Radical Approaches to Writing, Pt. 5

When last I posted on the Radical Approaches to Writing series, I was prepping for my Ikkyu (brown belt) exam in aikido. To pass, I had to master over 140 hand-to-hand combat techniques. Essentially, it’s like a really long kinesthetic multiple choice test.

How would you respond if someone attacks you by…

  • grabbing your arm,
  • grabbing both your arms,
  • whacking you on the head,
  • stabbing you with something sharp?

According to the ikkyu rubric, there are at least 20 different responses for each scenario. Following the attack-me portion of the test, there was a lengthy weapons component where I demonstrated all kinds of taisos and katas with a bokkend (wooden sword, katana-training stick) and jo (wooden staff).

And after about two solid hours of demonstration, I passed!


Me, demonstrating Kihon Hassei with bokkend (wooden sword). My partner is John Partenope, who recently passed his shodan (black belt) exam. Photo courtesy of Zach Hively.

If you were to plot my year on a storyboard, completing this test would definitely be my midpoint, that huge climax right at the middle of the story where nothing could possibly be any better. But the year is not over yet. Who knows what great things await me in the 2014-still-to-come? Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m certainly getting ahead of myself in this discussion of revise-before-you-write techniques.


Storyboards comprise the last step in the revise-before-you-write methodology—that radical approach to writing which invites the two halves of your brain (the wild creator and analytical editor) to be at peace and work as one.

The storyboard is where you track the entire trajectory of the novel. Every character. Every action. Every emotion. Every scene.

Like Beethoven, the writer is an orchestral composer and the storyboard is the sheet music for the literary symphony, tracking every note for every instrument. Every crescendo and every coda. It will take creativity and analytical pondering to figure out if your beginning is allegro or sonata, if your middle transitions from scherzo to adagio or the other way around, and if your ending returns to sonata or closes out with a rondo!

To make a storyboard, you can use a cork board or simply use masking tape to quadrant off a section of a wall in your house. Either way, you need a place to tack up all those scene cards.

Because stories are told in many different ways, the board gives you the freedom to stick your scene cards up in a variety of ways. You could have a 3×5 free-for-all.  Or think of the board as the night sky and you are the deity responsible for installing the stars. You could stick each card on at random, or you can arrange them into constellations, configurations with explicit and implied meanings. To render meaning from your arrangements, you’ll need an organizational schema.

The schema I’m using is the screenwriter’s three-act structure.


It’s called a three-act, but you can see that this storyboard is broken into four sections: act 1, 2A, 2B, and 3. Similarly, author Tom Birdseye suggests what is called a quartile board which also splits the story into four distinct quarters.


Interestingly, symphonies are also divided into four movements. Y’see? You are a composer. (Cravats and frizzy hair optional.)

If four is not your magic number, then why not try a seven-act paradigm, or the twelve-step formula, or the twenty-two-point framework. Writing professors, professional screenwriters and theorists like Syd Field, Robert McKee, John Truby and others have come up with an endless range of organizational schemas all derived from classical drama, mythology, and even psychology.

(Note: for a truly mesmerizing exploration into all the myriad structures available to storytellers, definitely check out Ingrid Sundberg’s “Organic Architecture” series!)

Screenwriters use three acts because it helps them demarcate the beginning, the middle, and the end of a story. Researchers also use a three-part frame. They divide their papers into sections of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or common ground, disruption, and resolution (Booth et al, The Craft of Research, 249).

Regardless of what each section is called, it’s helpful to know that each section has a function. Each one serves the story in a particular way.

Act One

Act One, Quartile One, the Common Ground, the Beginning, (whatever you call it) opens the story. It introduces the reader to the main characters and the world. Blake Snyder refers to it as a “before shot.” How things were “before” the adventure. Wilbur’s beginning is in a cozy box near the stove in the Arables’ house. Harry Potter’s beginning is the Dursley’s home on Privet Drive.

Act One also hints at problems with the world or the characters. This is very similar to the introduction of a research paper where the writer presents the “common ground” or the context of the topic along with a problem or a series of problems surrounding that topic (Booth et al 162). Wilbur is not a pet and can’t live indoors forever. Harry has powers he cannot always control and does not know where they come from.

Act Two

Act Two, Quartiles Two+Three, or the Middle, takes the reader, and more importantly, the protagonist away from the familiar or away from how things are. If we see it as antithesis or anti-thesis, then it is an upside-down world. Compare Wilbur’s box by the stove to the Zuckerman’s barn. Compare Harry’s life at Hogwarts to Privet Drive.

In research, this section is where the researcher tries to establish and defend what he believes is the kernel of truth at the crux of the research. As you might recall, the theme is your story’s kernel of truth. While you state it in Act One, you will fully establish it and test it in Act Two (Snyder, Save the Cat, 79). Either the unfolding events will successfully defend the theme or they will destroy it.

For example, Act Two of The Wizard of Oz grapples with “Is there really no place like home?” If Dorothy Gale can face every obstacle and survive every danger in Oz, then you betcha! Because there’s no place like home, Dorothy is willing to face flying monkeys, a wicked witch, and an all-powerful wizard just to get back to it.

Act Three

And Act Three, Quartile Four, the Conclusion or The End, is where problems are resolved. Some writers are satisfied with defeating all the villains and getting to the happy ending. Similarly, some research papers use the conclusion to restate supporting evidence and annihilate the antithesis. But both examples miss an important opportunity to achieve synthesis. Synthesis is sort of like aiki, where two opposing forces are blended. From it, truth emerges out of our better understanding.

To synthesize the story, the protagonist takes lessons learned from Act Two and applies them back to the problems and conflicts of Act One. We see this clearly in Charlotte’s Web. Remember the logline we came up with for this book?

In order to avoid the autumn slaughter, an ordinary pig must become extraordinary to all humans and to himself.

Throughout Act 2, Wilbur has been doing all he can to prevent his own untimely death. But the book’s theme centers on the miracle of life. Specifically, the theme is: All life is extraordinary.

When Wilbur stops fixating on death (first his own, and later, Charlotte’s), he starts thinking about life. And that’s when he finds a solution: he will take her eggs back to the farm and care for them until they hatch. He will see to it that they live. In other words, Wilbur comes to understand the theme and by doing so, E.B. White implicates the “so what?” of the whole story.

An ordinary pig become extraordinary and saves a spider’s egg sack. So what?

So what? Every life is exceptional and extraordinary. A pig’s. A spider’s. Mine. Yours. That’s what!

Researchers think of the “so what” in terms of the significance of all that has been studied and presented in writing (Booth et al 252).

Equipped with your logline, beat sheet, scene cards, and storyboards, you too can map out your entire manuscript, including the elusive X that marks the deep, philosophical treasure at the heart of all you’re trying to say with, “Once upon a time….”

Here’s a basic example of a storyboard with scene cards arranged to fit a traditional, linear hero’s journey/arc plot:


And, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, just like all the other revise-before-writing methods, you can revise the board over and over again before you sit down to write the first draft. It’s one more tool to help your creator-brain and your editor-brain team up. Playing with the storyboard is a lot like playing with Legos. You can create, stack, and layer to inconceivable heights, but if you don’t logistically analyze the structure of those stacks and layers, your creation will surely crumble.

And just like Legos, a storyboard is more fun to play with than your laptop! So play, play, play. “Keep playing with it,” Tom Birdseye instructed me in an email, “[keep] arranging, rearranging, until, ideally, it is so good, and feels so right that it gives you the writer’s electric buzz of triumph. Or at least a feeling of ‘this may actually work.’”

And once you’re buzzing, you’re ready to write. So go write. I have given you all the steps you need to revise before you write. Please know that despite the clean, linear order of all the steps, you will often work on different stages simultaneously. You don’t even need to draft your scenes in order. You can and should skip around. In fact, your brain will appreciate it if you start with the awesome scenes, the ones that made you want to tell this story or get to know these characters in the first place (Snyder 103). I call these the cookie-scenes and ample neurological research proves that cookies can help you complete long and difficult tasks!

Cookies for Writers

Scientists gave put a bunch of college students in a room with a bowl of radishes and a bowl of freshly baked cookies (Duhigg, The Power of Habit, 135-36). Half the students were told: DO NOT eat the cookies, but the other half was told they could eat cookies.

After noshing, the students had to try to solve a difficult puzzle. On average, students who did not eat cookies were grumpy and easily frustrated. They spent less than six minutes on that stupid puzzle. Why?

Because willpower is what enables the brain to exert discipline and self-control.  Willpower is why you get dedicated to a project, a diet, or a workout routine. It’s like a muscle. You can exercise it and train it, but then it gets tuckered out (Duhigg 139). And when you’re out of willpower, you’re saddled with decision fatigue. That’s why the cookie-eaters could work on that puzzle forever. It took no willpower to sit in a room and eat warm delicious food. Two hundred other studies have modeled this one, and they all found the same results: Cookie-eaters work harder and longer (136).

The moral of this story is: eat your cookies, which is to say enjoy your sweet-scenes whenever you want!


Photo courtesy of Kimberly Vardeman, Wikimedia Commons. Image CC.

Storycrafting is demanding and complex. Be prepared to follow its crooked path. And never let any process or plan box you in. Be as plastic and ever-changing as your brain. Writing, after all, is a life-long pursuit. As you change over the span of your life, permit your writing process change with you. Allow your process to grow, shift, and adapt over time.

In closing, I hope I’ve encouraged you to see the storycrafting process in a new way (especially with NaNoWriMo coming up)! When we see revision first rather than last, we can tackle it more successfully. When we see the two sides of the brain in harmonious cooperation rather than in battle, we can accomplish more on the page.

“Thinking, we believe, tends to be for procrastinators. Writing is the real work. But that is a fable,” says author Tim Wynne-Jones. And he is right. Throughout the Radical Approaches to Writing series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), you have seen just how much work can happen before writing. You have seen that revising does not come after writing. And you have seen that you can tell a story without putting your brain in conflict. You do not have to banish your editor-brain to the dungeon only to resurrect it months later, when it is a dust-covered, half-rotten thing. And you do not have to handcuff your creativity while revising each word and sentence as you go, which is like supergluing each grain of sand in a sandcastle—pretty soon you’re working with a lump of granite.

In light of all this evidence, isn’t it time we reconsider the old writing process? Rather than put writing at the front and center of your novel’s cosmos or making it orbit revision throughout, start with some revision. Instead of imagining the battle between the two brains and crafting in the middle of their battlefield, imagine the harmonious path of your story paved with scene cards and lit by a logline. Imagine yourself not merely attempting a novel, but completing it.

Take this moment, close your eyes, and imagine yourself anew. Imagine yourself as competent and confident. Imagine yourself as a storyteller. Imagine it now and alter the tendrils of your living brain.


“Child of the Universe,” by Josephine Wall.


Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 2

(Migrated post. Content originally published 1/2014 on jennifermichellemason.blogspot.com.)

Today’s post is dedicated to the Magic Ifs who just graduated from the Writing for Children and Young Adults program and VermontCollege of Fine Arts. These magicians are my colleagues and my friends. Their amazing creativity is a part of what inspires me to clear the authorial roadblocks and explore the writerly conundrums and cruxes.

Congratulations Magic Ifs!

So, to pick up where I left off in the last post, part of what makes writing so daunting is the overwhelming mob of decisions banging on the walls of your brain. Making decisions fatigues your brain. Fatiguing the brain leads to reckless behavior (AKA cleaning-under-the-fridge-instead-of-writing) or indolence (AKA writer’s block).

Add to the fatigue the natural (but inhibiting and festering) tendency to imagine the writing process split in two, separate and opposing spheres. Writing vs Editing. Some see it as a creative phase followed by an analytical phase. Or an amorphous brain in tune with creative muses fending off the nit picky rule-flogging logical brain.

I am not saying the brain isn’t divided into two spheres equipped with different skills; however, conceptualizing those spheres in a never-ending dual only kinks the brain in endless neurological knots.

But what’s a poor writer to do?

To start, I say try aiki, or harmony. Why not re-envision the writing process as a unified, collaborative effort – a partnership that bridges creative brain with analytical brain? A time when the logical and the amorphous can co-exist, and in doing so, construct the most stunning feats of written expression.

Playground at the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Photo CC. Courtesy of Stephen Oung and David Case.

Playground at the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Photo CC. Courtesy of Stephen Oung and David Case.

Because the imagination has a powerful effect on your neurons, go ahead and re-imagine the battlefield in your brain is really a lovely playground. Replace the carcasses with carousels. Swap the bloodstains for a swing set and slide. Fill the trenches in with sandboxes. And for the sake of vanishing bees everywhere, plant a few flowerbeds. Ideas need pollination, too.

Ahhh, that feels better already!

Photo PD. Courtesy of John Sullivan.

Photo PD. Courtesy of John Sullivan.

Now that the carnage is removed, it’s time to experiment with your writing process by incorporating some techniques that get the two halves of your brain to cooperate. Interestingly, these techniques are found in the usual process of screenwriting and research writing. Perhaps even more interestingly, these techniques cause the writer to do lots of revision before the actual drafting begins.

Let’s jump in with…

Loglines & Pitches

What’s your story about?

That’s got to be one of the hardest questions you will ever answer about your writing. But having an answer is essential because you’ll never escape the question. Think about when you’re at writers’ conferences – it’s the question everyone asks you. It’s the question you must answer when you query an agent.

Answering this question before you tackle the first draft gives you a North Star to follow through the writing. The answer is your compass, a shorthand Sherpa to guide you to THE END.

Photo CC. Courtesy of Uwe Gille.

Photo CC. Courtesy of Uwe Gille.

Screenwriters answer “what’s it about” by writing down a logline or a one-line. They have to be able to sum up their entire 120-page screenplay in one sentence. And they do it BEFORE they write it. Researchers also try to narrow down their topic by stating the thesis, or one sentence that declares “what” or “who” is going to be researched. It narrows down the topic BEFORE the writing begins.

Screenwriters have a very rigid definition of what a logline is and what it should contain, which works well for their industry, but for creative writers, I’d say you’re well on your way to a killer logline if you can summarize your story in one sentence! Two at the max. It’ll be even better if, in that one sentence, you can also establish the story’s protagonist, the central conflict, the antagonist, and the story’s significance. (For more on loglines, see Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.)

Here are a couple of examples that can help you formulate your own logline:

  • In order to avoid the autumn slaughter, an ordinary pig must become extraordinary to all people and to himself. (Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White)
  • Through the power of love, a magical boy defeats an evil wizard who would otherwise destroy him and terrorize the world. (The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling)
Photo CC. Courtesy of Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.

Photo CC. Courtesy of Bjørn Christian Tørrissen.

Both examples boil each story down to one sentence. But let’s break those down further so we can see their essential components.

As you can see, each example connotes:

  1. a protagonist (the pig, Wilber or the boy, Harry),
  2. a central conflict (stay alive or protect the world),
  3. an antagonist (Mr. Zuckerman’s ax or Lord Voldermort), and
  4. the story’s significance

The significance is the “so what” of your story, or why this story must be told, or why you think anyone else should read it. Charlotte’s Web should be read because it deals with the dignity and exceptionality of life. Harry Potter is a worthwhile read because in it love overpowers hate.

Once you have a logline, try pitching it, which is another excellent revise-before-writing exercise. To pitch your story, deliver your logline to a stranger or a friend. Watch their eyes, because if they look away or glaze over, you’ve lost them. Your story is not quite there yet.

I know pitching puts you under tremendous pressure to say “what is it” and why it’s awesome. But if you can figure out what in your story gets and keeps someone’s attention in one or two sentences, then you’ve got something worth months of effort.

And, as you might have guessed, nailing the logline and pitch is going to take several attempts, which means, you’re revising BEFORE you write the full first draft! It also means your reducing the monumental task of writing a novel down into one utterable sentence. Rather than make 60,000-80,000 words worth of decisions, you decide on roughly 20 words. Definitely doable without fatiguing the brain!

So, go ahead, give it try.

Write up a logline for your story – whether it’s the one you’ve had in progress for a while or the one you’re about to dive into. See if you can riddle out who you’re protagonist is. What’s his/her/its central conflict? Who or what is the antagonist of your story? And, finally, why must this story be told? What’s the significance?

For additional fun and experimentation, try boiling your story down into a haiku and submit it to Zach Hively’s newly inaugurated low-ku contest (which is free of many “hai” expectations.)

Next time, I’ll cover how gathering sources and researching prevents brain fatigue and epic sphere battles between the creator and editor sides of your mind! I’ll also reveal how playing while gathering results in the kind of daily writing with word counts more than sufficient to complete challenges like NaNoWriMo sans tears, stress, hair-pulling, and insomnia!

Fighting Writer’s Plaque

(Migrated post. Content originally published 11/2013 on jennifermichellemason.blogspot.com.)

23,000+ words into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and I have to say I’m feeling pretty good. True, I am about 2,000 words behind today’s target of 25,000 words, but I know I’ll catch up.

After all, I had one very busy weekend and a few very strenuous days at work which put me 3,000 words behind by Sunday, but I caught up.

Little by little. Being persistent. And…I think that’s the most common thing writers lose perspective on while tackling this month-long challenge. In many ways, NaNo is like a writer’s diet. You put your novel on the scales at the end of every day and see if target numbers match up.


The first week feels great. Most writers hit well over the daily targets. They fist-pump until they contract a mild case of carpal tunnel.

But then the fateful day arrives when they inevitably slip up. Like a dieter indulging in a velvety bowl of chocolate pudding, the writer indulges in a blank page. It feels good. Boy, was that little break needed! But then the next day, the guilt is an ax hacking at you! The numbers are off. You’re behind. You suck. What were you thinking? Now whatever words you cobble together on the page feel worthless. What’s the point? This is too overwhelming! Too big to tackle. What the hell were you thinking a few days ago — bragging on Facebook like some kind moron!?

But to all that, I say: Whoa! Breathe! Calm down!

Despite all the daily word targets, all the numbers, stats, and pep-talks, NaNo is neither a diet nor a race. Sure, it can be, but I don’t think that’s the true intention behind the concept.

Because I suspect many writer’s lose perspective, I want to try to take a few steps back and look at this whole thing from another angle. Climb up on the monkey bars with me, will you? Hook your legs to the bars and hang down from your knees. Remember how? I know its been a while for most of us.


Okay, now that we’re looking at NaNo from a whole new perspective, what do we see? Well, I see that rooted in its name is the word “nano.” Think of that not as a contraction of National and Novel, but as just nano. Something small, minute.

I don’t mean to suggest that NaNo is a some small, insignificant event and thus you can totally give up on it and not even care, because you’ve been told before not to sweat the small stuff. I DO mean to suggest that what NaNo is asking you to do is attempt something small in order to lead to a huge payoff.

In effect, all this month is asking you to do is write. Consistently. Persistently. It encourages and seduces you to make writing part of your daily cycle. Rather than treating writing like the divine miracle that only comes about when the ether of muses oozes at its strongest, NaNo purports that writing can be as routine and simple an act as brushing your teeth. (Yes, I am assuming you brush your teeth daily.)


Remember how when you were little, your mom or dad always had to remind (read: nag) you to brush your teeth? It just wasn’t incorporated into the fabric of your lifestyle. But eventually, with persistence and practice, it was. Eventually, you needed no reminders. And to this day, you do not skip it because when you do, you go around with bad breath. You go the whole day feeling icky and yuck.

And the same is true for writing.

So you missed a day. So you’re behind on the daily targets. So what? When you do forget to brush your teeth or plum run out of time, do you kick yourself  and condemn your whole future to the dungeons of acrid plaque, rotting gums, and tooth-blackening cavities? No.

Why? Because dental hygiene is a life-long activity. It’s small in the grand scale of all that you do with your day, and its payoff is huge. Take good daily care of your teeth, and you won’t wind up in dentures when your forty. You can crack into as many apples as you want. You can crunch-anunch all the crunch-anunchy things the world has to offer. In short, you can indulge in all the splendifous flavors of life!

And the same is true for writing when you do it every day. So, if you are at this point in NaNo, kicking/hating/bagging on yourself: STOP IT. The more you do that, the more discouraged you’ll feel and the less likely you’ll be to take up writing again. Then your plaque just builds and builds around your imagination. And then it calcifies! And then, you’ve got this big smelly crust around your once beautiful mind!


“A Beautiful Mind” by TheLionofOz on deviantart.com.

Pick up that pen and perform a small, seemingly innocuous act. Remember that it is a life-long activity requiring very little effort for a very big payoff. Working it into the fabric of your lifestyle means that you will continue doing it in December…in January, then February, and so on.

Now I can see that all the blood as run to your head. Ease yourself off the monkey bars. Look at NaNo now that you’re upright once more. Can you see now that it is not a race? Rather, it is a path we all travel at our own pace. It is a path you chose as much as it chose you.

Remember, too, that it is not a diet — a quick-fix with temporary results. It is a way for you to indulge in all the marvelous flavors of storycrafting everyday of your writing life!


And speaking of storycrafting flavors, be sure to tune in again soon when I take a look at the kinds of writing that may not be ideal for completing NaNo. It’s like when you decide to turn over a whole new leaf and get yourself in better shape. You take up jogging, buy bushels of fruits and veggies, and evict all the junk food inhabiting in your pantry. How long does that last? Yeah, not long at all. In my next post, I’ll look at similar patterns in writing that lead to ultimate self-defeat.

Join me then, but for now, go write! Go remove some plaque! And smile more (knowing you stink a whole lot less than you thought you did a few minutes ago)!