Sunday, December 17, 2017

Set Your Aim by Sarah Dooley

When I think of plot, the first thing that comes to mind isn't writing, or even reading. It's celeration charting. As a teacher in a Precision Teaching classroom, I rely on points plotted on a chart to give me information about the speed and accuracy with which my students are moving toward their aims. 

As a bookworm kid, I never would have expected to grow up a math teacher - much less a math teacher who uses math to track her teaching - much less a math teacher who uses math to track her writing - but here we are. The celeration chart is beautiful because you can see at a glance how your learner is faring. Whether accuracy is maintained as the pace increases. Whether a skill is truly becoming fluent. You can get the whole picture at a glance.

This is a story about how math taught me to write synopses of unfinished plots.

There's a point, about forty percent or so into a novel, when I realize I am totally lost. It happens every time. Up to this point, I've been riding the adrenaline rush of new characters and setting, tasting the deliciousness of their language, dizzy on the unfamiliar atmosphere. But long about page one-oh-something, realization hits:

I have no idea what I'm doing.

My awesome new characters and beloved new setting aren't so new anymore, and they are bopping around their made-up universe, aimlessly waiting for me to make something happen.

This is the point when it's helpful for me to think of my novel like a snapshot -- a painting, a dust jacket description, a celeration chart. Whatever I need to envision to realize that if I take a few big steps back and look, I need to be able to see the whole picture, particularly where I'm headed. Only then can I set my aim, and with every plot point, move toward it. 

An exercise that is helpful for me at the forty-to-sixty-percent point in my novel is this:  I write the synopsis. Not the thorough, every-detail kind, but the kind you'd read on a dust jacket, a literary snapshot of the novel. Here's the book I'm writing. And yes, there will be things I've written that I'll have to cut because they don't fit on the page. And yes, I'll have to adjust my aim and plot a few points differently. But for me, stopping to summarize the novel my characters and I are mired in helps me ensure we're all accelerating in the same direction.

Friday, December 15, 2017

For Plot's Sake!

Who were your favorite characters when you were a young reader? Jo, of Little Women? Mattie, in True Grit? The Artful Dodger, in Oliver Twist? Emma, of Jane Austin fame? What about Huckleberry Finn? Why are we so drawn to certain characters?

If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed. She wants to see what happens next. The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters.

An easy method to use in understanding your character’s motivation is simply to ask her. Just as you ask your friend or your significant other why s/he is doing something, ask your character. This is a freewrite exercise, no holds barred. Ask your character why does she yearn for this thing? What’s so important about it that she’s willing to take risks to get it? What is she willing to risk for it? How would she describe her current situation? If you hear inconsistencies in your character’s answers, don’t discard them, or ignore them! These inconsistencies make your character more human, and that means more authentic.

Just like when we don’t fully understand why we do the things we do, you’ll discover that your character does not always understand her behavior. This confusion, however, makes your character real to the reader. Her confusion reinforces her struggle.Her struggle is the heart of the plot. Madeleine L’Engle (The Heroic Personality, Origins of Story, 1999) offers that the heroic personality is human, not perfect. What it means to be human is “to be perfectly and thoroughly human, and that is what is meant by being perfect: human, not infallible or impeccable or faultless, but human.” Your character’s confusion is authentic. This sense of authenticity is important in keeping the reader connected to your story.

At the core of your character’s confusion is her inner struggle. This inner struggle is what your character brings to the plot. It’s there before the story begins. It’s the struggle that is holding her back in life. And she’ll carry this struggle throughout her story. James Scott Bell offers an experiment to help discover your character’s inner struggle: Write down the one positive character you want to the reader to understand most about your character. Is she determined, for example? Now, list those aspects that battle this characteristic, such as her timidity, or self-doubt. The presents the character’s inner struggle: she is fighting with herself to achieve her goals. Understanding how inner struggle influences motivation transforms your character “from plain vanilla to dynamic and dimensional.” (James Scott Bell, The Art of War For Writers, 2009)

And the key to understanding your character’s motivation is understanding your character’s history, called her backstory. Backstory is defined as simply what happened before the present story begins. Using backstory with care helps the reader to bond with your character. It deepens the relationship because it engages emotion and sympathy. Your character’s history relates to her inner struggle. As Dr Phil tells us, our past affects our present. Understanding this psychological make-up of your character adds depth to your story.

Of course, you won’t have to use everything you discover about your character. But, if you don’t know everything about your character, it shows in your writing!

Remember, the hero needs opposition to make her story worthwhile. Opposing characters simply stand contrary to your character. The antagonist may simply be all who disagree with the hero’s tactics. Villains, on the other hand, are usually dedicated to the destruction of the hero. Christopher Vogler describes the difference between antagonist and villains: “Antagonists and heroes in conflict are like horses in a team pulling in different directions, while villains and heroes in conflict are like trains on a head-on collision course.” (Writer’s Journey, 1992)

Like the hero, villains also need their motivation. Just as you sat down with your main character, spend some time talking to your villain. Why does she oppose your character? Why must she have this thing? What’s so important about it that she’s willing to take risks to get it? What is she willing to risk for it? How would your villain describe her current situation? How would she describe your lead character? How would she describe her relationship with the hero?

And, like the hero, your villain has a history. And this history influences her motivation. Her motivation moves the plot forward.  Unless she was born evil, and few people are, villains were born human. Dean Koontz once offered that the best villains evoke pity, even sympathy, as well as terror. Sympathy for a villain, deepens a story. A bully doesn’t pick on someone just to be mean. Why did she become a bully? What would your villain say about her family? How was your villain raised? Did she experience a traumatic turning point that changed her emotionally?

In the end, villains are people, too.

Says Ralph Keyes (The Courage To Write, 1995), “Daring is always more riveting than skill. Any juggler knows that the real crowd pleaser isn’t his hardest task, such as keeping five balls in the air. The biggest oohs and ahhs are reserved for feats that look as though they could main him…Bold writers have the same relationship to readers that a juggler has to his crowd. When they seem to catch an errant machete by the blade, their readers stay glued to the page.”

So, for plot's sake, dare to go deeper into your character!

Wishing you amazing adventures for the holiday!

Bobbi Miller

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Plotting by the headlights

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." -- E.L. Doctorow

This is one of my favorite quotes about writing. Not only because it's a brilliant way to look at the daily struggle of getting those words on the page, but also because it fits my writing method to a T. Despite being an insanely organized person, when it comes to writing, I'm just the opposite. My calendar (yes, still a paper one) and kitchen pantry and car are so neat and orderly that my family makes fun of me, but my notes for my work-in-progress? A mess of scribbles on Post-its and napkins, typed notes with handwritten additions in the margins (some underlined, some highlighted, some smudged), sheets of paper torn from a journal, sketches, articles...well, you get the idea. Once, when I didn't have a pen, I even wrote myself a note in lipstick. 

I admit this disarray always kind of bothered me. Why was I so unorganized when it came to my work? Why did I have so many fragmented thoughts to sift through when I sat down to write? Why couldn't I just envision the story, make ONE set of notes or even -- gasp, an outline -- and write it exactly as I planned?

For my next book, I vowed to turn over a new leaf. When I began the novel -- due to come out next September -- I made a detailed outline. It's a sequel so I already had the characters and setting and a rough idea of the story arcs. I plotted out each chapter and organized every one of my notes into neat categories. No more random scraps of paper! No more disorganization! I could do this!

And, yeah.

I wrote a draft just like I'd plotted, wasn't so good. Instinctively, I knew why. I'd become too concerned with following the plan. My creativity was inhibited. My imagination was stifled. I hadn't allowed myself to veer off the path, sift through my piles and grab one of my scribbles in a moment of inspiration and say oh! -- this is where this belongs!

I had to start over, and my next draft was a lot better. The disorganized mess is just part of how I write. I've concluded that outlines don't work for me. I write by the headlights. It's okay if I can't see ahead farther than the chapter I'm working on, or have a feel for, but don't exactly know the ending. All of my scribbles and notes are pieces I spot as my headlights illuminate them, even if I don't know yet where they go in the story. They'll find their way, just as I will.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of Ethan Marcus Stands Up, a 2018 Illinois Reads selection, The Summer I Saved the 65 Days, and Calli Be Gold. Find her online at

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Want A Better Novel? Try These Approaches. by Darlene Beck Jacobson

One of the themes this month is structure. I decided to take the opportunity to explore some sites for writers that offer advice on structure and plotting.  Here are two that stood out for their unique and helpful content.

BETTER NOVEL PROJECT: This blog written by Christine Frazier uses the mantra "Deconstructing best-selling novels, one doodle at a time".  Frazier use index "cards" and illustrations to break down common elements of popular novels such as the Hunger Games, and Harry Potter.  Her detailed outlines provide a comprehensive MASTER OUTLINE to guide us in structuring our own WIP.

Tomi Adeyemi is a writing coach who offers FREE VIDEO COURSES on mastering plot.  She also has downloadable worksheets on character and structure, backstory templates and writing prompts.  I signed up for the free 15 minute videos that get delivered right to your inbox.   You'll also find lots of advice on plotting and revising on her blog.

Does anyone else have some tried and true online site they find helpful for structure and plotting?

Monday, December 11, 2017

It's Always in There

by Jody Feldman

During the early-revision stage, I am almost always haunted by one of two related realizations:
1. My main character does not have enough motivation to carry him through his journey; or
2. He does not have enough reason to accomplish his mission without turning to adults.

Last Tuesday, it was the latter. I was working on a mess of a second draft, and I was only on page 7 when it slapped me across the face. Wouldn’t any normal 13-year-old enlist the help, or at least ask the advice, of a parent in this adventure?

The answer? Yes. At least as I had written it.
But surely, I could still craft a good story if Linc, my main character, would involve adults. These were serious problems, right?

Now, when it comes to washing dishes or navigating traffic, I am one to take the easy road. Not so when it comes to writing. Nearly two years ago, I made this New Year’s resolution, and I’ve tried to stick with it ever since.

I couldn’t settle, not with one of the first rules for writing kidlit on a brain loop: Kid-characters need to be the heroes of their journeys.

Now, it helps that I can be stubborn, especially when it comes to meeting standards. I refuse to turn to whatever muse may hang around my computer and admit defeat. For the rest of Tuesday, I tried to figure out why Linc needed to do this on his own. Nothing came. Not even rejectable ideas. I went to bed defeated, but woke remembering what always seems to work.

I looked inside that mess of a draft I was editing. And there it was. A chimney I’d happened to mention on page 63. It was a stream-of-consciousness idea that I’d thrown in for a random bit of setting, but it proved yet again that my subconscious can be sorta smart. That chimney told me why Linc didn’t turn to his parents; why he’s certain he needs to personally navigate this journey. And now, so am I.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Getting Emotional About Plot by Jane Kelley

What do I mean by getting emotional? Cursing when I can't figure out any turning points? Cheering when I finally do?

No, I mean finding an emotional plot for your novel.

Action is important. Something has to happen in any story. But a character's reaction to the action is just as important. If you include an emotional plot, you will raise the stakes and increase the reader's connection to your character.

How do writers do this?

The emotional plot has many similarities to the action plot. There should be obstacles. There should be escalation or complicating events. There should be a climax. As Sir Edmund Hillary said, "It's not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves."

That was certainly true for Megan, the main character in my novel, Nature Girl.

A student at St. Mary's School in Richland Center, Wisconsin made this chart about my novel. As you can see, Megan at the beginning is very different from who she is at the end.

According to this student, the emotional climax is when Megan's "yucky voice" goes away. The yucky voice, for those of you lucky enough not to have one of your own, is that voice inside your head that loves to remind you that you stink and you won't ever succeed so why bother trying.

Megan's actions as she hikes the Appalachian Trail enable her to reach her goal of being reunited with her friend. But her emotional responses to those actions are just as important. They are what enable her to learn from her experiences and become a better person at the end.

Could there be a happy plot ending without a happy emotional ending? Yes. But it wouldn't make the reader as happy.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Building Your Structure by Deborah Lytton: December Theme

Building structure in a manuscript is a little bit like building a sandcastle. Everyone has a different way of forming the sand into a structure. Some people are meticulous about their method of measuring ocean water to sand in buckets to use as forms. Others create structures using driftwood and shells. And some build the castles with their hands, improvising as they go. In the same way, the craft of plotting and structure differs from writer to writer. I know some writers who write every scene on colored index cards and pin them on bulletin boards so they can see each scene and move their story around by simply re-pinning a card. I know other writers who love Scrivener and the prompts to aid them in thinking through story plot points step-by-step. And then I know writers who don't like to outline plot but to allow the story to unfold itself during the writing process. I fall into the last category. I also build sandcastles with my hands:) For me, the structure is a loose form that encircles the perimeter of my story so that it stays in place but leaves room for movement. That said, I do have one writing book that always sits on the bookshelf next to my desk. I have shared this book before because, well, I love it. It's THE WRITER'S JOURNEY, Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.
Mr. Vogler has based his book on the Hero's Journey as described in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by Joseph Campbell and sets forth a clear understanding of plot and structure as it is revealed in mythology.

  The stages of the Hero's Journey and the archetypes that propel the structure are set forth in diagrams and examples that I have found extremely helpful in my own writing. But like creating a castle out of sand, any method that helps you to get where you are going is the right one. The most important thing is to write it.

Happy Building!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

How to Write a Plot Sentence

One of the writing workshops I do with students is called TOP TEN THINGS WRITERS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PLOT.

The presentation is jammed with tips I've learned the hard way. And it culminates with the students putting all those tips into action and writing their own plot sentences:

This story is about..........................
who more than anything wants to............................................
but can't because....................................

Now before you go thinking I'm brilliant (well, okay, go ahead and think it, but...), I should tell you that I borrowed this idea from Carol Baldwin's fantastic book TEACHING THE STORY: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8.

I use this book ALL THE TIME. Teachers, readers, writers: it's fantastic. So many useful, accessible exercises that really help students express themselves. And writers, if you can  boil your story down to this sentence, you are very close to having your elevator pitch!

Here are some of the plot sentences 5th grade students produced back in March 2012 at Goldsmith-Schiffman Elementary:

This story is about Averie Hall who more than anything wants to see her mom but can't because she has to go past the Seven Trials.

This story is about Sandra who more than anything wants to find her brother's killer but can't because a stalker comes to stop her in her tracks.

This story is about Huey, who more than anything wants to play wide receiver but can't because he sprained his ankle.  

This story is about Jacob the Dragon who more than anything wants to take over the world but can't because there is a big wall he can't get through.

This story is about Ant who more than anything wants to help his friend Dog but can't because Bird would eat him (Ant).

This story is about Snail Bob who more than anything wants to give his grandpa his gift but can't because he has to go through a forest of danger to get to grandpa's house.

This story is about Rain who more than anything wants to escape her tower, but can't because her parents keep her isolated and it has no doors and no windows.

This story is about a robot named Ellie who wants to become a real girl but can't because she can't get to the car station to get fixed.

This story is about a girl fox named Lucky who wants more than anything to help her friend China who hurt herself but can't because there is a big bear and a blizzard coming in a week. 

Well done, students!
*This post previously appeared at Live Your Poem, March 20, 2012.