Memoirists and Plot–Welcome Martha Alderson’s Blog Tour!


Martha, it’s so fabulous that you can join us today. We have talked in the past about the way memoir writers grow a little pale when thinking about plot. They feel constrained about the idea of thinking about plot, they don’t quite understand what it is and why it’s important.

  1. So my first question is to have you define plot, and tell us why a memoir writer needs to understand why they need to grasp the concepts and skills of plot for their memoir.

Let me begin by saying that plot and structure are not constraining. Plot and structure actually give a memoirist the form and function for her memoir and then leave everything else up to her.

In my new book, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, I cover in great detail the benefits of identifying your weaknesses and strengths as a writer and how to determine if you have more of a preference for right brain functions versus left brain dominance or are more balanced between the two.

Don’t get me wrong; the book is not a guide to the brain. It is a book about plotting that also functions as a spiritual or an emotional guide to writing. Writing is emotional. You face obstacles that unleash angst, which leads to procrastination.

My intention in shining a light on how the two hemispheres of the brain affect your writing is to allow you to acknowledge and face the difficulties you encounter, difficulties that are reflections of your strengths and weaknesses. In self-knowledge comes the courage to compensate for your weaknesses and the ability to rely on your strengths.

In every memoir something happens (dramatic action plot) to change or transform the memoirist (character emotional plot) overtime and in a meaningful way (thematic significance plot). Whether you understand that as a big picture concept or as a linear, scene-by-scene idea depends heavily on your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

(NOTE: In the remainder of my answers, I refer to the memoirist as the protagonist of the story because doing so gives more distance and supports you in considering the story from the reader’s point of view as well as from your own)

  1. Memoir writers think they know the plot because they already know “what happened.” Can you talk about this issue a bit—is that way of thinking useful or should they revise their attitude toward plot.

Plot embodies quite a bit more than more than just what happens in the memoir or a sum of the events. Plot is how the events in the story of your life directly impact the main character or the protagonist, in other words, you.

Always, in the best-written memoirs, the protagonist is emotionally affected by the events of the story. In great memoirs, the dramatic action transforms the protagonist. This transformation makes a story meaningful.

Keep in mind that, yes, you lived the story and the story comes through you. However, when you decide to write that story down, you turn from the one who experienced the events to that of a writer. Your job, then, is to present what you have lived in a pleasing and meaningful form to the reader. This takes setting yourself aside and means opening your mind to receive the greatest good of the story.

  1. Please talk about the emotional, healing, transformation aspects of what you call “universal story.”

The Universal Story delights me. Just as I teach writers to push aside all the words they have written to see the bigger picture of the entire memoir, I also teach writers and anyone else who is interested how to stand back from the drama in their lives to see what is really at play in their own individual lives.

The Universal Story is about evolution, and change is never easy. However, anytime someone grows and changes overtime on a deep and meaningful level from the challenges they confront and then shares that experience others, the memoirist empowers others to believe that such a transformation is available to them, as well.

  1. Explain to us how memoir writers should think of plotting their story—should they write it first then think about plot, or plan it out from the beginning?  (Some will say that planning will get in the way of creativity.)

The most important part is to write the first draft all the way through to the end by any means available to you. An understanding of whether you prefer pre-plotting or you find that plotting as you go works best for you or you find yourself writing the entire first draft by the seat of your pants teaches you more about your preferences and strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

Once you have written an entire draft you are better able to stand back from the story to see what you are truly attempting to say. At that point the real craft of writing a memoir kicks in and a firm understanding of plot and Universal Story serves you well.

  1. What are some steps a memoir writer can take to create a good scene.

Again, as I stressed in my answer to question #4, the first draft is about getting the story down on paper. As you write this first draft, you may find yourself more comfortable “telling” the story in narrative or internal monologue. Even so, every chance you can, attempt to write moment-by-moment scenes using movement and action to convey or “show” the story rather than simply “tell” the story.

The more you practice writing in scene, the easier and more automatic the task becomes to you. Read great memoirs and compare how much of the story is shown in scene versus told in narrative. Compare a chapter you have written to a chapter in your favorite memoir. What is the same? What is different?

When you have practiced writing scenes and want to evaluate them, track each scene or, at least, track the energetic markers and any other major turning points in your memoir. This shows you which plot elements are missing and which are in the scene in its current condition.

Seven Plotting Questions

For each scene, ask yourself the seven essential questions of plot:

1. Does the scene establish the date and setting?

2. How does it develop the character’s emotional makeup?

3. Is the scene driven by a specific character goal?

4. What dramatic action is shown?

5. How much conflict, tension, suspense, or curiosity is shown?

6. Does the character show emotional changes and reactions within the scene?

7. Does the scene reveal thematic significance to the overall story?

Evaluate the scene tracker for your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. If you find your scene tracker has lots of dramatic action filled with conflict, tension, and suspense, but little character emotional development, plan in your rewrite to concentrate on developing your weakness.

Thank you, Linda Joy for the chance to write about plot and the Universal Story and share my passion with other writers. I look forward to visiting your blog today and interacting with your followers.

I know that all the memoirists who have worked with you have learned so much from your wisdom about plot. Of course there are always questions.

So I invite visitors to come to ask questions of Martha here on the site. And let’s all stay tuned for what she has to say. You might think of more topics.

 Here is what people are saying about Martha’s book:

“The Plot Whisperer is Martha Alderson is Obi-Wan Kenobi of Story-Plotlines. Whether you’re writing your first book or your tenth, you deserve tools to make your story engaging, from first page to last. Also you deserve to gain such tools from a seasoned teacher who genuinely cares about helping authors. This empowering book helps you acquire secrets of story-structure and gain personal energy in order to survive and thrive the writing journey.

Teresa LeYung Ryan,

The Plot Whisperer is especially helpful with regard to plotting; not just the storyline but how it impacts the main character. Over time, you come to understand how each scene delivers more tension and conflict, building on the story’s depth, and leading you to an exceptional story. Wise writers will take Alderson’s heartfelt advice and turn it into an action plan.” Helen Gallagher,

 Martha has been doing one-on-one writer’s consultations for years and this is what reading The Plot Whisperer feels like—it’s like sitting with her and being coached, psychoanalyzed, pushed, encouraged, and, via all of that, INSPIRED to get down and write. I highly recommend both of Martha’s books, Blockbuster Plots and The Plot Whisperer, to anyone who is actively engaged in writing, or who wants to be.” Shreve Stockton,

I have known Martha and her work for years, and have brought many of my memoir students directly to her studio to spend the day learning about plot. Be sure to ask your own questions here on her tour! We are lucky to have her here with us!!

In October through The National Association of Memoir Writers, we enjoyed having Martha present her techniques at one of our Member Teleseminars. You will get the audio to that program if you join NAMW. To learn more about the benefits of membership, click this link. Linda Joy Myers

What is the Truth in Memoir | Can We Really Capture It? | Tune in to Find out

At the NAMW Telesummit Friday starting at 10 AM PDT, I get to talk with several fantastic authors and teachers. Their books have shaped my thinking toward more creative choices, and pushed me toward using language to carve out even deeper truths. The experts I get to hang out with are Jennifer Lauck, author of Blackbird and three other amazing and deep memoirs, including her last book Found. Dinty W. Moore’s collection of memoir essays Between Panic and Desire show us how we can weave small pieces into a memoir, while Robin Hemley’s Nola is another kind of weaving that examines the nature of memory and the sources of “truth” –whatever that is. The topic of the Telesummit is Truth or Lie: On the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction, and also features a panel of young memoirists who couldn’t wait for people to die before they wrote about their lives! And the best news: it’s FREE to everyone. Just sign up at the link below.

Robin’s memoir asks: whose version of “truth” is “real.” Can we trust memory, or do we create our story based on emotional need or unconscious beliefs?

Quotes from Nola:

How can one be objective about one’s family? How can one resist the urge to edit, to become the family spin doctor?

…There is no real past, it’s all a daydream is seems, or an endless series of clues and discoveries…

…everyone’s life is a kind of detective story, every clue of our forebears’ lives, every decision, missed opportunity…are part of the solution to our own existence.

To read more about the Telesummit, go to the National Association of Memoir Writers to sign up. You will receive a link to the downloadable audio after the conference is over.

Robin will talk about “The Trouble with the Truth,” which is the troubling and challenging issue for all memoir and nonfiction writers. His introduction to the teleconference:

Any time we set down to write the truth of our lives we have to face the fact that there is no single truth to our lives.  To make matters more complex we’re different people at different times in our lives and we show different faces to different people.  The portrayal of an “authentic” self is something most memoir writers strive for, but there are always details we omit or exaggerate or forget, or hidden agendas even we aren’t aware of as we’re writing.  While we don’t want to lie, we also have to understand that what we aspire to write is closer to art than a court room transcript.  It’s not all about content.  There are aesthetic concerns as well.  Above all, you have to remember that once an event has passed, it’s gone forever and words can’t recreate the event.  They can only create a semblance of the event. 

We’re so lucky to be able to meet with people you normally have to pay hundreds of dollars to see, so join us for Free! See you there!

Talking about Truth

with Robin Hemley at the National Association of Memoir Writers Teleconference Oct. 21

As most of you know, one of the events I most enjoy putting together as president                 
of the National Association of Memoir Writers is our bi-annual Telesummit. This
Friday I’m spending 5 hours with authors I admire, whose works have changed me,
shaped my thinking toward more creative choices, pushing me toward using
language to carve out even deeper truths. Robin’s memoir Nola makes me ask the questions that he asks: whose version of “truth”
is “real.” Can we trust memory, or do we create our story based on emotional need or unconscious beliefs. His book Turning Your Life into Fiction is one of the best books I’ve read about story writing, all the angles to look at when drawing
from our lives to create a story.

Robin Hemley is going to talk with us about one of the most important issues in memoir writing Truth—how
to find it within us, and how reflect upon our personal truths and agendas as we write.

To read more about the Telesummit, go to the National Association of Memoir
Writers to sign up.
You will receive a link to the 5 hour downloadable audio after the conference is over.

Robin has shared with us his outline for our discussion at the teleconference.

The Trouble with the Truth

Any time we set down to write the truth of our lives we have to face the fact that there is no
single truth to our lives. To make matters more complex we’re different people at different times in our lives and
we show different faces to different people.  The portrayal of an “authentic” self is something most memoir writers
strive for, but there are always details we omit or exaggerate or forget, or hidden agendas even we aren’t aware of as we’re writing. While we don’t want to lie, we also have to understand that what we aspire to write is closer to art than a court room
transcript. It’s not all about content. There are aesthetic concerns as well. Above all, you have to remember
that once an event has passed, it’s gone forever and words can’t recreate the event. They can only create a semblance
of the event.

We will discuss

  • Distance and the imagination
  • Precision of language versus precision of memory
  • Writing associatively rather than chronologically
  • Including primary texts in your memoir
  • Legal and ethical issues that arise whether you write
    fiction or nonfiction

 I’m eager to talk with Robin, and I hope you all will join us for this fabulous free conference!

–Linda joy

Memoir and Plot–Yes you DO Need One!


My guest blog today is from Martha Alderson, aka “The Plot Whisperer” who has a fabulous new book out through Writers Digest The Plot Whisperer. Martha has worked her magic with many of my students over the years,  and I’m so glad to speak with her at one of my teleseminars through NAMW.

Today she will be talking with me at the National Association of Memoir Writers’ Member Teleseminar. Join us to get her special tips and to ask your own questions about plot in your memoir.

The Power of Plot for Memoirists

In novels, the protagonist is defined as the character most changed by the dramatic action of the story. In memoirs, the main character is the author herself who is also defined as the character most changed by the dramatic action in the memoir. When I consult with memoirists on the plot and structure of their memoirs, I immediately switch the main character of the memoir from being the writer with whom I’m consulting into a protagonist instead.

I do this for three reasons.

1) Just as the protagonist in a novel or screenplay is transformed by the dramatic action in the story, the memoirist must also show the same sort of transformation in herself due to the external dramatic action of the events of her life portrayed in the memoir. Story is all about the protagonist undergoing a journey and becoming transformed in the process. The journey itself must be built on exciting dramatic action in order to please and entertain the audience.

2) A switch in the focus from the writer to the protagonist gives the memoirist enough distance from her own story to better determine the elements needed to create the greatest impact on the reader. For example, I have found that although most people are quick to identify other people’s flaws and faults, they have difficulty pinpointing their own. Without a flaw, the character arc in a memoir becomes more difficult to manage.

3) When the feedback I give during a plot consultation is focused on the protagonist of the story conveyed in the memoir, the input is not taken as personally as if I were referring to the writer herself. For instance, many writers tend to be introverts, which often translates into a passive main character that often floats from one event to the next. It is easier for both the writer and myself when such a problem is referred to through the guise of the protagonist.

Memoir writing at its best shares the writer’s past with the reader in story form in order to entertain, enlighten, motivate, and/or make sense of life itself. 

Anxious to leave a legacy, more and more baby boomers are turning to writing their memoirs. For some, the story reveals itself effortlessly. Others have difficulty raising the veil for clarity. In the second case, I often find the problem lies in having lived a vast and rich life. What to put in and what to leave out becomes the dilemma.

In order to bring a story to fullness, a writer searches for the underlying structure that best demonstrates some sort of meaning. There are three ways to do this.

1) Write what you are drawn to write and see what you end up with.

2) Pre-plot scenes and ideas on a Plot Planner based on the Universal Story, keeping alert for the moments that could constitute a major crisis which in turn creates a jumping off place for the crowning glory of the work ~ the climax.

3) Write what you are drawn to write and, at the same time, plot out scenes and ideas, keeping in mind the form of the Universal Story.

An event written in scene does not warrant staying in a memoir merely because “it happened that way.” Yes, using true events often leads to a richness of authentic details and emotional revelation. However, just because something meaningful and life-changing happened to you in no way guarantees that the event will be meaningful to your audience. And, of course, the true events must contribute to the overall story plot, or these authentic details end up weighing down the story.

The events themselves must build in conflict, tension, and suspense and provide some sort of thematic significance in the end.

A recent plot consultation revealed a tragic story of loss the writer lived through. This is not unusual. Most of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lives. Writing about it helps bring meaning and closure. If the aftermath that ensues after a trauma and what is lost and what is gained provides excitement, terrific. However, the one event is not always enough to wrap an entire memoir around. If this is the case, then a secondary plot line may be needed to create more page-turnability to the project and show the overall character transformation. Thus, the trauma becomes the back story, that which makes the character who they have become while the secondary plot line becomes the front story, the moment-by-moment pursuit of a specific and tangible goal.

For for a passage or sentence, character, or plot angle to remain in a memoir will not be because of the beauty of the writing or the cleverness in the plotting or the depth of the characters, although these things are critical in captivating the reader. Each line and each element in each and every scene of a memoir belongs there because it has a definite purpose in providing overall meaning to the piece.

The only scenes that belong in a memoir are the ones that best show how a character responds to the challenges, conflicts, tension, and suspense in one’s own life as she moves nearer to transformation and, in the end, contribute to the overall meaning of the story.

Martha Alderson is the Plot Whisperer. Her latest book — The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master has been released by Adams Media. She is the founder of the award-winning blog: The Plot Whisperer, a vlog on YouTube: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay? Blockbuster Plots for Writers, and International PlotWriMo. Her books include Blockbuster Plot Pure & Simple and Blockbuster Plots Scene Tracker Kit and several plot dvds and ebooks. Martha takes readers and writers beyond the words and into the very heart of a story.

Her clients include best-selling authors, writing teachers, fiction editors, and Hollywood movie directors.

Memoir Writing and Quilting–Piece by Piece


Writing a memoir means exploring who we are and where we came from, entering the unknowns on our journey and discovering ourselves. It means striking out for the gold of truth and honesty, exposure and even a spiritual journey that leads us away from known territory. Writing a memoir is a lot like the pioneers that my great-grandmother told me about. She was in her eighties and I was about eight years old. Her face was deeply grooved, her eyes sank deep in her sockets, her voice sometimes sounded far away, like she was still back there where her memory took her. She lisped because her teeth were in a jar by the bed. She was still a young girl on the farm near the Mississippi River when the neighbors drove up in a covered wagon and got out to say goodbye. They were going to Kansas—this was in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with the deep ruts of wagon trains. They knew they had to cross the Missouri River, but they didn’t know what they would encounter along the way. The Indians were more or less removed from the Great Plains by then, but there were outlaws and roving bands, there was not much civilization, and towns were far away from each other. The woman was pregnant, the children barefoot. Blanche never found out what happened to them, but she watched them drive off into the unknown. If any of you have ever driven on a regular road, not a freeway, between Iowa and Kansas, you know it’s quite a ways.

They had a map, there were guides, and they must have gotten to Kansas eventually. We memoirists need maps and guides. One form of the “map” that we can use is what I call writing your “turning points.” These are the most important moments of your life, when nothing was the same after the event. It might be meeting a new person, moving away from your home town, encountering danger, an accident, an illness, or receiving an award or a scholarship, losing a loved one to death, a natural disaster, a birth. Falling in love. Notice that these are emotionally significant events.

Dorothy Allison says to write “where the fear is, where the heat is.” That way we delve into the heart of our stories, of who we were, the high and low points in our lives. Emotion guides us into our journey toward truth and honesty. Judith Barrington says that the memoirist, “Whispers into the ear of the reader.” When we read a memoir, we feel that we are being invited into the secret heart of a person, a family, a time and a place. We are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, just like the pioneers.

When I was little, my great grandmother and my great aunts were busy. They were either washing and hanging clothes on the line to dry in the sun, or cooking—my great grandmother still used a wood cook stove—even in the summer! They would bake and can the bounty from the garden, or they were busy with their needlework. They belonged to quilting bees, and would sit around the quilting frame, chattering and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns using pieces of old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the separate patches came together in the design. This is what we do with our turning point stories. They are vignettes that we can write in any order. Again, if we write where the heat is, we will gather the sections that one day will be quilted together into a more finished work of art.

Another guide on the journey is creating a timeline can be another guide. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline that you create out of an 18×24 inch piece of paper, large enough to hold several decades. Your memoir will most likely be a part or a theme from your life, but when you start writing, you may not yet be clear on your focus. It is not a waste of time to write more stories than you might end up using as you assemble your quilt, as you may have more than one quilt—I mean memoir! The way the turning points cluster on the timeline can offer new insights into your life, revealing things that you were unaware of. A visual element in creating our memoir is helpful. You can Xerox photos that go with the various turning points, and create a kind of vision board, where you weave the colors and the images of your past.

All these techniques help you to write with more power and focus, help to fuel your journey into your memories. The richness stored there goes beyond what you think you remember. The more you write, the more you develop your turning points and the sensual details of your life, the more you will remember. Maybe you will be like Blanche, in her eighties weaving the stories of the 19th century for me as we rested side by side in the featherbed. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to write, to capture what she showed me, to honor the history that was within her.

And you too will weave magic as you write your memoir.

As you weave your stories, keep an eye out for the plot arc that will satisfy your readers. What is a plot arc? Find out more at the National Association of Memoir Writers Member Teleseminar October 14. Martha Alderson, also known as The Plot Whisperer, will talk about the importance of the Universal Story, and reveal secrets about the necessity of a well planned plot in memoir writing.