29 June 2010

Fiction Author Reaches Climax of Her Book

In plot consultations with writers, I often see how the writing of a protagonist's transformative journey in a novel, screenplay or memoir mirrors the writer's own personal transformative writing journey.

A few weeks back, I wrote about a client struggling to bring her protagonist to the Climax of her book. My impressions were that perhaps the writer's problem came from not having truly reached the end of her own transformative journey enough to grasp her own personal power in life and thus is having difficulty showing her protagonist in her true power at the end.

This week, I am pleased to report about another writer who after twelve years and lots of incarnations of his story has reached the true authentic ending to his book.

In those twelve years of struggle to find the right balance, the writer often despaired. He would write all the way to the end, send out query letters and sample chapters only to be rejected. Though he always received encouraging words about his writing, he always reacted to the rejection the same. He would beat himself up and, believing himself not worthy of success, quit. Each time, after he pulled himself out of the garbage bin he inevitably threw himself into, he would write another draft and send out more queries. This process repeated itself for years. The toll it took on his spirit and his body was devastating. 

Finally, he undertook his own personal transformative journey. In so doing, he became clear enough to find the true story. In so doing, he found a new depth to his beliefs and his story.

Now, in retrospect, it is clear to see that if his earlier passionate dream to be published had come true, the book he holds today would have been a fraction of what it shows itself to be. 

Perhaps the lesson to take away from this is the belief that until the manifestation of the thread of a dream is right and the story what it is meant to be, do not take things personally. See it as a process. Be patient. Continue to show up and write. And, at the same time, continue to challenge yourself as a person and to grow into who know you are meant to be. Find where you are on the universal story and push yourself deeper. Find your true strength and trust that when you are ready, the ending will appear. 

Honor the process.

26 June 2010

Children's Picture Books and Plot

Uma Krishnaswami, former child writer who now writes for children, and teaches writing in the MFA/Writing for Children and Young Adults program, Vermont College of Fine Arts,  asked me to take part in her blog book tour for her newly released picture book for children: Out of the Way! Out of the Way! and illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy.

Uma knows what I do with plot. We have worked together in the past and she interviewed me for her blog Writing with Broken Tusk a few months ago.

After receiving Uma's book from her publisher, I read her engaging picture book. Then I read it again. Then, several times more. 

I couldn't find the plot. 

Rather than admit my failure to her, I asked Uma to tell me a bit about her process when it comes to the plot and structure of her picture books.

Uma: I never begin by thinking of picture book structure, but without it, I'd never finish. 

My first step is often to write the draft once through, however it shows up in my mind. Most often, it shows up as a big mess: snatches of words, a rhythmic beat or two, something visual, the beginning and middle and end all tangled up together, the wrong things highlighted, the important things shadowed. I write it anyway, trying to be uncritical at that point.

Then I break it up into scenes on a rough storyboard, with the lines scribbled in and a stick-figure sketch of what I think the scene is. I should state for the record that I can't draw to save my life, but I do it anyway just to force my mind into visual mode, so I don't get carried away in the lovely drift of words that often waits in the wings to tempt me. 

Since I mostly write for the US market, I use a format of roughly 15 spreads, or 14 and a single which is what you have to work with. I rewrite, this time with approximate page breaks. Then I keep repeating the process until I've got something that seems to have some energy. 

When it's time to send it out to an editor, I take out all the page breaks and send it in traditional manuscript format, double-spaced with 1 inch margins. But by then I have enough on the page that there is some sort of arc forming and a solid unifying throughline in place. This is the first time I let myself begin to think of theme, by asking the question, "What's this story really about?" If I ask that too early the story curls up its toes and refuses to cooperate. But if I never ask it, I won't ever be able to see the bigger picture.

Somewhere along the way, my goal is to gain clearer vision: to see what's missing, and where excess words are getting in the way. I can also see where I have too much going on, or too little. Because the editing for this book simplified the storyline, I was able to get rid of a few extra scenes where I'd really overplotted, and then it fit nicely into the 12 spread/24 page container we needed.

I do believe that picture books can teach us a lot about story structure. I sometimes use picture books like The Stray Dog by Marc Simont or Waiting for Mama by Tae-Jun Lee, in a talk about crafting scenes in a novel. A finely crafted picture book has the art of the scene nailed, in my opinion, just in a very different idiom from the ones novelists tend to use. Studying picture books liberates us from the tyranny of the word so we can look at the bones of a story more clearly.


Wow! Uma is one terrific writer. I love the beauty of her language and the images her words evoke:  "If I ask that too early the story curls up its toes and refuses to cooperate." "Studying picture books liberates us from the tyranny of the word so we can look at the bones of a story more clearly."

I am no expert on children's picture books. Though all the picture books for children I have read and the children's literature I continue to analyze for plot workshops for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) confirm what I already know about the universal story. 

I mulled over Uma's story for so long, I missed the blog tour day assigned to me.

Finally, however, the time spent pondering the plot of Uma's picture book Out of the Way! Out of the Way! and reading about her process paid off with a new slant on one of my trusted and deeply valued plot lines = thematic significance. I've gotten some heat over the years for including thematic significance as one of the three major plot lines in stories: 
  • Dramatic action plot
  • Character emotional development plot 
  • Thematic significance plot 
Thanks to Uma's picture book, I feel even more strongly about the validity of including theme. 

I typically see these three plot lines as intertwining and supporting each other for the ultimate character transformation. I live by the belief that when a character is changed at depth over time by the dramatic action over time, a story means something. 

In Uma's story, the three plot lines do intertwine. Rather than individually and distinctively separate, the three meld into one sweeping thematic significance plot that also encompasses cultural and industrial and environmental elements.

Dramatic action plot is physical and concrete. 
Character emotional development is emotional and sensory. 
Thematic significance plot is cerebral and abstract. 

To give justice to Uma's story, I had to surrender my lust for literal character transformation and dig a bit deeper.  

Uma uses theme like an abstract art form. 

Thank you, Uma, for the opportunity to develop an even deeper appreciation for the value of theme in all genres and stories.

Click for the free Plot Series: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay on Youtube. (includes information on writing children's books and books for middle grade and young adult).

24 June 2010

Plot in Children's Picture Books

Today is my turn to blog about a new picture book: Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnaswami and illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy.

Uma's story set off a series of questions in my own mind in regards to plot. Plot is what I do and the fact I have not yet answered the questions and thus not found my angle for my blog post gives me pause. My apologies.

The opportunity to explore plot based on her picture book compels me to explore the possibilities. That necessitates that Uma and I communicate a bit first which throws my piece of her tour off the timeline. To read Uma's beautifully written generosity and patience, go to: Writing with a Broken Tusk.

We're going to work together on a couple of questions I have and I’ll have a post ready for you on Monday.

My apologies to any of you coming here to learn more about Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

Thank you for your patience.

16 June 2010

Writer's Courage

Over the past six or so years of providing plot consultations to writers, I rarely have had a cancelation. When one happens, the occurrence tends to give me pause. When it happens twice with the same writer, I can't help but speculate why. Always, my imagination settles on one degree or another of writer's fear.

Years ago, I heard Maya Angelou say that a character trait most important in life is courage. 

This is so true for both the protagonist of a story and for the writer, too. Having worked with writers of all genres and all ages, I appreciate and honor the courage and fortitude it takes to continue to keep at it, to keep showing up, to face antagonist after antagonist, pick yourself and your characters off the ground over and over again, dust yourselves off, and start again, to believe in yourself and your story and the transformative nature of creating something out of nothing.

Here's hoping the writer in question remembers there is nothing to fear in life but fear itself... Naw... How about this? I'm not that scary. The process is intense but truly is nothing to fear. 

Like your protagonist, face your greatest antagonist / fear and you, too, become the star of your own life.

14 June 2010

Plot Trick: Showing Character Emotion, Not Telling

A plot trick to connect readers to your stories? Rather than tell how a character feels, the trick is to find unique ways to show in scene the character's emotional reaction to the dramatic action. 

This weekend at my first ever Writers Plot Retreat, I had a glimpse into why this trick of writing your characters showing authentic emotions is a tough one to master.

In preparation for the retreat, I created an intricate Plot Planner based on our time frame and the number of plot consultations per each writer. 

Thursday afternoon, everyone arrived and settled, I pointed out the highlights of our event on my tricky Writers Plot Retreat Plot Planner.

The peak that most interested, or so I thought and soon came to understand scared, everyone loomed on Saturday afternoon. Having organized the retreat around the Universal Story, I explained to the writers the Crisis. If there was to be a melt-down, this is where it most likely would occur. Little did I know how much suspense and tension that foreshadowing instilled.

As pre-plotted, we left the Beginning (1/4), introductory phase at the end of Day One, everyone dazed from the splendor of the setting, meeting each other, and the over-abundance of amazing food and drink, laughter and goodwill. Well-feted, we slept.

My mission for the plot retreat was for each writer to create a mini-Plot Planner for their story, followed by making a full-length one, too. A couple of writers came with new story ideas to plan and plot. Others were bogged down and stalled out in the Middle of their first draft and came with the goal of revving back up and forging ahead. A few prepared for major rewrites. One had a completed story ready for the final, final check.

After I had checked out everyone's mini-Plot Planner for the five major scenes in their stories, our host once again overwhelmed our senses with a fragrant, delectable dinner. Full from the mountain air, expansive views, like-minded people, and general feeling of gratitude for the good fortune of being together, we once again bedded down for the night.

From the success of the day before, everyone jumped into the creation of their full-sized Plot Planners. I passed out butcher paper, felt-tipped pens, and sticky notes. Before long, all the long, open surfaces of the main portion of the house were papered with Plot Planners of all colors and lengths and dreams.

The consultations went smoothly. The Crisis point came and went without a peep. 

Not until yesterday, our final morning together, did I have a clue that, in fact, the day before at the exact moment of the Crisis point, most of the writers were experiencing melt-downs to varying degrees.

My only excuse for having missed all the outward signs are three:

  1. The writers did very little to show their external discomfort
  2. My primary focus was on the writers' stories and their Plot Planners
  3. I had eyes only for the breakthroughs and the eye-popping enthusiasm over the new relationship developing between writer and writing project.

What the lesson taught me is how often we mask our feelings, likely, I believe, due to the false belief that we are the only ones. There is a universality when it comes to the insecurity and uncertainty we each have in creating something out of nothing. Rather than share the fear, we mask and protect ourselves.

Now in retrospect, I remember the sweat on one writer's forehead, the tremble in the voices of other writers' dismissing their project's potential, how one writer kept her eyes downcast as she spoke about her story, and another gave excuses for herself and her story.

The day before, I had shared a technique I use to teach kids how to switch from telling emotion to showing. When working at the children's shelter, I ask kids to act out an emotion jotted on a slip of paper. The other children cannot tell the emotion they see demonstrated. Instead, they must point out the external signs they see that show the emotion or feelings through body language, facial expressions, dialogue, tone and mood. 

I recommended the writers keep a notepad and pen with them at all times in coffee shops, at the beach, waiting at bus stops to jot down not only the traditional snippets of overhead dialogue but to note the behaviors that indicate emotion in the passer-bys.

The two stately Weimaraners on hand for the retreat had no trouble showing their feelings right up front: enlarged pupils = intense focus, wagging tails = confidence, tucked tails = insecurity, rigid bodies = alert, yawning = nervousness, etc.

People? Not always so straight-forward.

What I learned about writers showing emotion at the retreat, or I simply remembered what I already knew and had forgotten, is that often the expression of deep emotion is barely discernible but, always, the feelings are there.

(To each of you who took part in the plot retreat, thank you for taking the leap with me. I had a ball falling in love with the perfection of you...)

Click on here for the free Plot Series: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay on Youtube.

08 June 2010

Energetic Markers in Universal Story

In preparing for my first ever Writers Plot Retreat in the redwoods on Thursday through Sunday (don't expect another post for a few days), I marvel again at how consistent the Energetic Markers arrive in the Universal Story for romance novels, to screenplays, to mysteries, young adult, memoirs, middle grade and yes, even picture books.

For instance: The Cay by Theodore Taylor.

Like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee where the plotline dealing with Boo breaks off after the End of the Beginning and does not come back until the End, The Cay has an almost independent plotline running through the Middle (1/2) with the Beginning (1/4) linked back to the End (/14).

The End of the Beginning of The Cay is when Phillip is blind. The antagonists in the Middle are Phillip's prejudice of Timothy, blindness, a deserted island, fear, feeling sorry for himself, the weather and Malaria. Phillip's allies in the Middle are Timothy and Stew Cat.

In the Middle of The Cay, Phillip must maneuver, with the help of Timothy through a survival course, the Unusual World of living on an island blind.

The Crisis of the subplot on the island occurs about Halfway through the entire story. Phillip climbs a palm tree blind, makes it about 10 feet and then freezes. Comes back down and he feels Timothy's disappointment. This scene serves two plotlines:  
1) His personal Crisis point in the subplot 
2) The Halfway point in the overall story for a reason to recommit to the adventure, in this case, survival

The Climax of the subplot on the island comes when Phillip attempts the climb again, makes it all the way up, picks two coconuts, comes down and asks Timothy, "Are you still black?" showing Phillip has both overcome is fear and his prejudice.

The Crisis for the dramatic action plot of the overall story comes at exactly the 3/4 mark when a hurricane hits the island.

The Climax comes when Phillip himself is able to signal the plane.

In Resolution, he is rescued.

Anyway, my point is that the End of the Beginning, the Halfway marker, the Crisis(es) and Climax(es) all hit exactly where they "should".

And, that's only two of so many examples.

I keep throwing the concepts out there because they're helpful and valid. Something worth learning for your own stories.

05 June 2010

You Promised to Write Your Story Today

Dear Linda,
I don't know if you really promised me but I have down today is the day you planned earlier in the week to devote to your book.

Before you tick off all reasons hanging out needing to to be done first, take a deep breath.

Close your eyes.

Enter into the belief that today is for your plot, your story, yourself (so long as the time spent on yourself is good for your story, too).

It's like giving yourself your own special day with a focus on devoting yourself to your writing.

Sounds pretty decadent, doesn't it?

Only it's not. Watch all the dancing toward and away (resistance) from this. Writing is hard work so long as resistance is involved or the belief of not being good enough, not enough time, what's the point?

The key is to continue putting words down on paper.

Open word.doc.

Off with email.

Internet turned off.

Over and out...

03 June 2010

What Do You Stand to Lose?

I've fallen into the habit of asking writers to fill out the Character Emotional Development Plot Profile for themselves as well as for their protagonist. One question more than all others reveals depth of passion.

QUESTION: What do you stand to lose if you do not accomplish your writing goal?


I've lost my way and haven't been able to find it again

The evil voices will be proven correct


My story will not make it into the world



My self-esteem

A sense of accomplishment before the real deadline


Peace of mind

In the work I do with writers, I offer guidance about plot and structure and meaning in relationship to the protagonist's ultimate transformation. I also strive to provide insight into the writer's journey.

Writing is a solitary activity and can make you feel cut-off and separate and alone. Until, that is, you attend your first writers conference, join a critique group, form a writing group, read blogs like this one. 

Everyone who creates something out of nothing questions themselves. Who am I to write?

All writers revise endlessly.

No one knows what they truly are writing about. 

Every writer is shy about the choices they make. 

My greatest hope for you is to remember we all start a story the same--one word on the page at a time and to encourage you to feel your way to how this next author answers when asked the same question: 

What do you stand to lose if you are unsuccessful at achieving your writing goal?

Not a thing. Everything is as it should be...

01 June 2010

Plot Whisperer Blog Makes Its TV Debut

A View From the Bay, a San Francisco KGO / ABC television show recently aired the first segment of five on How to Start Your Own Blog in 5 Minutes with website and blog expert Linda Lee

When asked what a successful blog looks like, Linda showed a screenshot of Plot Whisperer: What a thrill to see the blog on television! Thank you, Linda, for thinking enough of my blog to highlight it in such a visual way and to so many.

To watch the segment, go to: View From the Bay

Having recently learned Writers Digest listed Plot Whisperer as a top 15 Writing Advice blog in the country, the excitement continues to build.

To learn more about blogging through short 3 minute free videos and frequently asked questions with absolutely no hype, visit Linda Lee's blogs: Ask her a question and she'll likely make a free video as answer.