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Guest Editor: Cheryl Klein

Next month, Cheryl B. Klein, a children’s/YA editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, will self-publish her first book, Second Sight:  An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults. The book collects eighteen of her popular speeches and essays on writing, including chapters on character development, the Harry Potter series, twenty-five practical revision techniques, and the Annotated Query Letter from Hell. In this exclusive excerpt,  she shares six basic principles of plotting, with questions you can use to apply them to your work.

1. The story of the book is what happens in that book — the basic events. The plot of the book is the deep structure of those events, which give the action shape and meaning. In Harry Potter, the story is about an orphaned boy, who is an outcast even in his own family, being chosen to go to a magical school, where he makes friends, takes classes in magic, learns to play Quidditch, discovers that an evil overlord wants to kill him, and has that first encounter with the overlord. The plot is about a boy who is unloved and abused, basically, finding a place where he can be respected and have emotional support, and discovering a larger challenge that threatens this new place of stability.

Put yet another way, the story is a sequence of events; the plot is the larger change that happens through those events. Which leads to:

2. We can identify a plot by a change: Your protagonist’s circumstances change over the course of the novel, and so does he. If you don’t have a change, you don’t really have a plot. You might have a story, and the story, indeed, can be fabulous all on its own; but if it ends with the characters coming home the same as they were before, it’s not reaching the depths it could achieve.

The surest way to damn a book at Arthur A. Levine Books is to compare it to Alice in Wonderland, because neither Arthur nor I like stories where a lot of random stuff happens and nothing really changes. Those stories might have nice little emotional points: Some readers love the experiences of meeting the Mad Hatter, watching the caterpillar smoke his hookah, the craziness of the Red Queen, and that’s enough for them. But it does not have a thematic point. Alice goes back to the real world, and she takes up her regular life with her sister, and that’s it — she hasn’t changed in any way. And I think that leaves the reader unchanged as well, other than entertained; there’s nothing larger to take away. (If you have ever had a manuscript rejected for being a “slice-of-life” story, what that means is that there was no larger change.)

Question #1: Does a change of some kind happen in the course of your book?

3. The protagonist of the book is the person to whom the change happens and in whom the change occurs. Suppose you have a story about a twelve-year-old girl and her alcoholic father. The father goes to rehab and comes out a changed man, but the daughter refuses to forgive him. It doesn’t matter if you write that whole novel from the girl’s point of view — unless she forgives him, or their relationship changes in some other way, the dad is the protagonist of that plot.

Question #2: Who changes in your WIP?

4. The two dimensions of the plot are the Action Plot and the Emotional Plot. The Action Plot is the change in the character’s circumstances. For instance, Harry Potter is plucked from obscurity and hardship, told he has a great history and destiny, and sent off to wizard school, where he becomes a hero. The Emotional Plot is the change within your protagonist himself. For instance, once Harry is there, he makes friends and finds new courage within himself.

Another way of thinking about this: You can regard the Action Plot as challenges that are imposed upon your protagonist from the outside by his circumstances; the Emotional Plot is the challenges that come from the inside, who he is. Or simplifying it even further, the Action Plot is the story, in the boy-goes-to-wizard-school sense; the Emotional Plot is character.

So, Questions #3 and #4, which may not be so easy to answer immediately: What is your protagonist’s change in circumstances from the beginning to the end of the novel? And how does he himself change?

5. Your plot will begin when one of these changes does. When the character moves to a new town and makes a new friend. When the character decides to set out at last on that journey to find her father. When the character discovers that his mother isn’t actually his mother but an alien cyborg. (He doesn’t have to do anything about that knowledge, but the knowledge alone would change him, and that’s the start of the Emotional Plot.)

Novels often have a scene set before the change starts to establish the circumstances at the outset, the better to show how things are different by the end. The first scene of Marcelo in the Real World is set in a doctor’s office, where Marcelo’s brain is scanned and he slips into his “internal music.” That music will be greatly disturbed by the end of the book, by everything he sees at the law firm where he’ll work for the summer. So that scene sets the emotional stakes for the book, because it shows what Marcelo will lose. And Marcelo is so compelling a character, with such a distinctive voice, that the author, Francisco X. Stork, can get away with not having a lot of action there.

Likewise, The Hunger Games starts with Katniss hunting with her friend Gale on the morning of the reaping. From a character perspective, she’s showing us her strength, resourcefulness, and hunting ability. From a plot perspective, we’re seeing what she stands to lose: a life where she is the provider for her family. Suzanne Collins further plants the seeds of the change by having Katniss and Gale talk about the selection that day, and slipping in the rules of the competition.

Alternatively, you can start with an action scene showing the beginning of the change, then set up the backstory in Chapter 2. This is what happens in Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, where the heroine Katsa meets her match, another Graceling, in the midst of breaking into a king’s dungeons. The change might even have already begun when the book does. In Bobby vs. Girls (Accidentally), Holly Harper has already become more of a (gasp!) girl, with straight hair and shopping trips, when Bobby runs into her in Chapter 1, so that opening scene establishes both the depth of their friendship and the new tensions between them.

Question #5: Where do the changes for your protagonist begin? How close to the beginning can you set those events? (The answer is probably closer than you think.)

6. And while the entertainment of a book may come from its Action Plot—the chance for the reader to go to wizard school with Harry, to ride broomsticks and raise dragons and face down an evil overlord — the deeper emotional effect and meaning of the book comes from its Emotional Plot — how much you the reader care about this character, and the chance to see him change and grow. Not all books have both kinds of plots, or balance both kinds of plots equally — and that’s fine. If you’re writing a rip-roaring fantasy adventure novel, you will want more Action Plot than Emotional Plot. If you’re writing a novel about a boy dealing with his grandfather’s death, that’s going to be heavier on Emotional Plot than Action. The important thing is to try to have enough of each to keep the story moving forward, and yet developing the reader’s connection to the character and consequent response to what happens to him.

Bio: Cheryl B. Klein is the senior editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. Among the books she has edited or co-edited are A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, winner of the inaugural William C. Morris YA Debut Award; Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork, winner of the Schneider Family Book Award for Teens; and Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee, winner of the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor. She also served as the U.S. continuity editor on the last two books of the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Since 2005, she has maintained a blog about writing, life, books, and nonsense at http://chavelaque.blogspot.com, and a website for writers at http://cherylklein.com. Second Sight is her first book. For information on purchasing it, visit http://cherylklein.com/second-sight/ .

45 responses to “Guest Editor: Cheryl Klein”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    Welcome, Cheryl! Thanks so much for joining us! This is absolutely fabulous and clear advice even for those of us who don’t write YA.

    I especially appreciate the way you lay out Action Plot versus Emotional Plot.
    (And, oh, how I love Harry Potter!!)

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  2. Thanks for being with us today, Cheryl, and Elizabeth, thank you for inviting her to the RSS.

    Cheryl, you’ve given me a lot to think about while I finish off my current YA wip. I second Elisa’s sentiments about the differences between an Action Plot and an Emotional Plot. (P.S. Elisa, I may well be one of the few people on the planet who hasn’t read Harry Potter. Eek! I’ll have to set aside a month or two to read the series!)

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    • Diana Layne says:

      Vanessa! Read HP now! 🙂

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    • You aren’t alone, Vanessa. I have neither read nor have the desire to read HP. Not my thing. I understand the fascination, but wish I didn’t. I’ve given the youngsters in our family many books over the years. Not one of them had anything to do with wizards, witchcraft, or sorcery.

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      • Elisa Beatty says:

        Gwynlyn, Gwynlyn, Gwynlyn….we may have to besiege your house with owls.

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        • LOL! I know a few I could send her way. There’s crazy-eyed Beaker, who’d bite her with his crooked and ineffective little beak until she giggled for mercy. Then there’s Pellet, who’d sing to her so sweetly of Harry Potter’s charms–and then proceed to hump whatever part of her anatomy he found most convenient. Hand, head, whatever. No one can stop an owl with a boner. Luckily, it’s always over quickly, no matter what he’d have you believe.

          I’ve got a few more in reserve, lest those two fail in their owlish duties.

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        I shall hereby commit heresy and admit that I only got quarter way through the first HP novel. The voice just didn’t work for me. However I LOVE the movies, and think that the world Rowling created is a stellar achievement.

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        • Elisa Beatty says:

          Press on through the first novel if you possibly can, Tammy….it’s more of a kid’s book, and I can see how it might not hook an adult.

          I read the first book, then went a couple years before trying another…then, at my sister’s insistence, I finally read books two and three. By the time you reach book three, the tone deepens and darkens, and there’s no going back!!

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    • Vanessa, I loved them, and the last one was my favorite! I was amazed at the emotional depth of it. I actually got teary-eyed at a few spots, which is not normal for me. Harry Potter is way more than a series about a kid who goes to magic school and fights an evil overlord. That’s just the story. 😉

      Truly, make the time to read the series. As a YA author, especially, you’ll be glad you did.

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      • Okay, Diana and Jamie, you have twisted both my arms! I’ll read the series–I will! You might need to work on Gwynlyn next. 🙂

        I actually made a point not to read it because I was writing a witch story when the first book came out and I didn’t want to be influenced by it. Or, more likely, find out that my oh-so-original ideas weren’t so original after all!

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      I’m totally going to have my YA Writer Card (we have one of those, right?) taken away.

      I didn’t make it past the first 5 pages of the first Harry Potter book. I hear it gets better, but really? Wizards? I’ve just never seen the appeal.

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  3. Beth Langston says:

    Welcome to our blog, Cheryl. I’m looking forward to receiving a copy of your book.

    I enjoyed the excerpt. I think I must emphasize Action Plot over Emotional Plot.

    Do you find that new authors tend to favor one type of plot over the other?

    Beth

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  4. Cheryl Klein says:

    Thanks for having me! This is my first guest blog anywhere for SECOND SIGHT, and I’m delighted to be here.

    Beth, I think most new authors emphasize Action Plot more, because that’s the easiest thing to talk and think about in regards to your book, right? “Boy goes to wizard school,” “Girl falls in love with hot vampire,” “Heroine forced to fight to the death” — you can usually summarize the Action Plot of the book in a sentence. Since Emotional Plot happens within the character and in reaction to the Action Plot, it tends to not only be a bit more subtle, but harder to talk about, because you have to explain/figure out the Action Plot first.

    Again, there’s no shame in being oriented more strongly toward one kind of plot than the other! — as long as you have both in your book. 🙂

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  5. Diana Layne says:

    Cheryl, thanks for laying out the info on action plot v. emotional plot so succinctly. It took me writing a few books to learn this, but I finally realized that I almost always write an action plot book, but by the end realize the person I thought was going to be my protagonist, isn’t, and that creates a lot of rewrites. One day I’d like to figure out how to find the protagonist Before I write the whole darned book.

    Good luck on SECOND SIGHT, I bet it’s fabulous!

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  6. Cheryl, Thank you for joining us today and offering this valuable information.

    Every book I’ve written has started with both action and emotional upheaval. However, the emotional turmoil might not necessarily be the character who changes most by the end of the story. I’m not sure if there is a wrong or right here. Also, do you feel having more than one character change strengthens the novel?

    Thank you again for all the advice.

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    • Cheryl says:

      Autumn, if you’re asking if more than one character can/should change in a book — yes, absolutely! Especially in a romance, if both of the romantic partners change as they come together, that’s wonderfully effective in helping us readers appreciate the growth of both and the rightness of their romance. (I always think of Elizabeth & Darcy in PRIDE & PREJUDICE here.)

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  7. I love the idea of the Action Plot and the Emotional Plot!!! I’m really excited about your book, Cheryl. Thank you so much for being here! And thank you Elizabeth for inviting her.

    Off to ponder. Love this!
    ~D~

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  8. I’ll second Elisa; the points you make will work regardless of genre. I have never consciously thought of it at two parallel plots, always as internal and external goals, which upon consideration, is the same bird with different feathers.

    Thank you for the new perspective. I’m sure your book will be of immense help to writers everywhere.

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    • I thought, too, that “action” was just like “external,” and “emotion” was just like “internal.” Except I’ve had a lot of trouble feeling the differences between internal and external, and I’ve found those words to be less than useful to my own writing. I’ve used them simply because everyone else does, but I constantly have to remind myself of what they mean. They’re just not intuitive enough for me.

      But action and emotion? That makes sense to my little pea brain. I’m officially dropping “external” and “internal.”

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  9. What an excellent differentiation between story and plot! I never thought of them as separate before. Count me as another who has never read any of the Harry Potter books. I’m a very reality-based reader.

    I think one of the other reasons I’m not drawn to paranormal novels is because they tend to focus more on the action plot rather than the emotional plot. I believe it’s one of the reasons Darynda’s First Grave on the Right was so enjoyable for me. She incorporates plenty of emotion in her writing.

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      Time to branch out, Laurie!!

      The HP books are very, very much about the emotional plot (while also having fabulous action plots). The characters are amazingly complex and wonderful. (My students and my own children identify with Harry and his friends, of course, but I was completely taken by surprise how much I was fascinated and moved by the adult characters. *Sigh*…have I mentioned how much I love that series, and respect J.K. Rowling as an author?)

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  10. Hope Ramsay says:

    Cheryl,

    I have always been really interested in the art of storytelling, and I spend a lot of time on what I’ve always called plotting.

    I’ve always thought about story and plot as interchangeable and something different from a book’s larger theme and the character arc of the protagonist. I think I’m looking at plotting and storytelling the same exact way as you are, but you’ve provided some interesting vocabulary to describe the process.

    It never occurred to me to make such a distinction betweeen story and plot, but I can see how plot could be defined as the sum of all the things that happen (story), and how those things affect the protagonist’s character arc.

    Very interesting way of describing this process.

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  11. Cheryl, thanks for joining us on the Ruby blog today! I really love how clearly and succintly your information on plotting is laid out. And like the others, your point about action plot vs. emotional plot really hit home for me…especially as I think about the YA that I’m working on right now.

    Thanks so much!

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  12. Rita Henuber says:

    Hi Cheryl, Congratulations on the book and wishes for many sales.
    This is a wonderful explanation to use to build on how I work out my plots. Thank you

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  13. Cheryl, it’s amazing to have you on our blog today. Thanks for coming! We’re truly honored to have you, and I know I’m not the only one who’ll be buying your book.

    I mentioned above how much I loved the final Harry Potter novel, the ending of which we shouldn’t spoil for the Rubies who have yet to read it! But in that book, to use your terminology, I felt that the emotional plot and the action plot had merged into one very powerful chain. Every action had an emotional consequence; every emotional development lead to an action. This was, I believe, what made the novel so moving, and so hard to put down.

    My question for you is selfish, as I’ve been plotting out an urban, feline update on Watership Down:

    Is there much demand for middle-grade anthropomorphic adventures like the Guardians of Ga’Hoole and Brian Jacques’s “Redwall” series these days? Or am I barking up a dying tree? I’ll write the story either way, but I’ll do it faster if I think I could actually sell the thing!

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    • Cheryl says:

      The Guardians of Ga’hoole, Kathy Lasky’s new “Wolves of the Beyond” books, and Erin Hunter’s “Warriors” series (and its spinoffs) all continue to do well, AFAIK, and children’s love for animals and animal stories never goes away. So yes, I think there will continue to be a demand for these books!

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      • Ooh! New books to put on my list! Thanks for responding, Cheryl.

        I’m so glad that kids still want to read about anthropomorphized animals. It’s all I wanted to read when I was a kid. That, or Black Stallion books. Anything with an animal, really. It’s no wonder that I ended up working at a zoo!

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      • Elisa Beatty says:

        That’s certainly true of my own kids! Watership Down, the Mistmantle books…if it’s got fur and talks, they’re in heaven!

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    • Elisa Beatty says:

      “the emotional plot and the action plot had merged into one very powerful chain. Every action had an emotional consequence; every emotional development lead to an action. This was, I believe, what made the novel so moving, and so hard to put down.”

      You put that so well, Jamie! It’s really true of that book.

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      • Cheryl says:

        Yes! I meant to say I agreed with this too. Everything in all seven of those books is built to set up Harry’s actions in the last third of DEATHLY HALLOWS, I think — his love for Hogwarts and his friends, his understanding of his parents’ and Voldemort’s history, all that he’s learned about death and magic and wands. Love those books madly.

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        • I’m excited that you agree with me! (You two, Elisa. ;)) Not that I think I’m being terribly profound here. It’s just an incredible series, and for it to have come together so perfectly in the end was amazing. I finished it in awe of its author, and wondered how much of it she had planned out from the very beginning. She must have known how it would end! But it’s one thing to see an ending, and another to write the way there in an authentic way, especially over the course of such a long and beloved series.

          At any rate, JK Rowling deserves every ounce of her success, and her editors should be proud of the Harry Potter jewels in their tiaras.

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  14. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cheryl Klein, Jamie Michele. Jamie Michele said: Fab YA and Harry Potter editor Cheryl Klein with 6 key questions every writer must ask about plot. Also taking Q&A! http://bit.ly/fBXujb […]

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  15. Beth Langston says:

    Cheryl,

    You chose to self-publish SECOND SIGHT. Will you share what drew you to that option?

    Beth

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    • Cheryl says:

      Thanks for the question, Beth. A lot of factors went into the decision, but it ultimately came down to my feeling that I had the ability to put together a quality & attractive book (thanks to my editorial experience and a trusted book designer friend), and the ability to market it well (thanks to my online platform, speaking engagements, and connections). . . . So, why not? The Kickstarter support I received also made a big difference here, as it verified that there was an audience interested in reading the book.

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  16. liz talley says:

    What a wonderful post! So absolutely timely for me since I’m working on proposals to send into my editor. Story and plot? Had to go back and look hard at my story to see where my plot started. So very invaluable, Cheryl. I feel like I need to send you a check. LOL.

    Thanks for coming to blog with us and sharing your insight into what makes a book work.

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  17. Jezebel says:

    Great blog Cheryl!

    As someone making the huge leap for completing three erotic manuscripts to diving into my first attempt at dark and edgy YA, I can’t wait to get a copy of Second Sight.

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  18. Beth Langston says:

    Cheryl,

    Do you think there is a healthy market for YA historicals? Most seem to have paranormal or magical elements? Can a new author break in with a really great “pure” historical? Are there any time periods you think are being overlooked?

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    • Cheryl Klein says:

      Straight historical fiction manuscripts are a slightly tougher sell to editors than historical fantasy right now, yes. But I really do think it depends upon the time period, the freshness of the story, and the way the story is presented — how you can connect trendy elements in YA fiction now with the historical time period. The Luxe books by Anna Godbersen did great, partly because they were packaged as “Gossip Girl meets fabulous Victorian dresses”; and I have an absolutely terrific YA about Cleopatra’s daughter coming out this summer, CLEOPATRA’S MOON by Vicky Alvear Shecter — which we packaged in turn as “The Luxe” meets ancient Egypt & Rome!

      I can’t think of any particular time periods that are being overlooked, though I would bet the market for books about American wars is probably pretty much at its quota (meaning there are many, many good books about those wars already). And non-Western settings & characters are always interesting and far less commonly done.

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  19. Shea Berkley says:

    Thank you for being on our blog, Cheryl. And thanks, Beth, for bring her and her book to our attention.

    For me, action without some kind of connection to emotion would be boring. Likewise, emotion without some kind of action would drive me insane. I work like a Victorian scullery maid to bring both to my stories. (grin)

    Your book sounds fascinating. I wish you great success.

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  20. Cheryl Klein says:

    Just wanted to leave one last message here to thank you all for your kind hospitality and support. I’ve enjoyed nodding in here today, and wish everyone all the best with your work!

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  21. Thanks for this post. Added it to my wiki for my class on “Writing for Chidlren.”

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