The Story Behind the Board

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

June 3, 2014

Tips for Writers“You should take Mary Carroll Moore’s class on developing a book.” A newly published author offered me this advice in 2012 when I told her I was quitting my day job to finish writing my novel. She took this workshop, published and won a literary award.

Moore teaches in NYC, Minneapolis and on Madeline Island. Of the three places, I actually lived in Minneapolis, but along with quitting my marketing career I was downsizing and moving in with my eldest daughter and her husband. They lived in WI six miles south of where my novel, “Miracle of Ducks,” is set.

Together we would move out west where I’d rejoin my husband who had taken a contract earlier in Idaho. My kids were headed to grad school in neighboring Montana. So I had a blessed but small window of time to actually live where I had imagined my characters.

As serendipity would have it, that setting included Madeline Island. And, Moore was offering her book development class while I’d be living in the area. Of all places–so yes, with my final “real” paycheck, I paid for the workshop.

In order to get to Madeline Island, which is the largest of the Apostle Islands that buffer Chequamegon Bay from Lake Superior’s inland sea, you have to take a 30 minute ferry. The ferry lands at La Pointe which is a significant place to my novel’s protagonist and an ancient community first settled by Ojibwa, French, British and finally American.

Madeline Island School for the Arts (MISA) is about three miles inland from La Pointe. For five days, I ferried my car and drove to MISA while other attendees stayed in cabins. Most were from the East Coast; a few from the Twin Cities; one from England and two from WI. And I was close enough to commute.

Writing workshops are nothing new to me. Like most writers, I value classes, workshops and conventions to learn and meet other people. And, like many writers, when I had a full-time day job I took at least one extended weekend a year to focus on writing. My favorite was in Lacrosse, WI at a Franciscan Spirituality Center where I studied the hero’s journey by living it in a guided retreat.

But, at the rate I was writing, I’d finish my novel in 2050. This leap of faith, this deliberate switch in focus, the whole idea behind quitting a good career, was to remedy that drawn-out process. I couldn’t afford to live on a dream, I had to work it into a reality. So I was trusting that earlier bit of advice to take Moore’s class.

My first day was disappointing. Of 20 attendees I was one of two who had not taken a previous class or joined one of Moore’s online writing communities. I felt like I was the starving writer surrounded by a bunch of rich groupies who could afford to hang out on a remote resort island for a fab lit retreat.

But I was wrong. Yes, these were highly successful people–lawyers, college professors, pilots, business owners–and they were mostly (except for a handful) published authors. I went from feeling like I was the studious writer to feeling last-in-class.

Yet Moore, from what I learned, had no patience with such feelings. She was not like the approachable workshop leaders I had met previously, she was the real-deal: a multi-published author who worked in the industry I hardly knew anything about. I shoved my feelings of inadequacy aside and began to learn what this group already knew.

Moore knows how to develop a book.

If you can’t take her class, buy her book, “Your Book Starts Here.” What I can tell you is that by the end of five days I knew how to write “Miracle of Ducks.” I learned more from this workshop in five days than I did in four years earning a degree in writing.

And it’s all in the storyboard. Now, a storyboard is nothing new. It’s Moore’s understanding of how employ both linear and non-linear thinking, using the storyboard. For me, I knew it was “my” storyboard when I learned that her process mapped the hero’s journey. No matter the genre or topic, I believe that the best stories follow the arc of the hero’s journey.

So this is my back-story (you know, the thing they tell you not to do in a novel). But I felt you needed to know why I believe in this process, how I used it to write my novel and how I’ve adapted it for revision. In fact, I spent my weekend revising the storyboard as a tool for my revision process and I’m excited by the results.

Because I’m revising the next few months, I need a bit of structure. My structure, I hope, will benefit you, too. Each Monday my tip for writers will be about this storyboard process and I how I’ve used and adapted it. This is what you can expect over the next few months and it all involves the storyboard:

  • Mapping the Hero’s Journey
  • Writing a Novel Scene by Scene
  • Finding the Gaps
  • Creating a Three Act Arc
  • Using NaNoWriMo to Create or Complete Novel Projects
  • Novel Project Versus a Novel
  • Levels of Editing: When and Why
  • Self-Editing, Beta Readers and Professional Editing
  • Mapping Revisions
  • Annual Progression of Projects

Roughly, this is my documentation of process. Feedback, questions and comments about your process are encouraged. We can all share in the learning together as we write our way to our goals.

Some inspiration from MISA 2012:

Madeline Island July 2012 (32) Madeline Island July 2012 (35) Madeline Island July 2012 (44) Madeline Island July 2012 (62) Madeline Island July 2012 (114)




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  1. zsasushi

    Questions: 1. How do you manage your time? With working on your blog, your novel, and your paying work, it’s a mystery to me how you do it all!

    2. Did your novel have a storyline when you went to the workshop? Did you already have an arc, but without details? What did Miracle of Ducks look like when you began in earnest ie-quitting your job, taking a week-long workshop, etc.

    • Charli Mills

      Answer 1: Loosely…when I worked, my time management was tighter and it felt constricting. I start with big goals and work backwards–I’ll address my time management process in this series under “Annual Progression of Projects.” I really do manage my time annually. The rest of the year is spent doing what I set out to do. We all need time to be as well as do.

      Answer 2a: I “thought” my novel had a storyline. Like many novelists, I had outlined chapters. I will never outline again because I stressed over rewriting before I was even finished writing. Storyboarding allows me to be both linear and non-linear with development. I have now used it with a project that had a storyline and with a project that was brand new, just an idea. It works for both. And that’s why I’ll spend time breaking the process down into chunks.

      Answer 2b: Miracle of Ducks was a mess! I didn’t know it was a mess until I put it to the board. Oh, the time I spent re-writing chapters that I cut ultimately. Or the first pages I crafted, over and over, because they are the most important–well, I over-worked them. With the storyboard, I don’t do that anymore. I can enjoy the process of writing and not worry about the arc. I can go back after I have scenes written and re-map the arc, or easily spot gaps, or apply needed revisions.

  2. Norah

    Hi Charlie,
    I really enjoyed reading your post and appreciate your sharing your feelings about quitting your day job and taking your real work of writing seriously. I look forward to reading your writing tips each week. I’m sure I will learn a lot. I think the storyboard as a way of planning is excellent and l look forward to seeing what you do with it.

    • Charli Mills

      I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but I had to test drive it! Now I’m sharing what I learned, but I look forward to seeing how other people will use the tool. I want to stress that it’s adaptable and I’m still learning, too.

      • Norah

        It’s sounds great, and most of us take what we like and adapt it to suit ourselves. I am looking forward to learning even more from you! 🙂

      • Charli Mills

        I like that this is an adaptive process which is why I’ll start with what I learned and how I adapted it. But like our flash, it’s always most exciting to see dynamic results from participation.

      • Norah

        A little bit of synergy goes a long way!

      • Charli Mills


  3. Annecdotist

    Look forward to following this with you, Charli. I envisage some great discussions. And how lovely to have found a course that really did it for you.

  4. Charli Mills

    I’m looking forward to the discussions and also to seeing how other people will use the concept. And the course came at the right time and because the story board made sense in such a simple way it left me feeling, “I can do this!”

  5. TanGental

    I’m intrigued; all my writing start with an idea and I just run with it. So far that has resulted in five novel length piece of which four probably have the legs to be turned into published works (oh so slowly…). I’ve tried to capture arcs, chapter summaries, plot descriptions and I just get bored and want to write. I love letting my characters take over. Sure, things get cut and moved around and sometimes the heavy lifting does my back in but it’s always satisfying. So the storyboard idea intrigues me as to what it is and how it works: in my mind’s eye it looks like one of those white boards they use on cop dramas as they try a piece a crime together…

    • Charli Mills

      Geoff, I’m with you on that sentiment. I love to write and I love to let the story inform me. Writing reveals the action and characters show up on the page saying things I had no idea that they’d say.

      However, I found myself agonizing over things like plot and story arc; revision left me indecisive; chapter breaks confounded me. And, like you, I get bored with mechanics and organization. I also tend to over-write an opening paragraph, get frustrated and not move on…

      Thus the storyboard saved the day for me! It’s actually simple to use, taps into my creative side, yet allows me to play with structure and try out different paths without having to over-think my writing. The rewriting follows after I’ve revised the board and I feel more confident and energized doing so.

      I sound like a promotional ad right now, but I promise to give rock solid details of what I do in hopes that other writers can use (or adapt) the process and have more time to do what we love–write!

      While I was taught to use a simple poster board, I now employ one of those white boards used on cop dramas!

  6. Carrie Lynn Lewis

    I’m curious to learn your experiences with story boarding. I know it’s a common tool in movie making, but haven’t heard much talk about its use for noveling. Sounds intriguing.

    • Charli Mills

      Interesting point–in movie making it helps to clump similar shots for the efficiency of shooting film. A more visual writer could even use the board to draw closeups of long shots. It can be versatile, but I’ll share how I’ve used it and then I hope to see how others might use it a different way.

  7. Lisa Reiter

    A super post, Charli, full of inspirational titbits for me and the joy of reading someone else share a little of their inner being.

    This ramble all leads to a couple of requests for advice so bear with me.. I hope you won’t mind.

    My manuscript is is a whole bunch of trees and I can’t see the wood for them. I do seem to have a bit of a hole in my organisational abilities since chemo – no need for sympathy – I just need to put the rest of my otherwise well equipped brain to work with the right tools to get round it, but it all feels a bit chicken and egg in terms of where to start! I’ve started with Scrivener to at least keep all the little saplings in one place – I’ve stopped losing documents which is at least one relief. It also offers (with rave reviews) a cork board facility which I believe I could use to storyboard my book, but I’m losing the plot / big picture or whatever we need to name it and don’t know how to start that process (no writing workshops or previous knowledge to draw on here).

    I also confess to being like Geoff – I get bored very quickly with the latest fad – before I’ve worked it out, particularly if I don’t immediately see the benefits. And I’ve been oscillating between linear and matrix views of my material for too long now. I need help managing the two simultaneously.

    From what you say, Mary Carroll Moore’s book seems a tempting purchase and I’ve had a peak inside on Amazon – I like what I see and read in the available samples but a few questions if I may?

    Can you tell me if she takes you step by step (with pictures?!) through the storyboarding process or whether I need a beginner’s book on that first.

    I’m guessing a storyboard would give me a fluid kind of mind map to position my trees in their wood?! And I’d then have the shape of it in front of me..?

    I suspect her book will, as well, lead me through the right thinking in terms of three acts, main message and all those other things I didn’t start with but in such a way as the structure begins to appear out of the fog!?

    I’m really looking forward to your Monday tips, following your progress and the resulting discussion!

    • Charli Mills

      Lisa, I hope you didn’t have to rewrite all this, but if you did, thank you for your perseverance!

      First, I do recommend Moore’s book, but understand that it’s comprehensive. It may have more information than you need, but she has wisely set it up workbook-style and you do not have to read it cover to cover. An added plus, she includes the genre of memoir and addresses it specifically, whereas I’ll be focusing on commercial fiction.

      While I’d love to gush out a bunch of answers, I’ve tried to strategically pace each future post so that it is digestible. Not only do I get bored with fads, I also get overwhelmed by the all the book advice available. Next Monday, I’ll start with the board as how I adapted it to the hero’s journey. The board can be adapted to any arc with a bit of tweaking and I’ll show that. Remember the most basic arc of any story is beginning, middle and end. Moore advises that you open with purpose and energy (act I). In fiction, the beginning forms the conflict arc. I hope we can further this discussion next week and answer your process questions then.

      I’m so excited you have Scrivner! Because you are already writing trees (Moore calls them islands) it will be easier to create your woods. I use Scrivner and write by scene. Then I go to the story board and play with rearranging scenes to see what best fits the developing arc (hero’s journey for my fiction) and what might be missing. It let’s me see if I am lacking in energy in the beginning, where I’m going in the middle with crisis and how I plan to wrap up the end with resolution. I can also map the inside story as well as the outside (the inside story is where transformation happens–Annette Gelder wrote a terrific post this week on the importance of transformation to memoir and it’s also key for the hero’s journey).

      As to pictures, I’m going to include pictures of my process and a link (next Monday) to Moore’s YouTube video on using a storyboard. But her book is not visual. In part, that’s why I feel the need to photograph my process which I have been doing since 2011.

      Your final shape is a W…it doesn’t make sense today, but stick with me and you’ll be excited by the W! So many other arcs that I’ve studied or read are all circular. And that just doesn’t compute in my brain because stories–no matter how creative–are still linear driving from Act I to Act III. So the circles always felt like trying to place a round in a square. The W allows both linear thinking and creative possibility.

      It’s different from the cork-board on Scrivner because of size. I wasn’t kidding Geoff when I told him that indeed my board is a whiteboard like what’s used on crime dramas! Scrivner just isn’t big enough but it’s fantastic to use after the storyboard because you can easily rearrange scenes which you can’t do in a word processing software.

      I look forward to seeing how you use the storyboard for memoir. I think it will be exciting enough and yet practical to hold your attention.

      And, I suspect chemo-brain is like Lyme-brain. My eldest has Lyme Disease and some days she has gaps. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we vent, but mostly we strive to understand and work around the holes to fill them in.

      • Lisa Reiter

        The timing here and synchronicity feels like a gift from the universe! Thank you! – for such a comprehensive reply and no small amount of hope. I’m going to keep up with your weekly advice in a ROW 80 kind of way! Book on order and looking for a huge whiteboard over the weekend! ????

      • Charli Mills

        One can never have too many stories about rainbows and unicorns…:-)

      • Charli Mills

        Ha, ha…Lisa, I have no clue why my comment on unicorns showed up here! Synchronicity in comments is a tad off. Great that you ordered the book and I have a 4′ x 3′ dry erase white board that mounts on the wall.


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