A few months ago, I received my first agent rejection letter. The agent said that while she liked my writing, my story and plot were not unique enough.
After a trip to Dairy Queen and about two days spent doing anything but writing (ha!), I sat down to examine what the agent had said. And you know what? She was right.
So I set out to correct my deficiency in plot and structure. I’ve been a member of My Book Therapy—an organization founded by award-winning author Susan May Warren that focuses on teaching the craft of writing—for nearly a year, but had yet to attend any of the group’s writing retreats.
I decided to change that. Last month, I attended the MBT Storycrafters Retreat in Minnesota.
Changed. My. Life. (And writing!)
The retreat was small, only about 10–15 people, and that meant I received individual attention from Susie. That woman is amazing and just so called to be a teacher. She truly cares about each person there and brainstorms like you wouldn’t believe.
At the retreat, Susie goes through the very basics of building a plot from the ground up. There is so much information crammed into your head over 48 hours, but it is all so valuable. You actually come away with a fleshed out story idea and your first scene written.
I thought I’d share with you some key points I took away from the weekend:
Character sheets aren’t enough.
Before I joined MBT, I used character sheets to get to know my characters. You know, the ones with details about what kind of car your character (we’ll call her Tina) drives, her dog’s name, and her favorite color. While those details can be important and very telling of Tina’s character and who she is, they by no means are enough.
Instead, think about what event in your character’s past (called the Dark Moment) shaped her. Make it one specific event. That event then leads to the Lie She Believes. For example, in my current work in progress, my main character Stacy’s mom broke a promise, one that leads to the death of Stacy’s dream. The lie she believes is that no one can be trusted—that you have to do everything yourself.
The lie leads to the Greatest Fear, which comes true in the Black Moment, or the big event toward the end of the novel when all heck breaks loose and the lie seems true.
See how all of these things tell us much more about a character than the car she drives? In order to figure some of these out, Susie suggested delving deeper by interviewing your character.
Storyworld can make or break a scene.
Storyworld is that all-encompassing something about a scene that puts us there and practically makes the setting like another character. I have always included little details into my scene to accomplish this, but I don’t think I was doing enough of it. Susie suggested brainstorming the following basics just before writing a scene. Spend about 10–20 minutes doing this and it will make you much more in tune with your setting and what’s going on in your scene (even pantsers can do this!):
Ask the five W's.
· Who: What's the POV character's emotional state in 1-2 words?
· What: What is going on around the character? What is the character actually doing in the scene? (This last question really helped me because my scenes were previously filled with lots of smiling, nodding, fists clenching, etc. Susie said to give your characters something to actually do, like peel potatoes, get ready for a party, etc.)
· Where: Physical location, but also what is significant about this place to the character?
· When: Time of day, time of year, etc.
· Why: Why is the character here?
Add in the five senses.
· Close your eyes and pretend like you're there. What do you hear?
· What do you smell? Be as specific as you can, even giving analogies here.
· What do you see? Pull out little significant details.
· Taste can be a feeling (like tasting guilt or regret) or an actual taste.
· You should only use significant touches.
I wrote a new scene at Storycrafters and sent it to my critique partner. She told me it was the best scene of mine she’s ever read because the storyworld was so vibrant and alive.
So yeah, guess it makes a difference.
First lines should put us in the character’s head.
The first line—and I’m talking about the first line of each scene, not just of the entire book—is responsible for drawing our readers in. Because of that, we want them to be powerful. Strong.
We also want them to get us in the POV character’s head.
A great trick Susie taught at the retreat was this: When you’re brainstorming your scene, close your eyes and embody your character. You’ve already thought about where she is, what she’s doing, and what else is going on around her. Now, what is she thinking? What thought is running through her mind?
That is your first line.
An example from the scene I developed at Storycrafters (technically two lines, but you get the picture):
“How had it come to this, singing in a backwoods joint that felt more like a prison courtyard than the concert hall of Kacie’s dreams? Yeah, the Lizard Lounge was definitely a far cry from the Grand Ol’ Opry.”
Your Turn: Have you ever been to a writing retreat? What takeaways did you bring home? If not, what writing tidbits have you been learning lately? Please share!
Since the age of six, when she wrote the riveting tale “How to Eat Mud Pie,” Lindsay Harrel has passionately engaged the written word as a reader, writer, and editor. She holds a B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communication and an M.A. in English. In her current day job as a curriculum editor for a local university, Lindsay helps others improve their work and hones her skills for her night job—writing inspirational contemporary fiction. Lindsay lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with her husband of six years and two golden retriever puppies in serious need of training.
Twitter: @Lindsay Harrel: https://twitter.com/LindsayHarrel