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Monday, January 10, 2011

My 'Magic' Board: Getting Started

Last May, Marcy and I drove to Cleveland to attend a session on YA novels held by the Northern Ohio SCBWI chapter. The 2 ½ hour drive was well worth our time and gas $$. This is a really active chapter and several members of the Rt19Writers hope to attend more of the Northern Ohio events (www.nohscbwi.org ).
            We met some great people at the presentation, including author Rebecca Barnhouse, who gave a terrific talk about developing plot. Although everyone has a shelf full of books on how-to-write-a-novel, nothing beats a concise 45 minute presentation to remind you of what's important to focus on at the beginning of a story.
            Everyone starts story development in their own unique way – some people make outlines, some just jump in and start writing. I use my "Magic Board" (as Fran calls it), an approach I picked up in screenwriting class with Kitty and Lee. Here's what my board looks like for the YA novel I'm working on:


For people who think visually, colored 3x5 notecards are a perfect tool. Once a story idea begins to take over and push other useful thoughts out of my brain, like making a grocery list for the week, it's time to flesh out the idea to see if it's got enough substance for 275+ pages. I jot down a few key questions on blue cards and tape them to a cork bulletin board (I don't like to use push pins because they always fall out and I step on them. Writing's painful enough without drawing actual blood). I've incorporated notes from Rebecca's talk into this process:
Who is the MC (main character)? How old, gender, race, name, personality & quirks, IQ, home life, etc. 
The other blue card asks questions like:
What does the MC want, and why can’t he have it?
Is it an internal or external problem; is he aware of it or not?
What is his flaw?

"Answers" and thoughts about these questions are jotted down on white cards below the blue cards.

The Yellow card reminds me to think about possible Macro and Micro structures for the book. For example, if a book is written entirely with diary entries or as a travelogue, that's the Macro structure. The Micro structure nudges me that each section, such as a chapter, has to have an arc with a beginning , middle and end, just like the overall book.

(The green card on the top is a special reminder that 'the acquisition of knowledge is key to the plot.' Usually I use purple for special notes to me, but I ran out.)

The green cards in a row set up the 3-Act structure and turning points:

ACT 1: Show MC's world before the 1st Turning Point or 'Change" occurs, so you can understand and get to know MC and his flaws.

TURNING POINT #1:  MC encounters an agent of change or "an inciting event".  This starts the transformation of MC. MC will resist this change.  (Note: in some books, the inciting event is hidden and unfolds during the story, like the initial attack in Laurie Halse Anderson's terrific book, Speak.)

ACT 2: Move toward the middle of the novel. MC stuggles with things making him change. Author should make things worse and worse to the point of despair and giving up for MC. This is when/where the MC starts to change. (This is the longest part of the book and, I think, the most challenging. Must be filled with interesting challenges to keep from getting boring!)

TURNING POINT #2: Climax. Significant event that forces MC to come to terms with his transformation. Determines what happens with the MC.

ACT 3: Resolution. The aftermath of what has happened. Shows that MC has changed and is coming to terms with the changes. What is different?      

            The white cards below the green cards are where I work out individual scenes to move the story forward. This is where nothing's-too-crazy-at-this-point brainstorming happens. I jot down all kinds of ideas and thoughts of what can happen to the MC. Then cards get moved around, expanded, changed, whatever. Sequences develop. Note: a lot of these cards get pulled off and aren't used, but I save them to revisit if I get stuck later in the story.
            Now, what are the pink cards sprinkled among the white cards? In my current story, the pink cards show whenever the "love interest" pops up (she's a subplot, not the main focus of the story). The pink cards give me an idea of when I need to bring her back – I don't want too much time to pass between her scenes with the MC, but too many pink cards alert me that she's becoming too dominate – you know how domineering teenage girls can be . . . 
            Once I finish the first draft and get comments from my writers group, I revisit the board to update it and rethink what's happened. New white cards and scenes are slipped in and used for the next draft.

            While it may not be 'magic', that's how I start a story, knowing it will change and evolve as it's written – how many times has a minor character been so interesting that he/she grows into a more important role, like Jacob in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series? I'd love to hear how our blog readers get started!
            A big thanks to Rebecca Barnhouse for sharing her story pointers (and her always encouraging emails). She's a scholar and teacher of all things medieval – check out her new book, The Coming of the Dragon, a retelling of the end of Beowulf, and her last YA novel from ye old old old not-so-merry-England-if-you're-a-servant-girl, The Book of the Maidservant, on her website: http://rebeccabarnhouse.com


  1. Thanks, Jenny for sharing your magic board. I always find it so interesting to see how everyone works. I love the colored notecards, especially the pink for the love interest. The Ohio session last year was great, and I'm looking forward to going to more of their events. Thanks again for sharing your work process.

  2. makes me want to check out that Ohio group! Your magic board looks like an organized way of dealing with complex plot and character

  3. Great tip, Jenny. I'm sure it helps you to keep focused as you weave your way throughout your story.