Martha Alderson may have grown up dyslexic and non-verbal, but it didn’t stop her love of stories and writing.
Her dad was trying to write a biography about one of her ancestors, but he wasn't getting anywhere. So she said she would get him organised. She found she loved working on the biography and was hooked on storytelling.
What she didn’t understand, though, was plotting and she made it her mission to learn so she could do her stories justice.
This in time led to her book, The Plot Whisperer, in which she guides her readers through the basic principles of plotting, and beyond.
Martha Alderson shares the more common mistakes she sees new writers make, and suggests how they can be corrected.
For her the most important elements to devising a universal plot are Dramatic Action and Character/Emotional plot.
We discuss the importance of finishing your first draft. It’s vital writers practice finishing their stories, not just starting. Only when you finish your story do you really understand what it’s about.
As Martha says, you don’t need to plug every gap in your manuscript to get to the end.
We go on to talk about her book Boundless Creativity. It’s aim is to help writers see themselves as the protagonists of their own lifes and work through their own emotional arc.
This lets writers see the journey they’ve taken and how writing their book has changed them for the better. It allows writers to flourish and bring their gifts forward to the world.
Martha Alderson founded PlotWriMo, which she offers to writers post NaNoWriMo. Now that you have 50,000 words, what do you do with them? Martha tells you!
She has a free YouTube series that takes you through that revision process.
We finish our conversation by talking about Martha Alderson’s own fiction. Her first book was Parallel Lives, and she’s just finished her second novel, The Avenue, which she’s looking to query later this year.
It was a delight to speak to Martha and I know you’ll get a lot out of our conversation, particularly if you are curious to understand the fundamentals of plotting.
Home - Martha Alderson
Martha Alderson’s books - https://amzn.to/3p0sOvk
PlotWriMo - https://www.youtube.com/user/marthaalderson/featured
Plot Whisperer blog - https://marthaalderson.com/plot-whisperer-blog/
Facebook: (2) The Plot Whisperer | Facebook
Instagram: https://www.Instagram.com/plotwhisperer and www.Instagram.com/marthasalderson
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Well, Martha, welcome to the show. And then thank you so much for joining me today.Martha Alderson:
Thank you for inviting me.Emma Dhesi:
A pleasure. I always start off by asking my guests, you know, tell us about your journey to writing two words. How did you get started?Martha Alderson:
Oh, okay. So I started out by, I had a speech language and learning disability clinic for children for years. And then we moved to Colorado, and my dad was trying to write a biography about one of our ancestors, but he wasn't getting anywhere. So I said, Oh, send me everything, and I'll just get you organised. And, you know, without any writing background, I'd never thought about writing. I wasn't interested in that I loved what I was doing, helping children, because I grown up dyslexic, and I was nonverbal. And so I just got hooked. This story kind of came out of me when I was organising these notes. And I just went into this wonderful world of make believe, even though it was a real person. And you know, I was always a daydreamer as a kid. And, you know, I love the fact that you can be a writer and or still be a daydreamer, but call yourself a writer and get away with it, you know, it's like, oh, yeah, that's cool. So, um, but I really struggled with plot, I didn't understand what it was. And this was back in the day, and there weren't any books about plot. Now you can find books everywhere about plot, but at the time, even writing, a lot of writing books didn't even have plot in their table of contents or their index. And so I started analysing hundreds of novels, memoirs and screenplays, and really got what the rhythm was, and what plot and structure was all about. So I started teaching my writing friends, you know, everybody was asking, oh, will you show me what you're looking, and it just took off, you know, the saying of following your bliss. I think the fact that it says follow, because I just felt like I got this hook in me, and I, you know, it was just speeding me ahead, and I was racing to try to keep up. And it wasn't really planned, you know, plan journey, it was just a reaction journey of, you know, I was being asked to then write books and to speak at conferences. And so I sort of gave up my own journey of writing fiction in order to help a lot of other people write fiction, which has been so gratifying. Because but what I found was in working with writers, even really brilliant writers, you know, were who had unbelievable mastery of language in this beauty. And we're just oftentimes the ones that were most fraught with anxiety, insecurity, fear. And, you know, I was doing these pot consultations, and some of the people I was working with were so nervous about what they were doing, and they were getting rejections or whatever, that they actually had kind of major health issues, some people and, and that really got me to the point of wanting to deal with that part. Because I could identify with it, you know, I had all those same feelings I think we all do, especially when we're going into the great unknown, when we don't know exactly what we're doing. We look around, and we think everybody else knows what they're doing, which happened to me early on with plot, you know, I looked around and I thought, oh, everybody must know plot because nobody's talking about it. But then I realised once I started teaching it that really, nobody really got what it was either, which was very gratifying. So that's sort of what my journey has been. And then this year, I turned 70. And I decided, you know, what, if I don't do what, what my dreams are, you know, it's either now or never sort of thing. So I still do consultations, and I still do, you know, podcasts and workshops, and things like that. But my main focus now is on my own fiction, which is just really a joy.Emma Dhesi:
Oh, wonderful. Well, I will come to that a bit later. And but I did want to just kind of take you back to that first book, the plot whisperer for which you became most known for, but I find it fascinating to realise to hear you say, no one was talking about plot then it wasn't a thing. And yet now as you say, this, this shelves, shelves, of books on plots, that's really interesting. And it's another example of, you know, not seeing what you need, and so writing,Martha Alderson:
what exactly I also think that at the time, sort of thing environment was that for a lot of creative writing teachers, there was a fear that if you got too involved in plot, which is very linear and sort of structured and all of that, that it would somehow tap down the creative process itself. But what I realised the more that I started, you know, getting into this was, I think that was just a cover, because I think some of these writing teachers didn't know plot either. And they didn't know how to teach it. So it was like, Oh, well, we don't really need it, we're just gonna work on this creative writing, which is essential, obviously, but if you don't know how to satisfy your readership, because all of us who have grown up being read to as children and you know, most writers are voracious book readers. And, you know, you sort of understand that there is a rhythm to a story to all stories, there's a, we have certain expectations, whether they're conscious or not, of, sort of what's coming next. And we can use that in a way to twist things around to throw off the, the reader, you know, to get them to be more on the edge of their seat, but you sort of want to know what those things are, so that you can manipulate them in any way that you choose to.Emma Dhesi:
Mm hmm. Well, I wonder if we could delve into that a little bit more. And and I just wonder what you consider to be you know, the the basics of plotting what what should our listeners kind of at a very fundamental level, what do you feel that they should be most aware of, or giving thought to?Martha Alderson:
Okay, so I think a plot is both the dramatic action, you know, there's a dramatic action plot. And there's a character emotional development plot it lots of times, I don't know, now, what it's called, but before it used to just be character development, but I call it character emotional development. Because we, you know, at one point, emotions weren't really accepted, you know, it's like, Don't show deep emotions, you know, you got to put control yourself or whatever. But now, people are really into wanting to express themselves fully, which means that we have to express all these emotions. And in a story if you can capture a character's character, emotional development, how they start, you know, by being a flawed individual, and how they sort of grow out of that or into, you know, emotional maturity. And then there's thematic significance, you know, what is sort of the overall meaning, and of your story, what's pulling it all together into fullness? And so yeah,Emma Dhesi:
yeah, answer your question. Yeah, I think it did. Essentially, it sounds like these two kind of arcs. Yes, the action and what's happening, but equally important, if not more important, would be that emotional arc, that your character is going on a journey, and they have some form of transformation or some form of involvement or understanding possibly of themselves.Martha Alderson:
I think that the books that are now classics, if you go back and analyse them, you'll see that part of the reason that they are classics in that they are so beloved, is because the writer did tap into that emotional element. Whereas for a lot of sort of male fiction, I don't want to be gender bias. But you know, where I see the mystery, or suspense, or whatever, the character emotional development wasn't really that involved. And you can see that in blockbuster movies from, you know, years ago, it was all about the dramatic action, you know, let's just hit him with all these special effects and all this excitement, whereas I really think writers crave that emotional element, because we know how flawed and fragile we are. And we want to see that mirrored in the characters that we're reading about.Emma Dhesi:
Yeah, yes. And so, when you're working with new writers, specifically on plots, what are some of the more common mistakes that you see them make as they're, as they're sort of grappling with these concepts?Martha Alderson:
Well, what is the emotional part for themselves, you know, of wanting to give up. Another is that they will constantly go back to the beginning to start over again, you know, like, you get to about the middle of the middle of the story and things get very confusing and dicey because you've got, you know, character to all these characters and all this stuff happening and you think to yourself, oh, I gotta go back and get organised. But really, what's happening is that you're set you're sort of sabotaging yourself because she needs To push through, whether you can get all the holes plugged up in the first or second draft doesn't really matter, it's that you want to get to the end. Because in order to know what happens at the beginning, you have to have written the end, not just plotting it out. But you have to really have written it moment by moment and seeing, not the resolution at the very end, but the climax of the Triumph scene, where the character is able to do something that they couldn't have done anywhere else in the story, because they had to go through all of the ups and downs and, you know, mistakes that they make along the way and confront all the different antagonists. And so I think that's kind of the main thing that I see. And also to appreciate that we don't necessarily write both plotlines at once, you know, for most of us, we have a preference or a strength, either in writing character, which I find women generally do better with that not to, you know, this whole gender thing is so fluid. Now, I'm not sure how to talk about it anymore, but you know what I mean. And then for men, often, they do much better with the dramatic action, you know, much more linear, and analytical and logical and all of that. Whereas for a lot of women, it's much more emotional, you know, what's happening to the characters internally. And so when you know what your strength is, or where you feel the most comfortable, you can write the whole first or second draft in that strength straight. And then to come back and really try to get the other plotline in there in order to satisfy in about the excitement, which is the dramatic action, and the character emotional development, which is sort of the identification between the reader and the story.Emma Dhesi:
I love that you've pointed that out for us actually, that you don't need to have both plotlines, both arcs worked out entirely. And I 100% agree that you've got to finish that draft before you kind of know the entirety of your story, and even what's motivating your character at the very beginning. And you've put it so brilliantly. Just a moment ago, when you said you don't need to plug every hole, you've just got to get to the end. And I think a lot of em. I think a lot of particularly people who like to plot very heavily they feel they've got to have everything worked out before they start writing. Martha, do you mind? Oh, so yeah. We were talking about plugging the holes. Yeah, right.Martha Alderson:
And so you don't need to know everything. And I think what's interesting is to allow yourself to just write, when you get to a point that you're not sure, Oh, my gosh, what's going to come next? It just write in the manuscript, you know, come back to this later, especially if you know, maybe a couple scenes further along. And, you know, I'm really into these energetic markers, the major turning points in a story. And if you can at least pre plot those, you know, there's a major one, at the end of the beginning, there's a major one, at the end of the first half of the middle, there's a major one about three quarters of the way through the book, and then there's a major one towards the end, if you're aware of what those are both the dramatic action and the character emotional development, then at least gives you this foundation. And you then are filling in the scenes so that rather than having that daunting task of feeling like oh my gosh, I've got to write all these words, and all these pages from beginning to end. If you instead think about each section as being uniquely different with different expectations, because what's going to happen at the beginning, and what you're going to want to convey to your reader in the first quarter of a story is vastly different than say, what's going to happen in the three court, you know that the third part, so if you can just think of it in four parts, and allow yourself to fill in the scenes between the energetic markers. It's not so daunting, it's much more manageable, and it allows you to feel that sense of accomplishment, because when you get each section done, you know it's just a very empowering thing rather than feeling like oh my god, it's gonna take me forever to get all the way to the end. Yeah, so anyway, I just find that a lot of writers feel comfort in that. Mm hmm.Emma Dhesi:
Well, let's let's let's kind of move, sort of go with that, that idea of finding comfort and finding confidence and letting go of self doubt because that's, that's what you tackled in boundless creativity. So you've touched on a little bit about what drew you to that subject? And was it something that you experienced yourself? Or was it that you saw it around you and thought, I need to address this?Martha Alderson:
Well, it's something I've struggled with, you know, my whole life, really the insecurity and sort of playing small, and just not feeling like, you know, being enough, you know, not smart enough, not, don't work hard enough, don't whatever it is that we beat ourselves up about. So I definitely could own that. And then when I saw it in the writers that I was working with, it was just heartbreaking. And it was helpful, because it allowed me to be able to understand what, how limiting that was for myself, but also wanting to reach out and support writers who were struggling. And so in the plot whisperer book, I do talk about that. And that was a big part. For a lot of writers, it became almost sort of a cult thing, you know that people wanted more of that, which is why I wrote the boundless creativity workbook. Because I wanted to be able to take people, all creative people, because we all creative people suffer with this are most of all that I've met. And take them through the universal story, which is something I talked about the plot whisperer book, but to take them through the universal story on their own journey, which mirrors really a protagonists journey. And if you can see that similarity, it helps you become a better writer, I think. And it also allows you to understand that you two will go through the same stages, and you probably will reach the three quarter mark, which is the Dark Knight or the crisis or the you know, the horrible place where everything falls apart, and, you know, whatever you thought you knew, you find that you didn't, and to not take it so personally, but to understand it's a universal form, it's part of emotional maturity, and that we have to die to our old personality in order to sort of become resurrected into who we really came here to be as individuals, and to be able to bring our gift forward to the world.Emma Dhesi:
Last year, so Okay, so you're the workbook just helps the writer put themselves in the protagonist of their own life and so yeah, from that way, so is that one of the things that you've experienced with the writers you work with is that they if it doesn't go well, if it doesn't go right, if they're struggling, they take it very personally, and think that they've failed and they're getting it wrong, rather than this is actually part of the process or it's a complicated story. But they're just feeling internally oh my goodness, I don't have this in me I can't do it. I'm not good enough.Martha Alderson:
Yeah, and I can't tell you how many writers who I have found to be you know, really gifted, talented, give up. And it's heartbreaking because their gift won't be able to be appreciated by the outside world because they're playing small they're holding their gift and judging themselves harshly. And so I think that by by really seeing it is a journey and appreciating the gifts that are being given to you by going through this journey. And to understand that writing a book a novel a you know, a memoir, or whatever it is, is not that easy. And if it were everybody would do it, although now it feels like everybody is doing it, but not necessarily well, because they don't necessarily know or research or, you know, learn what the expectations of the reader really are. So yeah, I love the boundless creativity workbook because it allows the creative person to take that journey step by step and See, because this universal story is something that is happens over and over and over again, you know, each time we take on a new path, or you know, we take on a new project or whatever, we're going to start at the beginning. And we're going to hopefully go all the way through the, to the end so so people can sort of analyse, oh, I did hit this spot, before I have hit that spot where I wanted to give up, I felt like I was a mess, I looked around and compared to myself to everybody else, and I didn't, you know, match up. And so by being able to see that, and also to appreciate those times that you were overcome by self doubt, but persevered, and then came out the other end successful on whatever level that is, to be able to be empowered by that and understand that each time you go through the universal story, you become stronger, more powerful, and you settle into yourself, you know, so that you can forget yourself, and do what you came here to do.Emma Dhesi:
So would you recommend that people will sort of go through the workbook with every new project that they do, so they can keep themselves on track, and then have that ability to reflect back on the last project and, and sort of say, oh, gosh, yes, I've been through this before, keep going don't give up?Martha Alderson:
Well, it's sort of an intense process, going through the workbook, I didn't really appreciate how many exercises that I offered. But yes, it is. Or even if it's, you know, every couple of years, you do it, so that you can compare and see who you were, because the workbook you know, you fill in all these blanks, and it's like a journal, it's like a life journal, you can then go back and look and see, oh, I'm not that person anymore. You know, because of these traumas in my life, or because of, you know, the hardships that I've suffered, or whatever, I've really become a different, better version of myself, let's say not different, but just a better just become yourself, then you can let go of all the expectations that society in your family, and you know, all the things around us, impose on us, and we take them like they're our own. But then, you know, each time you go through a crisis or a dark night, you're able to slough more and more of that off to get deeper and deeper, which is another thing that I think is interesting about writing, especially fiction is that you when you write something, and then you go back and read it, you can see that, oh, that isn't my truth. That's what I was taught to believe. But you know, really taped down, I don't believe that. And so it allows you then to go deeper into your own writing, and, and then convey these new truths that could really help evolve the world, you know, so to speak, that it allows then other people to break out of these moulds, because we're really taught from a very early age, to conform, you know, it really helps in society, I think, to keep everybody in line. But in order for us to evolve and move into our greatness, we have to let go of all that to really discover who we are.Emma Dhesi:
Yeah. And it can be I think, is a sort of good point that you make there about, you know, it's, it's, it can be a slow process, it's an involved process, but it's worth going through because what you learn about yourself can really boost that inner validation not coming from any one else or from externally, but you begin to see your own value and what you bring to the world. And as you say, I think you use the word you know, moving to your own potential, moving towards that your own greatness moving towards your own greatness. Yeah, so wellMartha Alderson:
said about the value you know, your own value that the gift that you came here to offer others it gives me goosebumps when I think about it, because it really does evolve the world around us and it allows each of us to convey different truths even in our everyday life, you know, when we meet our friends or whatever, and they say something that is just sort of cliched almost because it's you know what everybody says, you know, you're much more you're stronger and and to be able to present maybe other ideas which then let people You know, have that Oh, a ha moment of Wow, maybe that's the truth. You know what I mean? It's just, it's a it's a fascinating process writing, I think it's just, it takes you on an epic journey. And there's nothing like even if you don't get published, even if you don't finish, which I really encourage you to finish, so you don't have that hanging over you. But just the process itself is so life affirming. Mm hmm.Emma Dhesi:
Oh, well, I want to, I wanted to ask you also about changing tack a little bit here. But I did want to ask you about PlotWriMo, which you founded. And I which I hadn't come across until I was doing my research for today. So I sounds great. I wonder if you can tell us a bit more about it.Martha Alderson:
Well, so in November is NaNoWriMo. And you know, where everybody writes 50,000 words in the month. And what I found was, how many writers at the end of the month, you know, they were euphoric because they had passed or whatever, you know, I've never done it myself. But I don't know, I think you get a little certificate or something to say that you again, yeah, words. But they realise at the end, they just had a lot of words. And no, it's changed a lot. I knew Chris, the guy who started it years ago, and and now there's a lot of pre plotting that can go on. And there's a lot of different things. But a friend of mine said, Why don't you do something after the fact so that people can take all these words and then plot them out, and really create a form that is pleasing to the reader. And so I did that, and I started doing it on my blog, you know, this plot was for a blog. And so every day, there was another assignment. And then I put it on YouTube, I have a free youtube where the 27 steps are there. And then I did a videos series with my agent who, or who was my agent at the time. And, um, and now I sell it on my, you know, my website. But it's a way for people after they've written maybe the first or second draft, they can go through the programme step by step, and make sure that they're hitting those points. And some people, you know, watch the videos, before they ever write because they sort of want to know what the expectations are. Others want to just be able to write, get the words on the page, and then go back into format into a real story. Mm hmm.Emma Dhesi:
That might I imagine that works particularly well, for pansters who kind of have no idea and I'm one of those not really much idea of what I'm going to write until they've written it, and then have that quite lengthy revision process. But having someone kind of guide you through it will be so so useful, because that thrill of especially for, you know, brand new writers who were just giving this a go to see what happens, that thrill of doing the 50,000 words and thinking, my goodness, I did it, that's brilliant. Okay, know what,Martha Alderson:
Exactly, now what, and that's what I was trying to answer. Now what and I think for pantsers are people that write by the seat of their pants, or you know, just on the fly, I just encourage them to lean into plot, you know, you don't have to become a full time plotter. But if you can start to lean into it, but really just become familiar with the energy of the universal story, how it rises and falls, so that you can at least feel like you're bringing that same rhythm and template into your story.Emma Dhesi:
Now, we haven't delved too much into the universal story today, but that's something our listeners can find out more about the plot whisperer isn't it.Martha Alderson:
And in the universal in the boundless creativity, I go into it a lot, too. So if you're more interested in sort of overcoming the self doubt, you know, you keep beating yourself up and stopping and starting and all of this, you may really benefit from boundless creativity going through the workbook. If it's more about wanting to understand plot for your story, then, you know, the plot whisperer could be really helpful. And I also have a plot whisperer workbook that takes you through sort of those essential steps of the universal story. I did cut back a little bit, because when the plot whisperer book came out, I got so much flak from I think they were mostly men, and they were mostly left brain, you know, linear, logical and, you know, they felt like there was too Match California whoo, whoo. And that, you know, that kind of stuff. So then of course, I overreacted. And it was like, Oh my god, I don't want to, you know, have that reputation. So in the workbook, it's not quite as obvious as it is in the boundless creativity or the original pot whisperer book. Okay, well,Emma Dhesi:
I'll make sure that I am I linked all of those in the show notes so people can find them easily. Yeah. So I'd love to talk about your own fiction knows, at the top of the show, you were saying, This is know something that you're prioritising and doing it for you and for the love of it. And congratulations on publishing parallel lives last year. Yes. How was that experience for you?Martha Alderson:
Oh, gosh, well, it's, it's there's, there's a lot of personal elements in that book. And I had worked on parallel lives for years, and but was very reluctant to bring it forward. And I did independently publish it. I don't know how many years ago, but it was it was almost like I had to get it out there because I had to own my own story. And I had to move beyond. And so then I decided to go back and to really refine it in the way that I knew I wanted it to be. So it was thrilling last year to put it out. Again, I independently published it. And I haven't done a lot of promotion about it. Because there are a lot of really dicey elements in the book in it's sort of it's, it's challenging to some readers, and and it's also so personal, it was tough. So anyway, right now I've just finished. It's a surfing love story. And I'm really excited about it. And so I'm hoping that that's going to find a home and with a traditional publisher, and I'll be able to get that out. And in the next few years.Emma Dhesi:
exciting, exciting. So that's, you've just recently finished that. So that suggests that you were writing that over the last year or two through through COVID. And lockdown, did you find that your writing was enhanced by being at home? Or did you find it quite distracting, everything that was going on?Martha Alderson:
Well, that's just the way I live, I'm very introverted, you know, quiet kind of person. And yeah, it was nothing different for me. I mean, I, my husband does all the shopping and all this stuff out in the real world. And so, you know, I love to be quiet. I love to have that time. And, and I have, you know, through the years when I was teaching plot, all the time, full time, that was my profession, sort of, I was also always writing fiction. So I have like about another five novels that I would love to eventually bring forth. But yeah, I'd love that quiet time, I find that in the days that I used to do these huge workshops, you know, hundreds of people, it would take its toll I it would take me like a week or more to be able to recover from that emotional, and that interaction, all that energy sort of pump barding. You I found it really I didn't understand at the time, what it was. But now I really understand that that's not who I am.Emma Dhesi:
Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? How, how that can impact different people because we can be introverts but still really enjoy that that social side. And introverts are not particularly enjoy that kind of social side. And a need that Joanna pen talks about a lot that when she does a conference or an event. She there needs to take a few days just to that group and get her energy back. Yeah.Martha Alderson:
Well, there's really no, you know, there's so much in the news now about self care, and all of that. And I think that it's because it hasn't been really addressed. And I'm glad that it is coming forward, because I think a lot of people, whether they're introverted or not need to have downtime. And I think it's wonderful to be in your downtime to be able to have a creative process a project to work on. Hmm.Emma Dhesi:
Oh, well, Martha, it's been so lovely speaking to you. And we're kind of out of time Now, unfortunately. But before we do disappear, I wonder if you could let listeners know where the best place to find out more about you online isMartha Alderson:
sure, just go to my website, Martha alderson.com. And it has all my books there. It has my blog and has some free resources, which I think connects you to the YouTube series that I have up but um, you know, All social media I only recently got on Instagram so I'm not quite as I love Instagram because I love posting pictures but I've got to get better about doing real content on my pot whisperer page because I just let it sort of languish there. But anyway yeah I'm all over the place you'll find me if you want to find me I'm they'reEmma Dhesi:
lovely. I let I'll make sure our listeners get that in the show notes as well. That's lovely. Well, Martha, thank you so so much for your time today.Martha Alderson:
Oh, you're welcome. And thank you for giving me the opportunity to connect with your your listeners.