Extreme Book Makeover: Reconnecting with your Story

I wrote a story 5 years ago that I didn’t finish called Limelight. A project for what I called our “Blog-A-Book” series, Limelight was a teaching novella that put application to the theory of writing by deconstructing the story-crafting process step by step. I worked with our blog and MBT Voices audience to pull together characters, a plot, the inner journey and then went scene by scene . . . until I hit Act 3.

Then I landed an unexpected writing project and something had to give.

The novella sat unfinished, my hero and heroine on the verge of their Black Moment Event, their Epiphany and their Triumphant Ending, free-framed, waiting for me to find the time.

Find. The. Time.  Right!  As time wore on, the story flow began to subside, and although I still loved the story, whenever that elusive “time” showed up, getting back into the character’s heads, the emotion and flow of the story seemed overwhelming.

Until . . . two weeks ago.  I pulled out Limelight to teach as series for our MBT Premium Members called “Build-A-Book” where we start with an idea and end with a publishable book.  As I started to read the story (and realized I still liked it), I knew I had to finish it.

But how to get into the flow again?

Summertime can be such a challenge for writers—vacations, kids camp schedules and house repairs cut into our writing time and we can find our writing flow disjointed, our minds scattered and our ability to identify with our characters stunted.

I discovered, as I went back to my writing chair with this story, a few tools to help me get back into the current of the story.

  1. I pulled out my Synopsis. Whether a story is contracted or not, I always “tell myself the story” in a rough synopsis form whenever I finish plotting and doing my character work.  Although I give myself freedom to veer from this plan as I see fit, having that outline helps me know:
    1. If my Plot makes sense
    2. What research I’ll still need to do
    3. If I’ve completed the character’s inner journey
    4. If I’ve build the romance correctly.
    5. If I’ve capped it off with a sufficient happy ending

After I write the synopsis, I separate it into chapters so I can see, roughly, what I need to accomplish in each chapter.

I dug up the synopsis for Limelight and tracked down to where I’d left off.  Now I had a game plan.

  1. I pulled up my Character Layering and Essential Scenes Guide. The synopsis gave me an external blueprint of the story. But I still needed to dive into the character and discover how much of himself he’d revealed to the reader—and the other characters. Character layering (and unlayering!) is a powerful way to reveal backstory naturally, mimicking the way we get to know people. In this way you can save character secrets and their dark moment story until exactly the right time for the reveal to move the story forward.  Although I read the story over to get momentum, I still needed to catch up to what the reader knew about my characters, and take the next logical step.

 

My Character Layering Chart helped me track this revelation, and the Essential Scenes told me what I’d accomplished . . .  and what I still needed to write.

 

  1. My Character Change Journey Chart. Along with my character revelation, I also needed to track my character’s inner journey.  While it can sometimes feel like an organic process, the character change journey is actually a step-by-step process, something I plot out in the story.  Grabbing this chart helped me figure out what scenes I still needed to write.

 

MBT Character Change Journey/Chart

Act 1
Snapshot of DreamInvitation to change

Need to change

 

Act 2
Attempt and failureCost consideration

Rewards

Desire

Attempt and mini-victory

Training for Battle

 

Act 3
Black MomentEpiphany

New Man (& Testing)

Happily Ever After

 

 

  1. I re-read the story, without editing. Although I love to dig into scenes and create a more powerful emotional experience, I needed to “feel” the story, to step into the storyworld and reacquaint myself with the characters, to worry about them.  Stopping to edit would only slow this down.  (as an aside, I did take rewrite notes and asked questions to answer later, after I’d finished the story.)  I am an Outliner AND an Organic writer, meaning I create a plan, and set up the right structure for my scene, but I also love to “feel” my way into a story and let my characters take over, so reading the story gave me that final push into the flow of the story.

 

  1. I told my writing partner the story. Nothing helps keep you on track like a story partner with whom you can discuss the overall flow and brainstorm the next scene.  Hearing yourself talk it out will assist the scene in coming to life.

 

  1. I blocked out a huge chunk of writing time. Knowing it would take a bit to get my legs into the story, and estimating it would take about 15,000 words to finish, I scheduled 3 full days to write, stocked the fridge and warned my family that I would be “going dark.”

 

The good news is that I finished the book.  And I can’t wait to put it together for the MBT audience (although with my creation notes).  But if you are working on a story this summer, and need to stay “in the flow” despite your crazy schedule, here’s a few tips (in summary)

 

  1. Tell yourself the story (so you have a game plan)
  2. Keep a copy of the Character Layering Chart and Check off your Essential Scenes as you write them.
  3. Plot the Character change journey and assign each step to chapters, so you know (generally) where you are (so you can pick up where you left off)
  4. Read the scene just before the one you are going to write, without editing, at the top of your writing session.
  5. Keep your writing partner current with your story so they can brainstorm with you and give you ideas (and help keep you on track)
  6. Block out time to write, even if it isn’t every day. Stock the fridge, trade babysitting with a friend, send the kids to camp . . . whatever.  We all know that time is valuable, so even if you don’t keep a regular schedule, don’t just give up—hunt for and protect that time.

 

Writing a great book doesn’t just happen.  And when we have to fit it around summer fun, it has to become intentional.  But with the right strategies, you can get that chapter written—and go to the beach, too!

 

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

 

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Step-by-Step: Storycrafting Process

My brother ran a ½ marathon last weekend.   For him, this is a regular occurrence – he has a wall full of finisher medals from marathons and iron man competitions around the country.  I love seeing him cross the finishing line – so much triumph in his face.

It’s exactly how I feel when I finish a novel. 

I handed him a water bottle as he met us in the finishers area.  “I’d love to run a marathon someday,” I said.

He leaned over, groaning a little, stretching out.  “You might not say that around mile 10,” he said.  “When everything starts to hurt and you think. . .why did I do this?”

Yeah, he’s right.  I amended my statement to reflect truth:  “I’d like to SAY I ran a marathon!”

We laughed, but that’s a little like the conversation I have with aspiring authors.

“I’m going to write a book.”

I love it when I hear people declare this!  I love standing at the edge of a brand new project, seeing the possibilities of the story, the twists and turns, the character growth, the amazing ending.  So much potential embodied in that statement.

And so much struggle.  Because writing a great story doesn’t just happen.  From idea to finished story, each chapter and step in the character journey is wrestled out of our brain (and hearts).   As Hemingway is reported to have said, “It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

The problem with writing a great novel is that we want to rush ahead to the good stuff, to the chapters and happy ending without stopping to take the time to work through each step.  But without completing the characterization and plotting, the themematic exploration and developing the storyworld and the tension, it’s akin to me jumping off my sofa, grabbing my old running shoes and leaping into the crowd.

I’m going to die, long before mile 10!

First Scene and Synopsis ImageAnd this is why, I believe, aspiring authors give up around chapter 7. (or before). Because enthusiasm can only fuel us so far down the journey.  Without proper preparation, we’ll fizzle out when we get to the mire of Act 2.

At MBT, we have a Peptalk every Thursday night to encourage and train our members on the craft of storycrafting.  This year, one Thursday a month, we’re building a book together, working through the process step by step.

Last week, we opened up our private Peptalk to the public to take a peek at what we do.  We quickly summed up the process, then talked about how/when to craft the Inciting Incident.  We outlined our goals for Chapter 1, then Rachel Hauck and I shared some tips for getting the story on the page.

And, because we had such an overwhelming response, I thought it might help if we shared the replay.

Get the video replay of the class – Build-A-Book:  Inciting Incident and Getting the Story on the Page.  (You’ll also get the PDF Slides that are rich in the content we talk about.)
 
Quickly, here’s a rundown of the process we cover:

  1. Start with your Story Seed (or idea that sparked the story)
  2. Decide on your Genre
  3. Discover your Setting
  4. Create your Characters
    1. Find the Dark Moment Story
    2. Use the Story Equation (a MBT Tool) to build the plot
    3. Put your elements together in a loose plot (using our grid for story structure)
  5. Ask your Storyquestion
  6. Create a short premise
  7. Create the Act 2 elements (we use a 4 Act plotting structure)
  8. Decide on your Inciting Incident
  9. Craft your home world/Chapter 1 elements
  10. Put together your plot & Tell Yourself the Story

WRITE!

You can run a marathon (aka, write a brilliant novel!)  You just need to plan for success.

Have a great writing week and Go! Write Something Brilliant!

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Susie May

 

Using Body Language to Write Stronger Characters

Sometimes I look up from writing a scene at my computer and my family is watching me.

One or two of them look concerned. Another one is muffling laughter behind their hands. And my husband? Well, he’s got the “she didn’t tell me she was a writer when I met her” look in his eyes.

Looking around the room, I realize I’m at it again: my brow is furrowed. I’m muttering under my breath. Maybe running my fingers through my hair. Or maybe I’m twisting my hands together in front of me. Or biting my bottom lip. Or trying to figure out how a person produces a crooked half smile … I mean, is that even possible?

Admit it! If you’re a writer, you’ve done it too — acted out a character’s facial expression or posture, trying to figure out how to best write emotion so that you show, don’t tell.

The challenge goes beyond not wanting to look crazy to our family — although there is that. It’s wanting to move beyond the  descriptors we’ve read before and come up with something fresh.

You can only read about a character chewing on their thumb nail (nervousness) or rubbing their hand on the back of their neck (frustration) or standing with their hands fisted on their hips (defiance/anger) so many times before you think “Been there, read that.”

Last week, when I found myself waving my hands in the air — and yes, looking up and seeing my family watching me with that “oh, no, here she goes again” look — I abandoned my solitary game of charades and tried something different:

I googled the phrase  body language for frustration.

  • One website showed a basic image of — you guessed it — a man rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. This, it turns out, is a very common signal for frustration. But the website also listed other ways we express frustration, including:
    • vigorously scratching your hands or face
    • tapping your hands against your lap
    • shaking your foot repeatedly
  • Another tumblr post by Reference for Writers worth checking out is 41 Emotions as Expressed through Body Language
  • And then there’s this Body Language Cheat Sheet from Writers Write.
  • You can also type in a phrase like angry body language or sad body language and than click on the “image” link and explore the different images — some of which will be highlighted with descriptors to help you better understand body language.

The point is this: Don’t settle for the first facial expression or posture or hand gesture that comes to your mind. Odds are, you’ve written that before in a previous scene or chapter.

When I read through my manuscripts — fast drafts to galleys — I weed out the repetivive body language, along with the repeated words and repeated plot points. Nothing needs to keep showing up over and over in your manuscript — unless a particular action is there for a reason, like a character who has a  bad habit of chewing their nails.

Are you using body language to build strong characters?

[Tweet “Use body language to create strong characters @bethvogt #writer”]

 

Interview with a Hero

I was working on the hero of my next book and found I couldn’t get anything real out of him.

He was a bit two-dimensional.  Flat. Too single purposed. I went through my standard exercises – dark wound, lie, fear, secret desire, true destiny…

You can see that here:

Dark Moment: Being yanked from his school, his family, his home to go to another boarding school.

Lie: Don’t get close. Don’t open your heart too wide.

Fear: Love involves pain. He’s even assigned that to God. Look what He did to His own son. But Tanner knows God is real and true, and he must seek Him.  But is standoffish

Secret desire/true identity:  ??

What can he do in the end he can’t do in the beginning? Be honest about his feelings. Be okay with everything NOT being safe or neat or tied in a bow. Giving up his traditions. Taking on a NEW identity. The Duchess’s husband.

He can LOVE…

What is his story? About leaving the comfort and safety of his beliefs to explore something new and wonderful. We can stay put in God and do well, OR we can take a chance and let Him move us out of our comfort zones to deeper places in Him.

Deep calls to Deep… But what does he want???

At this point, I had no idea what he wanted. I knew who he was when the story started, but I had no idea he was really about, so I asked him a few questions. This type of exercise can help you get to know and understand your character’s motivations. This a free flow dialog that I just let happen. It’s imperfect but it really opened up the hero, Tanner, to me. To view the Interview, click Sample Character Interview.

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Rachel Hauck, My Book Therapy, The Craft and Coaching Community for Novelists
Best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She excels in seeing the deeper layers of a story. With a love for teaching and mentoring, Rachel comes alongside writers to help them craft their novel. A worship leader, board member of ACFW and popular writing teacher, Rachel is the author of over 15 novels. She lives in Florida with her husband and her dog, Lola. Contact her at: Rachel@mybooktherapy.com.