Friday, October 28, 2011

Process Talk: Martha Alderson, Plot Whisperer

For more than fifteen years, Martha Alderson has worked with hundreds of writers in sold-out plot workshops, retreats, and plot consultations. Her clients include bestselling writers, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow her blog, workshops, videos, or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I consulted with Martha  some years ago over a work in progress that was in danger of stalling and possibly fizzling away. The novel has ended up ceding room to other work that was closer to being developed, but I learned a lot from the interaction I had with Martha. I learned to pay attention to the shape and energy of a story. I learned to nudge parts of my writing mind that didn't always want to cooperate. I learned to push my vision for my story to the next level. And perhaps most important of all, I learned to look beyond the words on the page to the story that ignited those words in the first place.

I'm happy to welcome Martha to WWBT now to talk about her new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. More links to Martha's blog tour on her blog, Plot Whisperer for Writers and Readers.

[Uma] The Plot Whisperer is a terrific title for your book and an intriguing role for you to take on in your work. It seems to me that you're after the Theory of Everything as far as fiction writing is concerned. What led you to this intersection of working with story and writers?

[Martha] I observed first-hand how people learn from working with children who had speech, language, and learning disability in an earlier profession. When I started working with writers in plot workshops, I gained a deeper insight into the process writers go through writing a story from the beginning to the end.

[Uma] Martha maybe that's why we connected! I was also in counseling and special ed before I came home to writing. What was that insight?

[Martha] Along the way, I discovered the two main types of writers – plotters versus those writers who write with little or no advanced planning. I was relieved to understand why some writers love the plot and structure work I share while other writers resist with dagger eyes when asked to learn the same information.

Beneath all of it, however, I find that every writer goes through the same trials and tribulations when crafting something out of nothing. The more writers I work with the more easily and clearly I spot the universality in everyone’s journey.

[Uma] Of course. I see that too, the more I teach.

[Martha] That writers can learn how to craft a successful story by studying the Universal Story and, at the very same time, learn more about themselves delights me.

[Uma] And me. I'm fascinated as well with what you call the ebb and flow of energy in a work. Most of us look for this energy in the words on the page. You help writers find it in something underneath the words, maybe even something that hasn't been developed yet. Talk about that process and how this book breaks it down for a reader.

[Martha] Writers, especially right-brained, highly creative, write by the seat of your pants-type writers, often get lost in the beauty of their prose and end up boxed into a corner where their story lacks fullness and refuses to come to completion. When these same writers replace resistance with an openness to step away from the words they write, they learn to see new and for them difficult concepts and how those concepts translate not only into the development of their story but into their own life too. 

Before long, all writers find the Universal Story’s energetic pattern becomes like a life raft, saving you from drowning in all the words you write.

[Uma] What appeals to me in this book is that you're offering a set of tools and a way of thinking, and not a formula. How much variation have you seen in how people use your ideas and suggestions and adapt them to their own needs?

[Martha] The ideas and suggestions morph with every single writer who uses them because writers not only adapt the ideas to their own needs but also because a writer is able only to grasp and then use in their own writing the plot and Universal Story concepts they are developmentally ready to grasp.

The more you write, the more new skills you develop which open you up in readiness to grasp yet more new concepts. That readiness grows and changes as you grow as a writer.

[Uma] A subtitle in your chapter on antagonists reads, "Never repeat, deepen." It's something I've had to remind myself in revision. How can writers train themselves not only to recognize patterns when they show up but to intensify them incrementally?

[Martha] I suggest using what I call a Scene Tracker. It’s a template or worksheet that allows you to plot out the seven essential elements in every scene you write. To analyze scenes at a thematic level before you have written a draft or two is usually premature. Far better is to wait until you better understand the deeper meaning of your piece. Then, stand back and analyze each scene for thematic elements which allows you to see where they show up now and where they could be inserted to create the most pleasing patterns for the reader and for the greatest good of the story.

[Uma] Your book promises nothing short of transformation, not just of the work but of the writer. Talk about that.

[Martha] I’ve been fascinated with energy for most of my adult life, which has lead me to lots of insights into the deeper level of life itself.

I have always loved stories of transformation, of ordinary people or characters confronted by extraordinary circumstances and not only overcoming but excelling in the face of fear and even death.

Transformation is part of the nature of life as all of us evolve and change. The changes we undergo sends out ripples of energy that touch and transform those lives around us.

Thank you, Uma. I remember hosting a blog stop on your blog tour for your picture book Out of the Way! Out of the Way! (which I love!). I had such fun that day interacting with and supporting a writer I love and respect. Thank you for returning the favor.

[Uma] Thank you Martha, it's my delight. Good plotting to you and here's to many more transformative moments!


  1. Hi, Uma!

    This is a great interview. The book sounds terrific! I'm headed to my bookstore this morning to order it!

    Thank you, both!

  2. Hi Cindy, music to my ears! What a wonderful message to wake up to! Thank you and happy plotting...

    Hi Uma,

    What a wonderful way to end this two week mega-blog tour -- in your embrace.

    I hope everyone visits all three stops today. One is for memoir writers and the other one, well, you just have to see it to truly believe it! Yes, it's that amazing...

    I'll drop in to say hello throughout the day.

    Lots of love,
    plot whisperer

  3. Martha, I like the way you explain how the book & the writer are so interconnected.

    And thank you Uma for an engergetic interview that is indeed enlightening.

    Jan K.

  4. Hello Uma,
    Thank you so much for posting this interview. I am curious to read Martha's book and am looking forward to reading "The Grand Plan to Fix Everything" with my 10-year-old daughter. Your character sounds a lot like her!
    Nina G.

  5. After reading this interview, I think that Plot Whisperer needs to be my next acquisition. Especially as I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year!

    Looking forward to reading the book and working on my own story!


  6. You're welcome, Janet and Cindy. Martha, anytime. Nina and Megan, do check out The Plot Whisperer. Nina, I also hope you and your daughter enjoy The Grand Plan to Fix Everything. Good luck with NaNoWriMo, Megan!

  7. What a great interview. The book sounds so useful! I'd love to get it. On the list!

  8. "Never repeat, deepen." I'm going to put that on the inspiration board hanging above my computer for NaNoWriMo!

  9. Thank you, both, for the great interview. I'm learning something new at every stop of Martha's blog tour. "Never repeat, deepen" is my takeaway today!

  10. Uma,
    Thank you for a great interview! Resonated immediately for me...a real 'seat of your pants type'! I've got shelves of writing books and have attended a multitude of conferences and classes galore, but I still seem to stagnate, stalled in revisions and lost in my words. Can't wait to pick up your book, Martha! Thank you both for your inspiring words!

  11. Gael, it may be mulling rather than stagnation. I do believe that some of us need to embrace that muddled phase, and trust that if we return to think about the work and learn to recognize what we've already planted in it, we'll make it through. What Martha does is offer an array of tools to choose from, that can help sort out the chaos. Glad you enjoyed the interview.