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



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!


smw sig without background

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


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!

smw sig without background




Susie May


Quick Skills: 5 Essentials of a First Chapter

There are a lot of checklists for building a first chapter, and sometimes they can get overwhelming. MBT has an advanced checklist we use to help people build their Frasier Contest Scene (it’s the same checklist I use when building my first chapters!). However, I admit, it can get overwhelming.

So, let’s start building that chapter one with 5 essential elements.  In fact, this is step two in your process. As Sally and I talked about yesterday in Conversations, sometimes it just helps the writing process to let your characters walk on the page and wander around a bit. We can hear them, talk to them, discover if we have profiled them correctly.  No, these wanderings probably won’t be the final first chapter, but it gives you a chance to get some words on the page.

But, after that initial jump into story, you need to go back and craft a foundational first chapter. You add the elements of the advanced checklist later.

Let’s start with 5 things.  (I made a nifty acronym to help you remember, just because that’s how my brain works.  You don’t have to use it. 🙂 ) .

You’re starting your story at the edge of a CLIFF:

Competence: Show that your character is good at something and can eventually win the day with these skills.

Lie: Where will your character start their inner journey (at MBT, we call it the lie they believe…which sets them up later for the “truth that sets them free.”_

Ignition:  Set up the Inciting Incident. Perhaps it’s just the hint of the II. Maybe it is the actual II.  But hint that that something could be happening…even if you are setting up a perfect world situation, we will then suspect your character is about to fall, hard.

Fear:  We want to know what your character fears – maybe he sees something, eh says something, it’s usually very subtle, but something that we can look at later and say, yes, we saw what he didn’t want to have happen!

Focus:  We want to see what your character wants, what his goals are.  What is he about?

Because you know your character, you should be able to craft this scene.  If not, start with a character interview.

Questions to ask your character to help build the first chapter

  • Competence: What are you good at?  What are your super power skills that we can highlight now to show how you’ll save the day at the end?
  • Lie:  What Lie do you believe and how do you show this in your everyday life?
  • Ignition:  What will happen in this chapter, big or small, that will change the life of your character and ignite him on his journey?
  • Fear:  What fear hangs over the book and how can you hint at it in this first chapter?
  • Focus/Want: How can you express your characters focus in this chapter?  Show who they are and what they want?

Now, pull out your first scene draft.  What elements from this first scene reveal your character’s identity?  Add that to the recipe.

The final step is to wrap all of this up in Home World:  inserting the 5 W’s – Who, What, Where, What, and Why.  All these should give you the framework of your first chapter.

Here’s a hint.  Don’t write, just talk through the scene with a friend or craft partner. See if you have captured all the elements. If it doesn’t work, try a different scene.  Now that you know what you’re looking for, you can build the scene verbally before you get it on the page (but remember to take notes of your conversation!)

Remember, you don’t have to get the scene right on the first pass…you’re still in rough draft mode.  Just shoot for these 5 basic elements. You will go back later and add in the advanced list to bring your scene to publication level.

Quick Skills:  Start the first scene with your character on the edge of the CLIFF…ready to take off into the story.  Build in the 5 elements: Competence, Lie, Ignition, Fear, Focus  into your Home World and you’ll have a powerful foundation to your story.

Have a great writing week!

Susie May

P.S. Would you like a one-time 24-hour all access pass to the Team Member Locker room and all the perks of the MBT Team Membership? Sign up here, and get an invitation to Thursday night’s MBT Open House!

Conversations: Walking your Hero onto the page

“Today, you write,” I said to Sally as she plunked down her bag. She appeared frazzled today, her blonde hair pulled back into a frizzy ponytail, and she wasn’t wearing makeup.

“Good, because I need some writing therapy,” she said as she sat down on the chair.  “After week with the kids home from school, it’s time to escape.  In fact, I might have already started.”  She handed me four pages of her manuscript.  “It’s the first scene.”

I scanned it.  “No, it’s not,” I said.  “It’s a smattering if the first scene and a lot of backstory,”  I handed it back to her. “But it’s a great start.  And you’ve done what I would have suggested you do – sit down and start writing that first scene.  I expected you to do just this – start telling the story, loaded in with backstory and narrative about your hero.”

“But isn’t that information important? Like knowing where he went to college, and his job, and why he went into the military, and how he wants to be a doctor, but he can’t afford the training, so he is a medic?”

“Yes, it’s important…later in the story.  And that’s what we’re going to talk about today – delivering your hero or heroine to the page in a way that makes them seem alive and three-dimensional.  Your goal here is to let your character walk onto the page fully formed, thinking and acting as if you suddenly dropped in on him in the middle of his day.

“Consider this.  I saw you walk into today, and even though I didn’t know what your life was like this week, your demeanor and appearance told me you’d had a rough week.  If I were writing this, in your POV, I might have said.  “She just wanted one hour without the kids hanging on her.  Sally slid into the chair at the coffee table and managed to untangle her bag from her shoulder, realizing she still had enough kid supplies to last her  and her brood stranded by the side of the road for a week. Real business-like. She’d have to figure out how to balance her four kids, a tired husband and her decade long hope of being published.  She slid into the chair and took out her notebook, pushing away the thought of the mounds of laundry at home. For this hour, her time belonged to her.”

“That sounds about right.”

“Now, if you were a reader, you’d know a few things about Sally. She is married, her kids demand a lot from her, and she has some conflicting values between writing and mothering.  We also know that she is pursuing a life-long dream. We don’t really need to know any more than that – and it’s told through her eyes as she walks in.  I can teach you some storyworld techniques later to layer in her emotion, but for now, think of it like this.

As you walk into the scene, you’re in your character’s head.  Everything your characters sees, thinks, and feels filters through her POV.  Your job as the author is simply to BE that character.  Don’t tell us what the character is thinking, just think it.  Don’t tell us what they feel, just react to it.  Open your mouth and speak and let the character come alive.

“Think about it; do you know someone from their bio, or from experience the journey with them?  This is what you’re offering your reader as you open your story – a taste of the journey and an invitation to come along.

“You’ll give them a hint at what is at stake, and the kind of person they’ll spend time with, and even the goal and main problem you want to solve, but that’s all.  Don’t bog us down with a bio about your character and who he is – which is what you wrote in this first scene – get us into the story.

Here’s a tip – if you feel you have to write the bio for the sake of understanding the character, that’s fine. Just start the story in chapter two, then file chapter one in the “for the author only” file.  Your story starts when your character stops explaining who he is and what he’s done to this point and gets up and begins to engage in the journey.”

She nodded.  “I think I get it.”

“Now here’s a few things you need to get across in the first chapter. First, we need to know who your character is   – and what I mean by that is, what is personality is, what he believes about himself, and life, and what he wants.  You do this through his mannerisms, what he says, what he thinks and how he treats the situation he is in.  This is showing and is the best way to get the story across. Oh, and don’t make him perfect – he has to have a flaw and a fear is he is going to be real.  Something that comes from  his dark moment, and fueled by his greatest fear. By the way – you need to do the same thing with the heroine.”

She was looking at her manuscript, circling things, crossing out others.  “I think I understand.  It’s like I’m just starting the story on the day of his life, cutting into the action, not introducing him like he was speaking at a seminar and then opening the story.”

“Yes.  Remember, you’ve already done the hard work of character creation – figuring out their identity, their dark wound, their happiest moment, and all the added character elements about him.  Now, you just need to let him walk onto the page. Next week, we’ll talk about the two different kind of romance structure.  Now….go write.”

Truth:  Your character needs to walk onto the page without any backstory baggage to get the story going quickly, and you do this best by getting in the skin of your character.

Dare:  Try writing the scene without any backstory at all.  When you’re finished, hand it to a friend and only answer the backstory questions they have at the end with some line of inner thought or dialogue information.

Tomorrow I’ll give you a little trick (or challenge) to helping your character be unique from all his friends on the page!

Happy Writing!

Susie May

P.S.  Would you like 24-hour all access to the Team Member Locker room and all the perks of the MBT Team Membership? Sign up for Thursday night’s MBT Open House and get the next 24 hours free!  Sign up HERE and you’ll get your access registration link on Thursday morning.