The Visual Writer
I wish I’d realized (like way back in elementary, middle, or even high school) what a visual learner I am. I
You’d think I’d have remembered this when I began writing and could have found a way to incorporate some visual strategies from the get go. Instead, I floundered for a long time—pantsing my way through plots, characterizations, and settings, with the end result being a pretty awful first manuscript. This meant, if I wanted to make it as a writer and actually publish that piece of garbage, I would have to *gasp tragically here* revise the whole darn thing. (I should probably note that during my years in school I never once reread an essay before handing it in. Not even long answers on tests. I’d written what I needed to say, it was already perfect, and I was done. Revision was for amateurs! My poor literature grades showed otherwise, but that’s a story for another post!)
So, even though I had this piece of junk manuscript that I thought was totally ready to be submitted to the most elite agents out there, my writing group disagreed. Thank the Lord Baby Jesus because they were right, and, for the first time ever, I would have to willingly reread my whole manuscript and figure out what was wrong with it. Luckily, one of my early mentors showed our critique group this awesome thing called a plot clock. Though my main character’s arc was pretty solid, the order of events weren’t flowing, nor were they helping to move my character forward. A big no-no for novels. With the plot clock, I was able to see there is sort of a formula for writing.
Start by drawing a big fat circle. In the middle draw a short line. Above the line, write what your character wants. You have to dig super deep for this. In JUST A DROP OF WATER, Jake wants a lot of things on the surface, but his deepest desire is to be a hero. This is his internal goal. Below the line, write your characters biggest flaw.
What kind of a visual writer would I be if I didn’t include visuals here? This is what your plot clock should look like in the beginning.
From 12:00 (the beginning of your book) to around 7:00, your character must be acting one way and not advance toward his/her goal. This behavior is defined by your character’s flaw. Basically, he/she has to screw up a lot. In Jake’s case, he’s a hot-head, a reactor, an eye-for-an-eye kind of kid. He sees the world as totally black and white. So, all his actions from the beginning till about 7:00 on that clock have to show him making poor, quick, reactive decisions. Figure out what main points you’ll use to illustrate these character traits and list them on the clock in the order they’ll happen.
Slowly your MC has to lose everything because of these actions and choices, which brings us to our “all-is-lost” moment at 7:00. Here your character is seriously struggling. They are in so much pain that readers will wonder how the character will ever get out of this. Somehow, your MC must evaluate the choices they’ve made thus far and figure out how to still get what they want (remember that deep desire you wrote in the top, center of the clock?) but find a new way to proceed—opposite of the flaw you wrote on the bottom, center of the clock.
From 7:00 till 11:00, your now enlightened character should be behaving in a new way as you escalate to the climax scene, which occurs at 11:00. Usually this time also involves the character making amends with others—even with themself if the story warrants. But 11:00 is juicy. The big bang! The time when your character will finally achieve a goal by having acted in new ways. (Note: this doesn’t mean the outcome is always favorable. Middle grade novels tend to have happier endings by nature, but, even if your character doesn’t get what they want, their actions should show the characters growth.)
Then, from 11:00 till 12:00 you get the see the character celebrate that accomplishment. Of course, these timeframes can vary depending on the type of story you’re creating, but I’ve found this to work wonders with all 3 middle-grade books I’ve written.
My visual writing didn’t end there, though. That was just the beginning. Once I figured out what my events would be and where they were to go on my clock, I went scene by scene through my clunky manuscript and wrote what was happening in each one on a pink index card. I went a step further using skinny, colored Post-it tags to color code each person in the scene and at the top of the card I wrote the mood—to make sure my manuscript varied in emotions. Then I taped every single one of those index cards up on my dining room wall, in order of how the scenes appeared in the current draft of the book. I compared them to my newly created plot clock and realized I needed to move entire scenes to other places in the book. Early on, I had Jake conflicting with multiple characters but he was making up with them too quickly. I didn’t have an all-is-lost moment and my readers didn’t care or invest much in Jake. Likewise, I didn’t have enough scenes in the beginning showing Jake’s fiery disposition. I knew I needed to add in at least 3 solid incidents to flesh his character out fully. When I figured out what they were, I penciled them in on the plot clock and then lifted the index card from my wall and replanted it where it needed to go. When I had to create a new scene entirely, I added it on a purple index card and taped it where it needed to go. And…ya’ know what? I freaking loved this whole process. It was like solving a giant puzzle, and puzzles are for visual people, right? Everything was clicking for me. The story felt right and clear in my head. I seriously couldn’t wait to get started on my revision. Can you believe it? Me, looking forward to rewriting, fixing, polishing something that I thought at one point was totally done. Even though there was still hard work ahead—looking at those cards on the wall with a definite map to guide me—the revision didn’t seem so tough any longer.
That’s when I decided to take it a step further. In my head, I’d had a sense of what my characters looked like, but I wanted actual pictures to guide me in my revision. Sure I cold have just told myself this stuff in my head, but the visual me wanted clarity to ensure continuity throughout the whole book. And, because I LOVE maps, I made one of the town. I’d always sort of had one in my head, but when I realized Jake and his dad ran towards Mullins Park by going left out of their neighborhood, but Jake also got there by going left out of the school, that couldn’t happen. It’s really hard for me to keep mundane details straight in my brain, especially when writing the book over a series of months or years, but, once I drew that map, the book had fewer mistakes—which meant fewer revisions later. YAY!!!
If I can help another visual writer by passing on these glorious, eye-opening tips—preferably before they create a mixed-up, messy, jumbled manuscript—then I’m super happy. And, though I’ve embraced the revision process without whining too much, I love that my first drafts don’t suck as much as they used to, before the brilliant plot clock entered my world. Happy writing—and revising—y’all!
Thanks for sharing your great advice, Kerry. You can find Kerry at :
Here's a blurb of JUST A DROP OF WATER from Goodreads:
Ever since he was little, Jake Green has longed to be a soldier and a hero like his grandpa, who died serving his country. Right now, though, he just wants to outsmart—and outrun—the rival cross country team, the Palmetto Bugs. But then the tragedy of September 11 happens. It’s quickly discovered that one of the hijackers lived nearby, making Jake’s Florida town an FBI hot spot. Two days later, the tragedy becomes even more personal when Jake’s best friend, Sam Madina, is pummeled for being an Arab Muslim by their bully classmate, Bobby.
According to Jake’s personal code of conduct, anyone who beats up your best friend is due for a butt kicking, and so Jake goes after Bobby. But soon after, Sam’s father is detained by the FBI and Jake’s mom doubts the innocence of Sam’s family, forcing Jake to choose between his best friend and his parents. When Jake finds out that Sam’s been keeping secrets, too, he doesn’t know who his allies are anymore. But the final blow comes when his grandpa’s real past is revealed to Jake. Suddenly, everything he ever knew to be true feels like one big lie. In the end, he must decide: either walk away from Sam and the revenge that Bobby has planned, or become the hero he’s always aspired to be.
A gripping and intensely touching debut middle grade novel by Kerry O’Malley Cerra, Just a Drop of Water brings the events of September 11, which shook the world, into the lens of a young boy who is desperately trying to understand the ramifications of this life-altering event.
Kerry's publisher Sky Pony Press generously offered a copy of JUST A DROP OF WATER for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower (just click the follow button if you’re not a follower) and leave a comment through September 20th. I’ll announce the winner on September 22nd. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, please leave it in the comments.
If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry. You must be 13 or older to enter. This is for US only.
Here’s what’s coming up:
On Monday I have an interview with debut author Stephanie Gaither and a giveaway of FALLS THE SHADOW, a YA futurist story about cloning replacement kids. I was hooked in the first few pages.
The following Monday I have a guest post by PJ Hoover and a giveaway of TUT, her MG story with mythological themes. I’m a huge fan of PJ’s and am excited to see how her books have been both traditionally published and self-published.
Wednesday that week I have a guest post by long time follower and debut author Joshua Bellin with a giveaway of SURVIVAL COLONY NINE, a YA sci-fi story.
And Thursday that week I'm doing a Stuck in a Good Book Giveaway Hop. I'll have lots of great book choices to choose from and will continue offering a $10 Amazon Gift Card if you don't like my choices. Look for this to post Thursday afternoon.
And don’t forget Casey’s Thursday Agent Spotlights.
Hope to see you on Monday!