Sunday, November 29, 2009

A New Way to Do a Storyboard for Your Book

I really dislike storyboards. They tell me what I don't want to know--where I have too much or too little, where I've written on track or on a tangent. Where my book isn't yet working well.

A writer needs to know placement in time and space--where things will be, in her book. It's not just enough to flow out the words. You need to have a sequence that readers can follow. Storyboards provide this. They are used a lot in publishing and the film industry. Imagine a giant blank cartoon--a row of empty boxes lined up on a page or wall or posterboard. You insert ideas, then you move the boxes around until the sequence of ideas equals a reasonable flow for your book.

What you learn: All the things I grumbled about above. What is working, yes. Also what is not working. It's not uncommon to emerge from a storyboarding session with many blank boxes. Stuff you know you need to write, transition chapters or sections. Research still to do. It's also not uncommon to feel discouraged. All that writing done, but it's not yet a book. Sigh.

Why even bother? Storyboards are the absolute best way I've found to see if I have a working book, to force myself to structure the flow of ideas, to see what's left. I usually get kind of squirrely (imagine a squirrel twitching in agitation) when I have written too much to really see my book anymore. When I get squirrely, I know it's time to storyboard.

After the Meltdown, Even though I Really Hate Doing It...
If you read my pre-Thanksgiving post below, you know I had a nice little meltdown after my recent book tour, when I got back home and tried to storyboard my next novel, the sequel to Qualities of Light.

It just didn't track--the new book's flow, that is. Too many dramas, too many characters, not enough cohesion. So I rescued myself from myself by putting the storyboard aside and making a character plot chart for each of the three main players. After screaming under the covers for a while.

That plot chart was fun. It reminded me how much I love Molly and Zoe and Kate and Anna and Sammy and even bad-tempered Melvin, my continuing characters. From the plot chart, I began to approach storyboarding again.

I did it a new way this time. I went to Staples and bought a foam core posterboard, clean and white. And three colors of Post-It notes. My main players are Molly, Kate, and Melvin. A different color for each. Using my plot chart, I wrote Post-It notes for the beginning and ending boxes. The plot chart had told me where I want each of these three characters to begin their story and where I want them to end. Then I began to imagine what could go in the other boxes.

This was very different from past approaches to storyboarding. I pretended I hadn't written anything (I've written about 100,000 words already) and let myself take the three stories wherever I wanted. New ideas came through--better ones than I'd already written scenes for.

When they were laid out on the storyboard in their rows of boxes, I saw very nice connections between the three characters' individual plots, as well.

Then, Back to the Manuscript
I liked what I created. But there were 100,000 words waiting to be used, if possible, and I'm too economical to toss everything and start over. So my next step was printing out my manuscript pages, in all their rough and raw glory.

So many errors, I winced when I read it over. So I tried not to. I just scanned each chapter, each island, each section. I thought about where it might be placed on the new storyboard.

60 percent of the pages made it. They fit nicely, they filled in blanks. Some will be heavily reworked or repositioned in time. But I can do that now; I know what goal I'm shooting for.

The rest? They go into my "extras.doc" file.

I created the extras.doc file when I was working on Qualities of Light. The extras file was about 30,000 words at its peak, but almost all of the pages got used in Qualities of Light's revision. Sometimes an idea or setting, only. But little was wasted.

My new storyboard is complete. I finally have a working map for my next book.

This Week's Writing Exercise

This week, get yourself to an office supply store. Buy a posterboard and some Post-It notes. Go home, take a deep breath, and try creating two boxes on a storyboard: just the opening and ending moments of your book.

First ask yourself: Where will you begin? What moment do you see launching your reader into your topic or story? Write a note about this on a Post-It and place it on the storyboard.

Then, what moment ends your book? Where would you like the reader to be at the last page--with what new understanding, hunger, idea or feeling? Write a note about this too.

If you get brave, if you get enthused--as I did--see how many of the other boxes you can fill.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Next Week--Join Me for a Wonderful Book-Structuring Workshop

I'll be at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis next weekend, December 4-5, teaching my two-day book-structuring workshop. Please join me! The workshop is almost full but a few spots remain. You'll get a real workout with your book idea, taking it from tag line (focus statement) to islands to storyboarding to working plan for finishing it.

For more information or to register, call the Loft at 612-379-8999 or visit and search for "How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book."

Hope to see you there!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Finding Your Story's Pathways--The Art of Rethinking What Your Book Is About

Today I had plenty of creative energy, so I decided to tackle a big project: storyboarding my new novel. It's the sequel to Qualities of Light, which was published this fall. I've been working on this sequel for five years and I love the story, but it's gotten complicated. Three characters, three separate plot lines. In desperate need of a storyboard.

I've taken this new book through NaNoWriMo twice, so I have a decent first draft. I just haven't tested the draft for logical flow. Which is the purpose of a storyboard.

So I set about it. Got tea, a piece of homemade pie, and closed the door to my little office. Began to note the main points for each chapter and the islands (separate dramatic scenes) within each chapter. Arc them on a flow chart as a series of cartoon boxes. Test their track.

They didn't. Track, that is. Boring, boring, boring.

The critic got real happy. "You're a one-novel author," it shouted. "Yes, your current book is getting lots of great reviews and people are loving it. But that's it, baby. Nothing more to come."

After a pretty discouraging two hours fighting my storyboard and this ruthless inner voice, I went back to bed. Screaming under the covers does help, especially when someone who cares a lot about you is listening and can give good advice.

Such as, "What story are you really wanting to tell? The one you have sketched out so far?"

No. Not really.

"Then how do you rethink it?"

I talked it through. I went through each character's main plot points, or story arc, and let the words out into the air. As I spoke them, I could hear the strengths--there were some!--and the flaws. "What does she really want?" I answered that question. "What about this idea?" It was a good one. Suddenly I had to run back downstairs and write it all down.

The result wasn't a revamped storyboard--that will come later. It was a character plot chart. One for each of the three people I'm tracking. As I wrote down their initial longing (that opens the story), their main challenges (that provide meat for the story), their crises (that peak toward the end), and the results, I saw the overlaps. I realized I needed to do three separate storyboards, one for each of these characters. Then weave them together.

Whew. Saved from my own self. The critic stood back, nodded, said, "Maybe you do have another book in you, after all."

This Week's Exercise--for Novelists and Memoirists Make a plot chart for each of your main characters. Keep their passageways separate until you get each uniquely on paper. Then place them side by side and see where there's overlap.

If you feel extremely brave after this, try storyboarding what you learn.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ever Seen Your Name in Lights? I Just Did!

When I did my book signing last week at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, a friend said, "Check out the marquee. Your name is in lights." Luckily, someone had a camera. My mother will never believe this otherwise. It was a first, there for all the rush-hour traffic on Washington Avenue to see.

Book tours are strange experiences. I've been very lucky on this one. Minneapolis's book signing drew 90 people, and they listened to my 20 minute reading then asked such good questions about writing, I wanted to stay and talk with them all night. I've been on book tour events where only a few people showed up, and I've spoken to other authors who've experienced the same thing. So thank you, if you came to listen and support a fellow writer. It's a solitary profession and we need all the support we can get.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Three Aspects that Make Writing Healing--And Create Good Books

This past weekend I taught my trio of one-day workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. One of them, the most difficult to teach and the most rewarding for me, is called "Writing through Healing, Healing through Writing."

Twenty-eight writers of all skill levels, genres, and ages gathered in one of the Loft's beautiful classrooms for a day. We explored what made our writing go deep enough to be healing--for us as well as for a reader.

I've taught the class for about ten years, using ever-growing research about the healing effects of certain types of writing. James Pennebaker, from the U of Texas, Austin, launched my interest in this topic. He clued me into the amazing medical documentation on creative writing's benefit in reducing physical illness and emotional stress.

One of my favorite books on this subject is Louise De Salvo's Writing as a Way of Healing. De Salvo talks about Pennebaker's research and how important it is that writers use all three of the elements that make writing actually heal. I've journaled for years and was very interested in hearing that venting into my journal, for instance, doesn't have healing effects on me. It's good for processing, not healing.

To heal us and touch the reader, writing must have:

1. specific details (senses-rich images, rather than concepts)
2. how the writer or narrator felt about the event when it happened
3. how the writer or narrator feels about the event now

De Salvo cites the research of Pennebaker and others, noting that it is the combination of these three elements that makes writing a healing process. Not one alone, not even two.

In my workshop this weekend, writers asked themselves which of these three aspects they naturally favored. A person who writes about thoughts and feelings will use doorways #2 or #3 to enter her story--reflective, conceptual writing. The third aspect, specific image-rich detail, is the missing element. When it's added to the piece of writing, the magic happens. The writing becomes healing. Same with a writer who lists events and specific details with no trouble. But the missing element is the feeling, the "what does this mean to me?" analysis of the experience. Some writers believe that the events should speak for themselves. But there needs to be some reflective writing to make it mean something to both writer and reader.

Why don't writers naturally incorporate all three aspects, giving themselves a healing boost from their own art?

Because it causes them to re-experience strong events, re-feel the strong feelings.

I wrote many times about my experience with cancer. I could reflect for pages on my feelings and thoughts about what happened. But it wasn't until I began to add the specific details--describe the room and the chair where I had chemotherapy, tell about the movie I went to each week as a treat to keep myself from throwing up too much, talk on the page about what it looked like when I lost my eyebrows--did I begin to heal.

This Week's Exercise
List 10 turning points in your life, events or moments when you experienced a big change. Pick one. Set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes. Write about it as it comes, then read it over. Ask yourself which of these three doorways did you go through? See if you can fill in the missing aspects. Does it make the writing more healing for you?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beginning and Ending Chapters--Bookends You Can Work on First

My weekly book-writing classes at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center are wrapping up their six-week fall session this month. We're reviewing what we've learned about first and last chapters. In my teaching, I've learned these are essential signposts, bookends to keep a writer going forward with a book project.

Many writers start with outlines. An outline seems the best way to manage a huge project like a book. Outlines stall me. I use an outline, like I use notes cards and a writing notebook, but outlines can't form the basic structure of my book. It becomes too linear, too predictable. If it doesn't surprise me, it won't surprise the reader.

I use islands to start a book. Kenneth Atchity (author of A Writer's Time) introduced me to the concept of "islands," although Natalie Goldberg and others use them too. Islands are nonsequential units of writing, dramatic moments in fiction or memoir, teaching moments in nonfiction.

I begin my book in islands, not worrying how they're going to link up. I just let myself write freely.

Freedom's great. But have you ever noticed what happens when there's too much freedom? Islands become hard to organize. The writer starts to lose perspective on her project. I use another tool, storyboarding, to help this. But even more effective is the exercise of first and last chapters.

Your First Chapter Must Have . . .
In our summer session, my writing classes worked on their first chapters. I asked them to consider these "must haves" in a first chapter:

1. Introduction of main players (narrator, others) via anecdote
2. Introduction of main dilemma or conflict (fiction and memoir) or main questions or need (nonfiction) that the book will answer
3. Placing the reader in a relevant container (physical and emotional and cultural setting) that will echo throughout the book

The goal of the first chapter is just to create a tension cord, tight enough to pull the reader into the second, third, fourth chapters, and so on to the end. You don't give everything away yet. But you create a triggering event that triggers the reason for the rest of the book. You create an engaging place and time for the story you're going to tell--even nonfiction books must do this via their opening anecdotes.

We workshopped (shared with discussion) our chapter drafts and crafted them during the summer session. I saw huge improvement in everyone's writing--it was as if the focus on a small part of the book, one essential chapter, helped the writers see strengths and weaknesses in their overall writing.

By fall we were ready for the last chapter. Even though nothing in the middle had been written yet.

Your Last Chapter Must Have . . .
Ending chapters are not where everything gets wrapped up neatly. In fact, you must leave the reader with some hunger, some unresolved emotion, some longing to go back and read your book again. That way they will think about the story for days, talk about it with their friends. Lining up all the ducks is satisfying for you, boring for the reader.

This isn't to say that you can leave large sections or questions unanswered. If you're writing a mystery, you need to solve it. But perhaps your memoir isn't going to reveal a happily-ever-after. That's just fine. Leave with a call to action or a relevance to the reader's life. Make them think and feel a lot, and you have a good last chapter.

What else makes a good last chapter? Not introducing new dilemmas, or main conflicts. It's too late. The reader will go, "Where'd that come from?" You can hint at one, if you're writing a sequel. But main dilemma is rarely wrapped in the ending chapter. More often you need to finish tying dilemma threads in the next-to-last (penultimate) chapter.

What really needs attention in the last chapter are the main relationships. How did the narrator change? How did the method you're teaching shift your way of approaching life? How did the character realize something? Show us how the primary players changed, how something new was realized or achieved or lost. Demonstrate a new state of being and you'll have the reader hooked, hungry, and happy.

This Week's Exercise
Spend time with your first chapter, your last chapter, in whatever shape they might be. Craft them if you haven't already--brainstorm possible beginnings, possible endings. Then, using the notes above as a checklist, analyze the chapter drafts for what's missing and what's too much.

Any time you spend on your bookend chapters will teach you a lot about your writing in general.

And if you live near the Twin Cities, consider joining me for a writing workshop on this subject. It'll be on Thursday, November 5, 4-5:30 p.m. at the Loft Literary Center. The workshop is called "Container, Dilemma, and Players: Three Essential Elements for Making Your Writing Come Alive," and we go into more depth and try writing exercises for these important chapter elements.

Registration is limited. For more information or to sign up, go to and search for the workshop title.