listen carefully.
  • Stay open.
  • Have fun...

11 July 2009

Literary Fiction and Plot

A writer requests help for her character-driven, literary masterpiece and then spends our time together moaning fears of how the use of plot corrupts her literary pursuit. She worries what the professors in her graduate program will say.

Having just finished reading two award-winning literary novels: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and Run by Ann Patchett in quick succession, I wonder how many literary novels the writer in question has read. She is confused about what plot really is and how useful to any writing endeavor.

In the Elegance of the Hedgehog, not only do the two main characters move from living in their head to their hearts at the arrival of a mysterious stranger, the book finally develops a plot and becomes an actual page-turning story. And, it is precisely then, when the two character's open their hearts and begin to express actual feelings beyond spite and bitterness and resentment and judgement of others and look inward to the part they themselves play in creating their own misery that the reader in turn begins to emotionally connect to the characters and, finally, care desperately about what happens to them.

The publisher of Run, Jonathan Burnham of HaprerCollins, says of the New York Times bestseller, "The story, although it's intricately plotted, is really driven by the characters." (NOTE: isn't all great fiction???) Yes, we love the characters Ann Patchett breathes life onto the page. But, what makes the book impossible to put down is due to her amazing plotting skills (she is the mistress of plot twists).

When did plot get such a bad name in literary circles? Why the intense fear that creative writing withers and dies within plot and structure?

08 July 2009

First Draft versus Rewrites

I twittered recently about how at first writers often give their full attention to one plotline alone. Subsequent rewrites, we are able to multitask.

The plot line that first comes to a writer generally reflects the writer's strength and preference.

This particular writer gives great thought to the action plot line -- outer plot -- and to the romantic plot line -- romance plot (not necessary in every book, though this particular writer is a romance writer, so... Also, because romance fiction is selling well despite the economic downturn, seems to make sense to include some romance??)

Same writer struggles with the character plot line -- inner plot. She balks at filling out the character profile as it applies to the character traits and has done little to explore the protagonist's inner life. Thus, the character shows no transformation in the end. The writer especially resists coming up a flaw -- "I've never been any good at that."

Quick assessment of the key scenes:

1) Launch
2) End of the Beginning
3) Halfway point
4) Crisis
5) Climax
6) Resolution

The scenes themselves point to the character flaw.

As soon as we know the flaw, it is possible to determine how to rewrite each of the key scenes (and all the other ones, too), at least in relationship to the inner plot -- the character emotional development plot line.

**Beginning (1/4):
Introduce the flaw

**Middle (1/2):
Deepen the readers' understanding all the different ways the flaw is revealed. Expand upon all the ways her basic flaw sabotages her from achieving her long-term goals. Yes, the Middle (1/2) is the territory of the antagonists and of the exotic or unusual world, but both of those elements serve to underline the flaw in no uncertain terms. Antagonists serve to challenge the protagonist, but generally speaking our inner issues and beliefs directly influence the growth and development of the flaw and that flaw does more to sabotage us than any external source. (Can't help it, the plot work I do gives me valuable insight into not only character's behavior but our behavior as writers, as well.)

**End (1/4): Shows the character becoming conscious of flaw and the steps she take to remake herself = character transformation.

06 July 2009

First Draft Blues

Today's post is similar to the last post as far as information goes but revolves around one specific writer's dilemma (2-hour plot consultation occurred earlier in the year). Thought it might be helpful to others.

...Wishing you a wonderful summer. 

It`s like hell in Southern Norway, a three week heatwave is just about to

drain all energy from nearly  everybody, but I guess we`ll survive. Hope all

is well with you.

I`m having trouble finishing my book, don`t know how to continue to the end.

It may be better as soon as the heat goes, hope so. I look at your scene

tracker every day, again and again and I see how clever you are to grip the

meaning and help writers like myself. But now?  The more I read it the worst

it get. Maybe I should get one hour with you if it get any worse?


I'm sorry about your weather. I do wonder how much the heat is contributing to and influencing your lack of  

progress. I send you thoughts of a cool and calming air floating  

through your mind and bringing peace, both with the temperature, but  

mostly with your story.

Don't forget: the first draft is supposed to be like "vomit-on-the- 

page" -- horrible, embarrassing, messy, infantile, etc....

No matter how terrible, once you have a first draft, you are then  

able to refine, hone-in, smooth out, bring meaning and beauty to your  

work. A first draft is critical both for the final product, but also  

for you to know you have finished what you started (though there will  

obviously still be lots of work to do).

You are being tested. Writing to the end is not for the faint- 

hearted. I know you can do it!!!!

I'm always available for another hour. I'm more than happy to get you  

back on track. See how you feel and let me know.

Three links you may like to read:

1) my blog speaks a bit about what you are going through -- http:// 


2) the page to sign-up for another consultation, if you so decide --  


3) my 89 year-old Swedish-born mother's blog I thought you might get  

a kick out of reading -- http://svensto.blogspot.com/

I believe in you!!! Keep at it......


Thank you so much.  What you said about the first draft made it so much

better for me. I feel now that I can finish, and then I start to refine and

change all that awful stuff.  My God, this is just so wonderful, I must have

been blind dumb and deaf to not think about that. You really put it into

place for me dear angel. Gosh!!! 

I`ll let you know how I progress, and you are so right about that throw up

feeling when I read it and never thougt of it as my first draft.

Hallelujah!!  And if I get stuck again I`ll call out loud and clear. 

Lokking forward to read your mothers blog, thank you.

The terrible heat is gone and I pray to heaven it does not come back.  Last night

thunder and lightening and lots of rain, wonderful.

And oh, should I print out my first draft before I start anew, or work on

what I have rigt here on my computer. How do others do it and what do you

think is best?  Sorry to bother you so much, hope you forgive me for that.

Thanks a thousand times for your belief in me, I know you mean it and I`ll

work all I can and remember your good advice, that first draft is blah....

Ps. I just have to tell yoy, that nobody here talk about first drafts, but I

guess they write more than one, but never tells about it.  You sort of have

to help yourself so I`m happy I found you, thanks again.

(NOTE: I'll address her question about rewrites in the next post...)

01 July 2009

Starting a Story Too Early

Remember, just because you write a scene does not mean the scene belongs in your story. 

We often write twice as many scenes as will ultimately end up in the finished novel, memoir, short story, screenplay. 

Still, every single word and line and scene you write is invaluable to you as a writer because in writing, you:
  • Expand your writing skills
  • Deepen your writer's voice
And most of all, the more scenes you write, the more you learn about: 
  • The characters in your story
No writing you do is a waste of time. Quite the opposite. However, what separates a good writer from a truly great writer is the ability to assess what stays in and, more, what needs to be cut. 

The Scene Tracker is one way to help writers decide whether a scene is working hard enough to warrant staying in the piece and it gives clues as to how to expand weak scenes and make all your scenes truly great. 

Whatever method you use to help you determine what stays in your manuscript and what needs to be cut, do not worry about this in the first couple of drafts. 

The #1 defining skill needed to ultimately finish a story is the ability to write the story all the way through to the end. Yeah, I hear you -- duh. But, you might be surprised to learn how many "want-to-be" writers never accomplish that. They never finish even a first -- what I call "vomit-on-the-page" -- draft, much less the finished, polished draft. That is why I call them "want-to-be" writers. Before you can truly call yourself a writer, you have to finish what you start. I cringe writing that because I can hear the objections. In this blog, I speak to writers who hold the dream of one day being published. 

First, finish one draft all the way through. Even write a couple of drafts. After that and before writing more, begin evaluating:
  • What works in your story?
  • What does not work?
  • Why?
  • What to do about that which does not contribute to the whole = cut or expand?