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

Conversations: How to start your Scene

“How is your NaNoWriMo manuscript going?” I set my coffee down at the table where Sally sat waiting for me, drinking coffee and eating a cookie. A light frost tipped the grass outside, the lake frothy along the rocky shoreline.

“I think my brain is shutting down. I’ve written about two thousand words a day, but I am running out of ideas on how to start my scene.” Sally broke off a piece of her monster cookie, the fresh-baked smell enough to make me wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

“Have you done your scene preparation?  Figured out Layer One: what kind of scene it is, and the 5 Ws’?”

“Oh, that’s the easy part. And Layer Two isn’t so hard either. Creating Tension is easy once you understand the equation: a Character we care about who has a goal, as well as something to lose who meets obstacles that feel insurmountable so much so that we fear they’ll fail.”

“Right. The equation is: Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure.”

She broke off another piece of cookie. A M&M dropped onto her napkin. “But finding the first line and getting going that is stumping me. I feel like the words should just come to me, but…I’m staring at the blank page.”

“I understand. Let me teach you my first line/hook technique that is simple and fast to get you going into the scene. This is Layer Three and it’s simply about making the Hook SHARP.

“S stands for STAKES. What does your character have to lose? What can go wrong? You must have this element or there is simply no reason to have this scene, and especially no reason for your reader to stick with the story. In an Action scene, it’s something that could happen. In a ReAction scene, it might be making a bad decision. To find this, ask: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character right now? What does he/she fear?

“H stands for Hero/Heroine Identification. Why should we care about your character? What about your character makes us understand or even sympathize with him? To find that element ask: What do I have in common with my character? What need, or dream, or situation, or fear, or past experience do we share? And what about that can I extrapolate that fits into my story? Giving your character a realistic, sympathetic situation and realistic emotions is the key to creating that connection between your reader and your character.

“A stand for Anchoring, or Storyworld. Use your inner journalist to create place. By the end of the first paragraph, and for sure the first scene, you should have anchored your character into the scene by using the five W’s. Who, What, Where, When and Why? Then, add in the 5 senses. The Facts and Feelings work together to establish place and evoke emotions. The right storyworld can give us a feeling of happiness, or tension, even doom in the scene. Ask: What is the one emotion you’d like to establish in this first sentence, paragraph, scene? Using the five 5’s, what words can you find that conveys this sense of emotion? Use these in the crafting of your first paragraph.

“R reminds us to start your scene: on the Run. Writing craft instructor Dwight Swain in Techniques of the selling writer says that “a good story being in the middle, retrieves the past and continues to the end.” Your scene should start in the middle of the action, as if drawing back the curtain on the scene to find it already in action on the stage. Ask: How can I start my scene with the characters already engaging the problem of the scene?

“P helps us to identify and weave in the Thematic Problem, or the Story Question, in the scene. You will have one story question, or thematic question that drives your book. This question permeates all the decisions your hero and/or heroine make throughout the story. Ask: What thematic question is my character grappling with in this scene? How can you weave in the theme, or some part of it?

“Once you have identified all these pieces, climb into your POV character’s “skin” (or head) and stand at the edge of the stage, looking at all the activity and ask: What am I (as the character) thinking right now? Not what am I thinking about, but what am I thinking?

“Use this sentence to start your character in the scene. You can change it later, but at this moment, you’ll be in your character’s skin and able to go forward in their POV and write the scene. (Because you’ll know the goals, stakes, obstacles and even the thematic problem they’ll struggle with in the scene). (For Premium Access Members, you may want to refer to this post to http://www.mybooktherapy.com/first-sentence-hook/)

“What if I get the wrong first line?”

“Sally, there’s no wrong first line. But at this point, you’re just trying to get words on the page. Try it – you’ll be surprised at how the words just start to flow out of you once you figure out these elements.”

“I don’t know. I like to let the scene just…flow out of me. Organic. Seat of the pants.”

I looked at her cookie as she finished it off. “When you make cookies, you use the same ingredients for almost every kind of cookie. Sugar. Flour. Eggs. Salt. Baking soda. However, have you ever started making cookies and realized you’ve run out of one of the ingredients? Suddenly you have to run to the store, and your baking is stalled.

“The same thing happens when you are creating a scene. First, you assemble your ingredients. If you skip this part, you don’t know what you’re missing and you’ll suddenly be stalled in your creation process. This way, you’re pulling your “scene ingredients” out of the cupboard (your head) before you start mixing it together. You’re still writing the scene “Seat of the Pants” but you’re using specific ingredients to help you build it. And since you’ve assembled them before hand, you can flow without having to stop and figure out what you’re missing.”

“You’ve been eyeing my cookie all morning haven’t you?”

I laughed. “I put a Scene Starter Infographic last week. It’s still open to the public, so if you want a guide to building your scene, click HERE (http://www.mybooktherapy.com/quick-skills-nanowrimo-scene-starter-infographic/).” I got up from the table. “I need a cookie.”

Truth: Success with scene building and maximizing your writing session is about preparation and gathering your ingredients before you begin. 

Dare: Do your prep work before you begin your writing session. An hour of planning will save you and hour of staring at an empty page!

Have a great writing week!

Happy Writing!

Susie May

P.S. By the way, if you sign up for the daily Flashblog reminder in your email box, you receive the 5 Elements of a Best-Selling
Novel. A quick class on those foundational elements every editor is looking for! Sign up at: http://forms.aweber.com/form/35/866611135.htm

P.P.S. As you might already know, MBT is now offering a premium advanced membership with access to our full library, advanced teaching through webinars and video talk shows and a monthly advanced class. For more info, check out: www.mybooktherapy.com/join-the-team/.


Act 2: Keeping the Middle from Muddling

Is your Act 2 slowing down? Do you find it muddling along? Are you running out of content and creating mundane, circular scenes?  Here’s a way to fill Act 2 with powerful content.

The last scene of Luke and Kenzie’s story was an example of a combo reaction scene to the Romance, and the ramping up of the suspense thread again.  I also threw in a piece of the spiritual thread – that idea that relationships are what hold us together
and make us better people – which is what Luke is supposed to learn on this journey.


Just for a second, I’m going to dive into a discussion about the spiritual journey.  Although this is a romantic suspense, every book has some sort of theme, and even deeper, a story question.  It’s this question your hero and heroine have to grapple with as they journey through the plot.  If your plot does not make them look inside and question who they are, and thereby grow as a person, then your story has no purpose.  The point of a story is character change. J It is this character change thread that will give your Act 2 relevant and powerful content.


I teach a class called Character Layering – it’s a method of character revelation in a story that highlights your hero/heroine’s change, and it is accomplished through what I call, Essential Scenes.  Here is a list of those scenes and when they occur:

Layer One: His Attire: (which reveals his Identity) mannerisms, clothing, public goals(Hint: Commonly this is chapters 1-2)


In Meet the Hero or Heroine, you have a scene that shows:Their Storyworld,Their Identity (that essential element that makes them who they are)Their Goals (what they want)The Glimpse of the Greatest Dream – We want to see what he’s after, what matters to him. You do this by having him see what he wants—just a glimpse of it.Their Competence (if you need to save word count)


Layer Two: His Behavior (which reveals Character/Values/Competence): Remember, this layer reveals how he treats people, his habits (which also reveal values), his reactions to stress (which reveal past hurts, and his essential character).


I am good,so very good (the scene that reveals their values and their habits)

Just give me my blankie (his reactions to stress)


Layer Three: His Choices (which reveal purpose/Noble Cause): This layer reveals his external struggles regarding plot, his greatest dreams, and why he thinks he’ll never find them, his obstacles to love.There are a few scenes that accomplish this layer:


  1. If I could only – what stands in his way to storming the castle and rescuing the princess. (Money, skills, opportunity).
  2. All I want is to be Happy – the story about his fondest memory and why, and what his greatest dream is.
  3. This may lead to The One that Got away story – the revelation of his past romances


Layer Four: His In-security: His internal struggles, greatest dreams and fears, how he feels about love, his
spiritual vacancies. (This might occur anywhere from chapters 12-18.)So you need an Out of Character scene – Have the hero do something that goes contrary to his goals,

Which then leads to the What if I lose everything scene: Have a hint of his greatest fears happen, a sort of foreshadowing of the black moment, and have him consider giving up.

The Sacrificial Act
makes him heroic, but also changes him into the person he needs to be.


Layer Five: His Spiritual Lie and the discovery of the truth.

(Often this occurs near the climatic ending, anywhere from chapter 16-20.)


A Black Moment relates to the greatest fear. It’s when it comes true in some way. You need the Black Moment Event scene, which leads to the Breakdown/Epiphany Scene.

On my character change journey, Luke has accomplished all of Layer 3, and part of Layer 4, so I’ve moved him along sufficiently.  However, Kenzie has a journey also, so as  I construct the next chapter, I’m going to check in with this chart and see where
she is.

When she was on her date with Luke, she dipped into Layer 3, sharing a bit of herself – but I think Kenzie needs more revelation – what stands in her way to happiness?  What is her greatest dream?  I’ll touch on these in this chapter, as well as move her toward layer 4 – uncharacteristic behavior.

Using this chart, as well as some of the others helps me find powerful content for Act 2, and keeps the middle from, uh, muddling.  J  It gives the story focus as they move forward and reveals the essential information for each step in the journey.  If you’re hunting for content for Act 2, try inserting an essential scene and see how it opens the story to new plot threads and deeper character revelation.

Tomorrow, we’ll move into the Character Interview, the Story Threads, the Scene Starter and the first line.

Happy Writing!

Susie May


Act 2: Jumping back into the suspense!

Yesterday, I addressed Scene Flow, and how in a romance scene, you might decide to develop it a bit more, making it longer.  In a suspense, sometimes it’s nice to develop that before you jumpstart the action again.

Today, we’re going to jump back into the suspense, drawing that element forward.


Just to make sure I’m on the right track, I want to go back to my synopsis.  It’s still my roadmap, even though I’ve been taking a few day trips…

Luke wants his sister, who is a giant MacKenzie Grace fan to meet her, and the dinner out at the roadhouse seemed to go without a hitch…maybe no one will recognize her.  But what Luke doesn’t know is that someone has recognized Kenzie – the reporter from the Nashville paper, and she’s hanging around town to get the inside scoop.

A scoop she plans on selling to a national gossip magazine – MacKenzie Grace, hiding from her fans, in torrid love affair with man accused of being a fraud.

While buying Kenzie ice cream, Luke sees the reporter…and intercepts her.  Unfortunately, she is the snake Kenzie predicted…she’ll trade the truth about Kenzie for an exclusive from Luke.

Kenzie revels in the feeling of being a normal person, instead of a celebrity, diving into the simple pleasures of backyard barbeque, and playing croquet.  Maybe this is what she really wants – a home, a family…a man like Luke, who seems to enjoy her company…without the trappings of what her fame and money can bring to him.  He seems to care for her – Kenzie Grace Guinn, the girl who grew up in a trailer in the backhills of North Carolina.  The girl she’s nearly forgotten, and is starting to discover again.   If only she could hide here forever.

Okay, so I’m on the right track. Continue reading “Act 2: Jumping back into the suspense!”