Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mistress of the Craft: Martha Alderson, "The Plot Whisperer"

One of the things I've struggled with the most throughout my writing career is plot. How could I create a novel that is both compelling and perfectly paced, without plot holes or draggy moments?

When, years ago, I discovered Martha Alderson, aka "The Plot Whisperer," I found answers. This is especially true since I am what she calls a "seat of the pants" writer. I've purchased her books and DVDs and used them over and over. And check out her blog - she has fantastic tips there, and you can sign up for her newsletter.

I was truly delighted when Martha contacted me to host her on the eve of the launch of her latest book on this confounding subject: THE PLOT WHISPERER: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master (Adams Media, a division of F+W Media; October 18, 2011). Martha agreed to write a guest post on the revision process (another constant struggle, and trust me, I'm going to take the advice she gives below), and I'm thrilled to bring it to you.

Congratulations. You have written the first draft of your story. Before you embark on your first major rewrite, first take time to re-“vision” the overall project.

The first draft of a writing project is the generative phase. Rather than become dismayed when you are faced with a manuscript full of holes and missteps, even confusion and chaos, accept that this is part of the process.

Your first draft is a fragile thread of a dream. You know what you want to convey—well, maybe. Few writers adequately communicate a complete vision in the first draft of a story, especially when writing by the seat of your pants.

Without reading your story from beginning to end, for now simply create a list of scenes or chapters. Then, make a new plot planner by locating and filling in the four energetic markers—the end of the beginning, the halfway point, the crisis, and the climax. This allows you to analyze your story from a plot and structural level without becoming seduced by the actual words themselves.

1. Assign different colored sticky notes for the protagonist and one or two major characters. Give all the other characters the same color. Link the protagonist’s emotional chronology from scene to scene.
2. Sticky notes of one color follow the energetic intensity in the dramatic action in every scene, above or below the line. Place scenes that hold tension above the line. Put scenes with no conflict below the line.
3. Now, stand back from the plot planner and evaluate how many scenes fall above and below the line, and where. Consider how the rising and falling energy influences the pace of the story.
4. Next, compare the beginning and the end of your story. How do they tie together? Do both the dramatic action plot and character emotional development plot coalesce at the end for more punch and impact? Does the beginning foreshadow this clash?
5. Draw a line connecting the scenes that are linked by cause and effect. To determine the coherence of the overall story and the linkage between scenes, use your plot planners as a cause-and effect vision board.

Once you have let your story rest for at least a few days, read your manuscript all the way through one time as a reader. Keep the next draft in the back of your mind. You may find you have completely zoned out about the character’s emotions in your zeal to create lots of zip and zing in the dramatic action, or in your passion to create a binding historical and/or political timeline. Notice when the dramatic action plot is physical and concrete.

Feel when the character emotional plot is emotional, sensuous, and human. Read for the sequence of the dramatic action and where, in the next draft, you’ll want to explore and discover the character’s emotional development in greater depth.

If, when you reread your manuscript, you find that you have neglected the dramatic action plot, create concrete goals in the next draft that incite the protagonist to action.

Investigate how the loss, betrayal, hurt, or abandonment in the protagonist’s backstory affects her as she moves from and reacts to one action scene after another. Watch for references and hints of themes, and when and how thematic elements of the plot are most accessible.

In the next read-through, make notes on the rough draft hard copy of scenes that need to be cleaned up, expanded, and deepened in their treatment of the characters, action, and theme.

You may find the first draft is wobbly and scenes ramble. The complete vision of your story was a bit hazy the first time through. The action was tangled. The protagonist comes off as bewildering. You have glossed over an energetic marker or two. Don’t panic—this is good. As a matter of fact, the worse the first draft, the better. Trying for perfection before you know what you are trying to convey commonly leads to procrastination.

As you did with the first draft, write this new draft as quickly as possible all the way to the end. Work out the really big issues first and forget about the details for now.

When you finish the next draft(s) and you are certain that the core dramatic action plot and character emotional development plot work and the “vision” of your story is clear, use the next rewrite to begin grafting on details.

Martha Alderson has worked with hundreds of writers in sold-out plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations for more than fifteen years. Her clients include bestselling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow her blog, workshopsvlog, or follow her on twitter and facebook.


Janet Kerr said...

Hello Janet & Martha,

I too am thrilled that the Plot Whisperer gives more valuable information here on revision.

I do have a question that I have been pondering for quite some time. What happens if I don't have a hero for my plot.
Okay, to explain a bit, I am writing a book on a child abduction case. The kidnapper does get very unhealty and I can plot that. But, in this particular case the mother too does not do so well in life after losing her child.
I guess what I am asking is - "Do I have to have a hero?"

Oh, and heartfelt Congratulations Martha!! I have been visiting your blog for years and see you reaching a wonderful dream!

And thank you both for any information,
Janet Kerr

Writing Career Coach Teresa LeYung-Ryan said...

Plot Whisperer Martha Alderson on Book Tour/Blog Tour is so exciting. I see that she's visiting your enchanting blog today, giving advice on "re-visioning" one's overall project before embarking on major rewrite. Tomorrow Oct. 18, 2011 Martha is scheduled to visit my blog where I invite writers to ask questions about Energetic Markers and thematic significance.
Cheers to Martha! Cheers to you!
Cheers to writers & readers!
Coach Teresa LeYung-Ryan
author of Build Your Writer's Platform & Fanbase In 22 Days

Plot Whisperer said...

Janet, you're the first blog on my first ever blog tour. Thank you for being the first of an exciting first and hosting my post on re-vision.
Happy plotting,

Anonymous said...

This is what I've been looking for - a clear, succinct way at revising and 'revisioning.'

I now see that forward movement in writing also encompasses permitting my story to grow and evolve through each version.

Excellent info!

Plot Whisperer said...

Hi Janet!

In order for your story to provide satisfaction to the reader, someone or something has to transform.

You could show something that links thematically to child abduction transforming perhaps...

The most deeply satisfying and meaningful is when a character is transformed by the dramatic action.

Thanks for supporting the blog tour, Janet!

Plot Whisperer said...

Hi Teresa!
Looking forward to seeing what you come up with tomorrow.
Plus, you're giving away a free book. Yes?

Janet Fox said...

Thank you all for coming by! Martha - I'm thrilled to host you, and look forward to following your tour.

Janet K - I agree with Martha's thoughts. The focus of your story isn't on the event but on the people/person most affected by the event. It could be the child, the mom, or the kidnapper (if you can make such a person sympathetic.) I would choose one character and weave the dramatic action around that character. (One hint that works for me: try writing in first person and see where it goes.)

Plot Whisperer said...

Thank you for your support, Janet Fox! I know you only recently received the Plot Whisperer book. I wrote it with you (and all other write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers!) in mind. I look forward to your comments...

Heather Marsten said...

Am looking forward to your blog tour. I always thought plot had to be decided prior to writing, but now I see it is even crucial in re-writes. I'm almost done with first draft of memoir and I can see your hints will help me keep the plot moving. Thanks.


Janet Fox said...

Heather - I'm so happy to hear that this post will help you. I know it will help me, too!

Plot Whisperer said...

Thanks, mkeefer and Heather, for your comments! Nice to know the info is clear and helpful!
Deepest gratitude...

Plot Whisperer said...

Thanks for a fun day, Janet. And... thank you for your kind words and generous heart. I'm so glad we got to do this together.
Sweet dreams,

Janet Fox said...

My treat! (And your book just arrived in my mailbox - yay!)

Kris Bock said...

Great tips on the early stages of revision. I'm doing final revisions on a work in progress, and still figured out some things about my character by using analysis tools and script writing advice (Janet contributed an article on Plot Turning Points to my book Advanced Plotting).

You can read the whole post, What Can You Learn from Revisions?, on my blog:

Janet Fox said...

Thank you, Chris!

Everything I know about plot I learned at your feet or at Martha's. I have great teachers!

Christine said...

Thanks for featuring Martha - I'm new to her work, but really like it. The postit energy of colors linethru makes so much sense to me. Many ideas I never thought of before. Thank you.

Janet Fox said...

Thanks for coming by, Christine! If you like the post, you'll love the book. :)

Maricar said...

Hello Janet & Martha,
Thanks for this great post on revision. It gives me hope that something can be done to help my messy first drafts! :)

Janet Fox said...

Me, too!! Since I have messy first drafts, I can sympathize! :) And I believe Martha has some great answers.

Dawn said...

Hello, Janet & Martha!

I love the idea behind the blog, and am just starting the tour, but this line:

"Your first draft is a fragile thread of a dream."

Made me sit back in my chair. Wow. This was an awakening for me! I realize that has been one of my challenges. When I start something, I notice the holes, and instead of nurturing the framework and using the holes as opportunities to make the initial story potential even greater, I shred it out of existence.

Not to diminish the amazing value of the rest of this particular blog, just wanted you to know how important this one line is.

Thank you for breaking one of my writing chains today!

Dawn Dixon

C. said...

This and the other blogs are all so informative -- I am just putting my plot together and now I'm more excited than ever!

Janet Fox said...

Wow, Dawn, I love how that line jumped out for you. And it is a lovely line.

Love to hear those writing chains snap!! :)

Janet Fox said...

Thanks, C, and so pleased this helped!

Brenda said...

I'm working on two different manuscript revisions right now and this is exactly what I needed. Wonderful! Thanks Martha.

Janet Fox said...

Brenda - So happy this helped!