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Writing a Novel Scene by Scene

Tips for WritersWhat I’m going to say will either sound like writing blaspheme, or will set you free.

Also, I’m going to give you a disclaimer: the process I’m sharing works for me. I don’t expect it to work for everyone. Some of you may be kindred spirits; some of you exact opposites. Wherever you stand, take a stand for your own writing. Try a different way or analyze it; you can improvise, accept or discard.

Stop outlining.

Okay, I said it.  Stop outlining your novel before you write it. And yes, I know that there are outliners and pantsers, but I have always been an outliner. What I’ve found is that you need both skills, but at different times in the process. When I was 13, I outlined my first novel. I’m not going to tell you how many novel journals I’ve outlined since, including two independent projects in college.

However, it was also in college that a professor taught me to write in scenes. I’ve never looked at movies the same way because movies are constructed that way. It’s easier to see the construction in a movie than in a novel, so I’ve studied movie scenes ever since. It’s also how I began to recognize the hero’s journey.

But I didn’t know how to bring it together–outlining, scenes and journey–until  I took Mary Carroll Moore’s workshop on book development. That is where I learned to map the hero’s journey to a storyboard. It also provided me with a big “a-ha” moment regarding scenes.

When I took Moore’s class, I was proud of the fact that I had 99 pages including my outline. She was unimpressed. She explained that in order to work the storyboard, you needed material to break down into scenes. So, she had me break down all my pages into scenes.

You see, we tend to write linear and put all the back-story in the front of the book, as if needing to explain what is happening. Outlining is also linear and these processes tend to shut down the creative possibilities.

My professor who taught me to write in scenes also told me to let my characters talk. Whenever I let a character have dialog, I feel like I’m channeling somebody else. I’m not crazy, it’s just that dialog allows me to tap into that creativity stifled by my years of rigid outlining.

And the characters always take the story in a different direction than I intended.

I was beginning to understand what it means when writers advise other writers to “just write.” So stop outlining and write. You might be surprised at what happens. I actually finished two novels in less than one year. Granted, one novel took me four years to get to 99 pages. The next novel, I cranked out 400 pages in less than 30 days with no outline.

I’m going to give you three scenarios for writing a novel scene by scene using the storyboard. The first is based on my introduction to the storyboard. The second reflects how I tossed outlining to the wind. The third is a compromise if not outlining unsettles you. You can improvise, use your own colors and change up the process.

Scenario #1: Incomplete Manuscript with Outline

  1. Buy a stack of yellow sticky notes, a black pen and a red pen.
  2. Break down your manuscript into scenes. A chapter is made up of many scenes, so make sure you are breaking down into small chunks.
  3. Use a pen to line across the page to indicate a scene-break.
  4. Summarize each scene concisely (such as, “Mindy robs the candy store,” or “Detective Bard books Mindy downtown”).
  5. Write each scene that you have written in black on a yellow sticky note.
  6. Refer to your outline and write down each scene that you don’t have in red (next week, we’ll talk more about finding gaps).
  7. Pick out your most crucial five scenes. These are your anchors that express the hero’s journey. In “Miracle of Ducks” I opened with my character’s husband leaving for Iraq which sets her up–reluctantly–for the hero’s journey.
  8. Map out your novel according to the “W” and write the “red” scenes that you don’t have yet.

11-New System for Tagging Scenes

Scenario #2: Use NaNoWriMo to Write Your Novel

  1. Sign up for National Novel Writing Month at
  2. Commit to 1,667 words a day for 30 days in November.
  3. Write. Just write. You will be so surprised! I wrote an entire novel, scene by scene by just writing each day in November and I had no idea what I was going to write beyond my opening scene.
  4. If that makes you freeze, but you want to break the “outline the whole book first” habit, just start with a single scene the first day. Place the scene on your “W” and think of a couple more possibilities without outlining every chapter. Give yourself the creative freedom to jump around.
  5. Write scenes as if they were islands. During revision (in a few Mondays from now) we’ll explore using the storyboard to revise. Set yourself free from your inner critic and write. Don’t worry about gaps. That comes later.

15-Writing Scenes for NaNoWriMo

Scenario #3: Use the Storyboard to Map the Five Anchors of a Hero’s Journey

  1. If you can’t breath unless you have some sort of outline, try outlining just the five anchors of the hero’s journey: the call, the test, the cave, the transformation, the return.
  2. Write a scene for each of those.
  3. Next, write the scenes that connect each anchor to the other.

12-First Leg of the W

Be a writer and write. Give yourself material before you start committing to structure. Structure is the first step of editing, and editing is not writing. Allow yourself to make big mistakes; to not know if your scene is plausible or accurate. That’s research and research is also a part of editing, not writing. Allow yourself to make little mistakes. If you are constantly scanning and going back and correcting punctuation or spelling, you are editing, not writing.

The importance of thinking in scenes is that you are creating a movie of sorts in the reader’s head. You will later link scenes to tell the story in such a way that is engaging. Don’t tell everything. Decide what to withhold, how to pace, when to reveal your character’s motives–but that all comes with revision. Write like the wind; revise slow and bright like a long summer day.

Use your board to track or map your progress as you write scene by scene, and next week we’ll discuss how to use it to find gaps.

How would you use the “W” storyboard to write a novel?


Mapping the Hero’s Journey

Tips for Writers“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”
~ Joseph Campbell

It’s appropriate to begin a discussion on the hero’s journey by quoting the man we now equate with modern understanding of mythology. Joseph Campbell theorized: “all myths are the creative products of the human psyche, that artists are a culture’s mythmakers, and that mythologies are creative manifestations of humankind’s universal need to explain psychological, social, cosmological, and spiritual realities (Joseph Campbell Foundation).”

As a writer, I’m a mythmaker. My private dreams are the stories I want to tell, but I believe that if I can map my story to public mythology, those stories will resonate with readers. I believe that the hero’s journey (coupled with quality writing) is the difference between a mediocre book and a best-seller.

At its most basic explanation, the hero’s journey is a pattern of public dreams that Campbell recognized in myths across multiple cultures. In “Hero With a Thousand Faces,” he writes:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

In 2011, I attended a retreat at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in LaCrosse, WI called, “Awakening the Soul of the Writer.” While the hero’s journey sounds perfect for fantasy or paranormal genres, what that retreat taught me is that we are all everyday heroes. The workshop leaders revealed at the end of our five day retreat that they intentionally led us on the hero’s journey. It was transformative.

The hero’s journey fits any genre, even memoir. But I struggled with matching up the cycle to my progressing novel, “Miracle of Ducks.” Every chart I could find was an arc, linear or a circle. This is the one I studied at the retreat (note that the graph is popular online and cited as public domain):

From Awakening the Soul of the Writer

While it helped me understand how to shape my story, it didn’t help me understand my story’s shape on the page–or 400 of them. Then, in 2012 I quit my career, downsized my possessions and moved in with my eldest daughter and her husband. I was going to finish that novel and live where it was set in Bayfield, WI. As it happened, another writer’s workshop was offered on Madeline Island, across the bay from where I was writing. That’s where I met Mary Carroll Moore and her storyboard.

While trying to make sense of the “W”  storyboard that Moore implements to develop a book, I realized that it was a navigable map to the hero’s journey. In fact, Moore teaches in her workshops and book, “Your Book Starts Here,” that the most successful books and films are those that use the ancient three act structure. Furthermore, the three act structure can be adapted to Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

Bingo! This was the storyboard for me!

So, keeping that diagram in mind up above, let’s look at my storyboard in its bare-bones stage:

6-Anchors Located on the W

Moore says that you can use poster board or even tape together multiple (6) pages as I did on Madeline Island:

1-Creating the Story Board at MISA

The idea is to map your book according to three acts and the most significant scenes. We’ll discuss the three act arc more thoroughly in a few weeks. The most significant scenes correlate to the hero’s journey. They are represented on my permanent board as five circles or on my temporary board as blue sticky notes (there are two sticky notes to each circle which represents inner story and outer story which we’ll address with the three act arc).

Each circle, in order from left top, to bottom left, to middle, to right bottom to right top represents the hero’s journey:

  1. The call: the opening scene in which the hero is called out of the ordinary world. Therefore we need to see the ordinary world, there hero’s attachment to it and thus her refusal to accept the call. We also meet the character who will be the hero’s mentor or a supernatural aid.
  2. The test: here’s where you (as writer) develop conflict through tests, challenges, temptations, allies and enemies. It’s the beginning of the hero’s transformation.
  3. The cave: this is the crisis, the hero’s darkest hour where she falls into the abyss of her most extreme ordeal. It’s a place where it feels like the hero has met her end, but is reborn. Her own power or will to live is revealed and she crawls out of the cave.
  4. The transformation: having survived, the hero is changed and begins the journey home. There are rewards and resurrection as the story heads toward resolution.
  5. The return: the hero returns to her ordinary world, but is changed. We now see her with the gift or the elixir which is her knowledge of how she’s changed.

Do you better see the map on the W versus the circle? It gets even clearer as we then write scene by scene and place those scenes on the board. And that, will be for next week: Writing a Novel Scene by Scene. Here’s my significant scenes from “Miracle of Ducks”:

7-Key Scenes in Place

A closeup of the opening scene:

8-First Anchor is the Opening Scene

As a writer, you are on the hero’s journey. Let me leave you with this final thought from Campbell:

“Follow your bliss.
If you do follow your bliss,
you put yourself on a kind of track
that has been there all the while waiting for you,
and the life you ought to be living
is the one you are living.
When you can see that,
you begin to meet people
who are in the field of your bliss,
and they open the doors to you.
I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid,
and doors will open
where you didn’t know they were going to be.
If you follow your bliss,
doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

The Story Behind the Board

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)




The Ordinary World

Tips for WritersI’m pondering my own ordinary world to better grasp the hero’s journey.

I’m just a writer, trying to undo the 9-to-5 rhythms that tethered my body and mind to desk and duty for years. Most of us can recognize the “career path” or “job market.” We make it ordinary by showing up every day with our rituals of Starbucks or bagels in the break room.

We taxi kids throughout each grade as if they are in prep-school for the ordinary world.

And one day I walked away. I resigned the position I loved, but one that had fatigued time from my bones and imagination from my days. Under ordinary circumstances, though, I would have stayed employed forever. I would have sprinkled my suburban yard with sun-gold tomato seeds and left wild places for weeds to harbor bees and butterflies; I would have barbequed brats and swilled canned beer with my neighbor. And called it good…enough…

But I walked away from that. Not kicking and screaming, or trumpeting and heralding, but with sadness and fear. Like a hero, I didn’t answer some call to be a writer. Oh, I wanted to; I longed for it; dreamed of it enough to take annual pilgrimages to writing retreats or conferences. I joined a terrific writers group. I bought books on the craft and I dutifully paid monthly on the student loans that earned me the writing degree that allowed me to work in marketing and management and business communications.

Stories skimmed the surface. They bubbled from time to time, breaking the waters like a turtle searching for a place to bask. I wrote a few starts; a few shorts. I taught my team to write cinquains and I loved the months that it was my turn to lead the writers group in Saturday morning prompts.

I had money, support, stories still in my blood. Why walk away from the ordinary world? After all, it was quite comfortable.

Ah, comfort. The comfort zone. Who wants to enter the abyss or cave–otherwise known as the “supreme ordeal.” Are you kidding me? Ordeal? Let’s not.

And truly that is insight to the not-yet-a-hero character. The ordinary world defines her–or his–comfort zone.

Consider the opening to the epic series, “Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan. The first chapter is about an ordinary world, despite the its opening line, “The Wheel of Time turns, and the Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.” We know it’s going to be an epic, but first we must see how ordinary the one-day-hero is. We see him in a thin cloak with wind gusting at his back; a sheep-herder’s son on the a walk into a very ordinary town. He’s just a common boy, nothing more.

Recently, I watched two movies that are classic hero’s journeys: “Gravity,” and “Captain Phillips.” The first opens up with Sandra Bullock’s character performing an ordinary service, albeit in an extraordinary setting. But she firmly focuses on staying in her comfort zone; she’s just doing a job. She’s an ordinary astronaut, not a maverick. In the second movie, we see Tom Hanks’ character preparing to go to work as a sea-faring cargo captain. He’s talking with his wife, discussing job opportunities for their kids, driving to the airport. He’s just an ordinary guy with a job.

The comfort zone of the ordinary world is what brings magic to the writing of a hero’s journey. Bad things start to happen, mentors show up to help, but we struggle to stay comfortable. Without that ordinary world perspective, we would not understand how transformative the hero’s journey is.

If the hero jumped right into being heroic, there isn’t the growth of tension or the deliverance of the elixir in the end. If we charge out on a white horse and win all the battles, our stories become predictable and ho-hum. But we can each understand what it is to struggle to stay comfortable and ordinary; we can hold our breath as trials and tribulations begin to mount; we can cheer the common sheepherder who emerges the Dragon Reborn.

If I hadn’t had a series of unfortunate events push me from suburban home and secure career, I wouldn’t fully comprehend how incredible it is that I can walk outside my door and see elk romping past in a gang. Then I can fix my coffee, write my words and share stories. It’s become my elixir. It’s not safe–I barely make enough money to get by; I rent this lovely home but it’s not mine; no one promises to publish what I write.

It’s no longer an ordinary world. So consider that when you think you have to open your novel with 100% thrill and action. Set the ordinary first.

And I’d love to hear from any writers about how they have done that! How do you set the ordinary world while hooking the reader into an extraordinary journey?

Finding the Cave

Tips for WritersApril feels like it’s going to be an easy month, if there are ever such declarations. Easy in the sense that my first manuscript is now in the care of someone else.

No more tweaking, second-guessing names, plot and character development. It’s whole, revised and under review. The review I’ve requested from my editor at Write Divas is to assess the hero’s journey. Is it working?

To me, a story’s strength is in nailing the journey of the hero from call to adventure to final transformation. I like stories and I’ve always been drawn to narratives that focus on this age-old cycle. The hero’s journey is what I love to read and tell. It’s what I chose to write.

So, I look for this cycle in all stories whether in books or on the screen. Since it is the beginning of my easy month, I watched a movie this weekend, “Gravity.” And I was delighted to recognize the hero’s journey.

Without spoiling the movie, I’ll just relate a few points. The journey is small compared to “Star Wars.” But that’s the beauty of the archetype; it can be contained in a small story. The setting is vast, of course, as it opens in space with the hero (Sandra Bullock’s character) orbiting earth on a mission to install a piece of engineered hardware.

Her reluctance to accept the call (to adventure) is understood with her ambivalent attitude toward her space walk. She’s there to do a job. Space? Earth below? So what. What follows next is typical–the tensions of challenges, the revelation of a mentor, the approach to the cave.

Ah, the cave. Finding the cave for a character on the hero’s journey can be tricky. The cave is a metaphor for the hero being forced to face what is happening. To be a hero she must first refuse the call. Because the hero refuses the call yet life keeps sending her trouble, the cave becomes that inward reflection of “do or die.” Death isn’t always imminent, but it reflects a major loss if the hero doesn’t become the hero.

In “Gravity,” the cave is literal. Sandra Bullock is tucked up in a small, confined space that all but yelled, “cave!” And she had her most important choices to make in that space. It is a major shift in the progression of the movie.

Reflecting on my own novel, I wonder if I did not enclose my protagonist in her cave as clearly. This thought is a revelation to me and probably what ‘s been nagging at me about my own story. Finding the cave means leaving your character in discomfort (and your reader) until a decision is made. It’s not about plot twists; it’s about character evolution.

Now I realize that I will be using my easy month to reflect on the cave and how I might better define it. Watching movies like “Gravity” that deftly defines the hero’s journey will help.

Writing into Your Truth

Looking Up

Looking Up

You’ve probably heard this phrase said another way: write what you know. To be honest with you, I didn’t think anyone would be interested in fiction based on what I know. It stumped me, but only until I learned about a writer’s truth.

In 2011 I went on a retreat held at the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse, WI along the upper Mississippi River. Sleeping in basic rooms often occupied by nuns or clergy, I committed to a journey called, “Awakening the Soul of the Writer.” At that time my fledgling novel manuscript consisted of a few scenes and I knew that I needed a break from my busy career to just focus on writing.

What I learned that week in retreat was that not only are my characters on a hero’s journey in their story, but as the writer, I’m also taking that same journey into transformation. We think we change the writing, but truly writing changes us. And how it changes us depends upon how deep we are willing to write into our truths.

On retreat, we took a riverboat tour on the Mississippi. We were instructed to observe and write. Watching a tiny spider in her web, I realized that her carefully crafted silk was knitted to paint and steel.  When I shared my observation with my fellow writers, I had a huge epiphany. It wasn’t so much that truth resided in facts or that my writing was purely brain activity, it was how I perceived the world that gave me my own truth.

Think about your creativity a moment.

That creativity sparks when we engage with the simplest things around us, like a spider. Our truth is what it means to us, what we have to say about it. Suddenly, I realized that I could speak truth simply by paying attention to life all around me. That realization breathed new life into my writing; I felt connected. I had found my voice.

Driving home, the world looked different to me. Suddenly, my camera was fun again. It had become a point of frustration because I felt critical of my lack of technical skill with a camera. But the truth is, I don’t see with the aperture and other settings; I see with my writer’s eye for stories. I felt free to take pictures as a writer; I no longer had to be a photographer. Some of my best photos came from that trip home.

Use your own truth, your observations, experiences and natural settings to enrich the worlds and characters that you write about. Weave a web of words that can only come from you and connect with readers through simple truths as you connect silk to steel. Go into your writing willing to discover who you are, and accepting the writer that will emerge.

Next Monday, I’ll focus on crafting a writer’s statement as a way to empower your writing commitment.

© Image by Charli Mills from After the Retreat