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.