Week 16: How did YOU do?

This is RB 284, our classroom. Some students are working on their novels while I meet with Beta Group 1.

This is RB 284, our classroom. Some students are working on their novels while I meet with Beta Group 1.

Hello everyone!

Here’s a report about the students inside the fishbowl. One student, Liz Winks, drafted 64,000+ words this semester!


We’d love to know who you are and how the writing went this term.

Even if you didn’t write 2000 words a week, that’s okay.

Tell us a little about yourself!

How’d you do?

What did you get out of following this blog?


To Do for Week 11: Write, Write, Write

beta-reader kittenYou may have noticed that I didn’t do a “To Do” post for last week. That’s because last week was Fall Break at Ball State. We didn’t have class on Tuesday, and on Thursday, students turned in their Reverse Storyboard project. I passed out “The Publishing Packet,” which you only get in full if you take my class for realz. Sorry.

This week, students get what I call “Studio Time.” It’s almost time to share our novels with others!


T 10/29

  • Week 10 Blog Post Due: Chelsea Jackman

Th 10/31

  • Weekly Words #10 (last one): due Sunday, 11/3 at 5 PM. Focus: None. Write what you want.

  • Due : Packet from Group 1: 1.)Jacket Copy, 2.) 20-40 page “chunk” of the manuscript and 3.) Outline/Storyboard. Put in your groups Google Doc Folder. This should be ONE DOCUMENT, not three.

I’ve broken the students into three groups based on what kind of novel they’re writing.

  1. Students in Beta Group 1 are mostly working on novels that are Fantastical, not of our world.
  2. Students in Beta Group 2 are mostly working on novels that are Realism or Satire. We have a thriller, a memoir, a historical baseball novel, a satire, etc.
  3. Students in Beta Group 3 are mostly working on novels that set in our world, but have some sort of Supernatural or Paranormal or Sci-Fi element to them.

Starting next week, I will be meeting with each Beta Group during class time. The other two groups will use class time to write, write, write.

Starting next week, I will be reading over 100 pages a week.

In most workshops, the work comes at the teacher and fellow students at a manageable rate. Students get lots of feedback, but they don’t write as much. In this class, we don’t do all-class workshop so that students can write more. I haven’t been commenting on their Weekly Words, but now, I will be commenting on their Partials.

Basically, I do the “Reading-and-Responding-to-Student-Work” part of my job in an intense, three-week period rather than spread out over the course of the semester.


From this point on, there are no themes or topics. The “content” portion of the class is done.

In a sense, you’re sort of on your own at this point, but you will continue to hear from the students in the class, and I do have some advice for you.

Decide right now: do you want

a.) to just keep writing?

b.) do you want to share your novel with others?

If the answer is A

Good for you. Keep it up. See ya later.

If the Answer is B

If the answer is B, then start compartmentalizing your writing time. Differentiate between DRAFTING NEW PAGES and REVISING THE BEGINNING. Don’t stop writing your way into the book.

Find your beta readers.

One advantage of showing your work to others is that if the conversation goes well, you’ll feel fired up to keep going. Also: fixing the foundation of your novel might prevent the whole thing from collapsing. But if the conversation goes badly, you might feel discouraged. It’s up to you. If you decide to show your work to others, make it clear that you are not looking for a thorough critique. You’re looking for encouragement. This is not the time to rip anybody to shreds.

Give your beta readers the following:

  • Jacket copy
  • a 20-40 page chunk of your manuscript, preferably the first 20-40 pages.
  • outline or synopsis of what’s to come

The following exercise on how to write jacket copy is adapted from James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. Feel free to do this exercise even if you picked A. It’s a fun way to remind yourself what your novel is about.


  1. Name of the lead character:
  2. What the lead does for a living or how they might be described:
  3. What is the disturbance in Act 1, the first thing that disturbs the status quo and creates reader interest? Might also be called a plot point or inciting incident:
  4. What is the doorway of no return? What thrusts the character forward, creates a sense that something must inevitably happen, kicks the character out of the status quo into Act II, hurtling toward the end?
  5. What or who is opposing the lead?
  6. Why are they opposed? What’s at stake for each?
  7. What is the story question? What question does the reader have on his or her mind that keeps them reading in order to find out the answer?
  8. How do you feel when you read these pages? Sad? Engrossed? Angry? Curious? Creeped out? Enchanted?


Paragraph 1

Lead character’s name and current situation.

_______ is _________________ who _________________________. (Remember, jacket copy is always written in present tense!) Keep this to paragraph to 1 or 2 sentences that describe the character’s background and situation.

Paragraph 2

Start with the word Suddenly or But when. Tell the reader what the major turning point, the disturbance is. What the first doorway is. What’s going to thrust the Lead into Act II of the book.  Describe Act II in 1 or 2 sentences.

Paragraph 3

Begin the last paragraph with the word Now and make it an action sentence, like Now Brad must struggle with the harrowing mystery of his family legacy. Or, begin with the word Will, and write a few story questions: Will Mary claim what’s rightly hers? Or will she be stopped by forces she can’t see or identify? And will it hurt the ones she loves? Make sure the last paragraph describes the reading experience the reader can expect. “Readers will feel ____ as they embark on/as they finish this novel.”

Have fun with these! It’s totally okay to ham it up. They aren’t something you will ever write yourself (publishers write jacket copy) but it’s a fun way to have other people tell you what they think your book is about. Also: you don’t have to know the end in order to write the jacket copy.

Week 10 Report: So Ya Wanna Publish Your Book

Last week in novel-writing class, I gave my students THE PUBLISHING PACKET, a spiral bound goldmine of information. The students are getting their manuscripts ready to share with their Beta Groups, and so it seemed like a good time to prepare them for the task of sharing their words with others. Chelsea Jackman humorously reports on what she learned. Also: don’t worry. Some of these concepts WILL be covered in later weeks.

The Fishbowl Chronicles


List of things you’ll need:

Jacket copy
Cover letter
An agent
The patience of Job

What to do:

Prepare a manuscript
Write your jacket copy
Write your cover letter
Send it!
Wait, wait, and wait some more


I’ve written this book, and I want people to read it.  How can I publish it?”

First, let me just say that ebook self-publishing is not a sin.

My mother has published two ebooks and is working on more.  That’s awesome.  If you’d like to see her developing children’s series, click here: The Adventures of Whippy the Whale.  You’ll also get to see some of my art … I’m her illustrator.  *grin*

But, if you’re following and reading a blog by Cathy Day, I’m assuming you’re more interested in having a lovely clean, neat, perfectly typeset printed book in a pretty, shiny dust jacket, published by Random House or…

View original post 1,324 more words

To Do for Week 9: Theme

Screenshot 2013-10-12 21.02.40


T 10/15

  • Week 8 Blog Post Due: Lindsay Gregg

Th 10/17

  • Weekly Words #8: due by Sunday, 10/20 at 5 PM. Focus: Using the tips from lecture regarding how to develop the theme of your novel, think about three scenes in which the theme is present. The first bell chime. The second. And then the third.


The students inside the fishbowl have now read and discussed all four novels that I used as models:

  • Election
  • Sideways
  • Pure
  • Mrs. Bridge

This week, they are working on their Weekly Words (3 weeks to go!) and on their projects. They have to do a Reverse Storyboard Project on a novel of their choice or an Extraction Project on Mrs. Bridge.

They are also beginning to think about shoring up a good “partial” (the first 20 pages or so) to share with their Beta Groups in a few weeks.

This is the last week of my lectures or units. It’s not that there’s nothing left to say about writing novels. Oh no, there’s so much more. But for now, I think I’ve introduced everyone to the key concepts of beginning a novel.

The subject for this week is Theme.

  • Theme is premise.
  • Theme is meaning.
  • Theme is idea/s.
  • Theme is what makes a novel worth reading, in my opinion.

Much of my lecture comes from Donald Maass chapters on theme in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (Part III, chapter 31). I know I’ve recommended you go buy this book in the past. So let me say it again: go buy this book. His exercises will help you discover and/or develop a theme.

Further reading

Choosing a theme.

The heart of your story.

What is it and how do we develop it?

I saved theme for last because it’s complicated and not exactly something you should have all figured out at the outset.

If you’re a plotter, then you might have started your novel with a theme you’re trying to impart. That might not be the best idea, although it works for some people.

If you’re a pantser, then you might not know what your theme is until you finish a draft of the whole book. That might not be the best idea, either, although it works for some people.

The point is this: all novels have something to say. Even schlocky, pulpy novels. If you’re writing a novel, that means you have something in you that you want to say. Own that.

You have to believe this if you're ever going to finish your novel.

You have to believe this if you’re ever going to finish your novel.

Writing Assignment

  • Write three scenes in which the theme of your book is somehow present. And remember: it’s not about symbols! Theme is much more organic than that.
  • Other than that, write write write. You’ve got three more weeks to generate as many words as you can before the Generation Phase of the class is over.


Week Eight Report: Storyboarding

Lindsay Gregg reports on Week 8 from *her own blog* 123writewithme. Thanks Lindsay!

1, 2, 3 ... Write With Me.

Okay everyone, we’re done with Week Eight.

That means we have eight weeks to go and have logged countless hours of writing amounting to at least 12,000 words.  Everything we’ve done so far is starting to turn into something.  At this point, for most of us, that something is messy and in need of an organizational override.

This is also the point where many, especially myself, get discouraged and feel overwhelmed by the plethora of words and possibilities and the fact that all of these words and possibilities no longer fit into the hopeful little box you had imagined for them.

The best advice we’ve heard so far is to go on.  Muddle through.  Do whatever it takes to get words on a page, but at this point words on a page just won’t cut it.  As my professor, Cathy Day, put it last week—being a writer is like having…

View original post 643 more words

To Do for Week 8: Storyboarding

Screen Shot 2013-10-07 at 9.33.08 AM


T 10/8

  • Week 7 Blog Post Due: Camille Germain

  • Quiz 7: Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge (whole thing)

Th 10/10

  • Discussion /Have Read: my blog post “Novels to Stories, Stories to Novel,” Evan S. Connell’s short story “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge” and Cathy Day’s extracted short story “Etiquette Lessons.”

  • Weekly Words #7, due by Sunday, 10/13 at 5 PM. Focus: If you want, you can turn in nothing but plot points this week. This will be really helpful if you’re a plotter. If you’re a pantser, you’ll start doing it and hate it. If so, stop.


We took a writing break last week inside the fishbowl. So if you took one, too, don’t worry. We did this because we’re gearing up for the big project/paper for this class, the reverse storyboard project.

This week we’re talking about the idea of storyboarding, contriving a way to take books out of our computers so that we can see them in one fell swoop.

Do this: Google “novel storyboard” and look at all the images. Here’s what I get. 

Screen Shot 2013-10-07 at 9.30.46 AM


Reverse storyboarding is a process you use on a book you admire or want to learn from.

Forward storyboarding (or just plain storyboarding) is a process you use on your own work-in-progress.

Further Reading

How to reverse storyboard, including a picture of the storyboard Rebecca Skloot created for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

About reverse storyboarding Mrs. Bridge.


Either spend some time reverse storyboarding a book or forward storyboarding your own.

To Do for Week 7: Stakes and Voltage

Screen Shot 2013-09-29 at 10.21.27 PM


T 10/1

  • Week 6 Blog Post Due: Heather Digiacomo

  • Quiz 6: Baggott, Pure (pp. 293-431)

Th 10/3

  • Weekly Words #6, due by Sunday, 10/6 at 5 PM. Focus: Your novel needs lots of tension. Write about how the situation for your character could matter more, how you can make things worse for them, how you can make them suffer more. Does your novel need “frontloading” or a ticking clock? At least some of this is about figuring out why this story matters to you personally. If you haven’t already created the novel’s bridging conflict, do so now.


  • A lot of my material this week comes from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. The idea of the Bridging Conflict especially.

  • Make it your goal this week to have a solid bridging conflict. But that is the only thing you should be going back to do. Keep moving forward as much as possible. Don’t spend a lot of time revising.

  • Whatever new words you write this week, try to make sure there’s some kind of tension, some kind of voltage jump on every single page.

  • Spend some time thinking about what’s at stake in this novel–not just for your characters, but for you. Why do the themes of this novel matter to you? How can you make it matter more?

  • Do you feel like you’re ready to trade work yet? Consider showing someone you really trust your bridging conflict, your opener. All you’re looking for is: would you be interested in reading on? If you don’t feel ready, that’s fine.


To Do for Week 6: Setting

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 8.10.45 PM

Week 6: Setting and World Building



  • Week 5 Blog Post Due: David Connors

  • Quiz 5: Baggott, Pure (pp. 122-292)


  • Weekly Words #5: due by Sunday, 9/27 at 5 PM. Focus: answer all or at least some of the questions in the handout “Setting as Character by JT Dutton.” Make sure that your words this week focus on the setting of your novel


I have a lot to say about setting. Why don’t you just go here and read it.

Your writing assignment for this week is to make sure you’ve spent some time this week thinking about and/or writing about the setting for your novel.

To Do for Week 5: Plot & Structure

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 11.42.06 PM

Last week, we talked about the different subplots and layers that you need for a novel. This week, we talk about the overall, overarching structure of novels, and how to make things happen along the way.

Week 5: Plot and Structure

 T 9/17

·    Week 4 Blog Post Due: Rebecca Brill

     Scribe for this week is David Connors

·    Quiz 4: Baggott, Pure (pp. 1-121)

W 9/18    Rex Pickett virtual visit: Screening of Sideways, LB 125, 5-7:30 PM (optional); Video Conference with Rex Pickett, LB 125, 8 PM (required)

Th 9/19

·    Weekly Words #4, due by Sunday 9/22 at 5 PM. Focus: identify potential turning points, inner turning points, and high moments for your character/s. What are your character’s “doorways of no return”? What are you building towards? Have you made the problem as bad as it can possibly be? Write about this and don’t worry if it sounds cheesy.


Suggested Reading

There’s almost too much you can read about plot and structure, much of it pertaining to screenplays, but it’s quite translatable to writing novels.

Writing Exercise

Focus: identify potential turning points, inner turning points, and high moments for your character/s. What are your character’s “doorways of no return”? What are you building towards? Have you made the problem as bad as it can possibly be? Write about this and don’t worry if it sounds cheesy. Use whatever “formula” included above that works for you. Try a few different ones.

I Want To Know

  • How is the writing going? How far into your novel are you?
  • Do you have a sense yet of what type of novel you’re writing? Not just what genre it is, but what structure you might use?
  • What is the “clock” of your novel? How much time will transpire from the first page to the last? A few days? A few months? A few years? A few decades?
  • Does plotting sometimes feel like plodding? If so, here’s some great advice I got from the writer Ben Winters at the Gathering of Writers in Indianapolis, IN last year.

From Ben Winters, author of The Last Policeman and Countdown City

Try this when you’re stuck:

Switch POV. Just as you reach a high point, the point just before something’s going to happen to a character, switch to another pov character. The reader will read on because they are dying to know what will happen next.

Give yourself prompts. Let the structural needs of the novel determine the topics of the “assignments” you give yourself. For example. You’ve ended Chapter 7 on a high point of the A Story. Switch to Chapter 8 and work on the B Story for a chapter, holding out the suspense of the A Story.

Flashbacks. When you feel stuck, like you’re plodding, delve into your character’s backstory.  You don’t need a doodly doo transition, such as “The flight home had a layover in Phoenix. I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw my bra strap was showing. Suddenly, I felt transported to my grandma’s house when I was six years old, the day I tried on my aunt’s lacy red bra over my t-shirt and showed it to my family.”  No. Just hit return. “When I was six, I found my aunt’s red lacy red push up bra in her drawer and tried it on.”

Skip time. Start a chapter “And so years passed…” or “Fifteen years passed in this manner.” This will give the reader (and you) a shock of voltage.

Boomerang. Return to things you threw out earlier. Loop back.

Tell the story of the story. Rather than use bullet points to map out plot points, or “really writing” the story, try telling the story in the same voice you’d use sitting at a bar, telling the story to a good friend in your own natural voice. “Okay, here’s what happens…” And when you get to a point where you don’t know what happens, you can say “Okay, so maybe…” You might even try writing the friend’s part in this skit and have them prompt you for information. The point is to unshackle yourself, take all pressure off yourself.

Tell the story of a character. Similarly, to help you figure out a character, start with the phrase, “There’s this guy…” or “There’s this woman…” and tell the entire arc of a particular character through the book. Not a main character, but a secondary one. Walk through the book with that character. It will force you to see what you’re writing in an entirely new way.

Do research. Make phone calls. Don’t Google, b/c reading on the internet flattens out the details. Call people up and ask them questions. Tell they you’re a writer working on a novel about [blank] and you’ll find that people love to talk about themselves and what they do. They’ll give you voices and details you’d never get otherwise.

Work on the parts that seem exciting or interesting to you. When the writing stops being fun, figure out a way to make it fun and interesting again.

To Do for Week 4: Subplots

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 10.10.36 PM

Don’t forget you can join the Facebook group #amnoveling outside for tips, encouragement, and fun. You’re also welcome to document your writing sessions on this silly Tumblr I made, “Every Day I Write the Book.

The theme for this week is: Playing with Blocks: Throughlines, A/B/C Stories, Plot Layers and Subplots


T 9/10

  • Covering this week: Rebecca Brill

  • Week 3 Blog Post Due: Eric Alcorn

  • Quiz 3: Rex Pickett, Sideways (pp. 211-351)

Th 9/12

  • Discussion/Have Read: James Scott Bell chapters on “Scenes” and “Plotting Systems”

  • Weekly Words #3, due by Sunday 9/15 at 5 PM. Focus: Identify potential plot layers or subplots for your novel. Write about those subplots by creating a list of specific plot points for each. Think consciously about what different strands you can create and weave together. Follow the prompts for “Conflict” from DICE and “Confrontations” from LOCK. This is where you start thinking about how you’re going to make things happen and force the issues.


Suggested Reading

  • Finish Sideways

  • Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (esp. the chapters on plot layers, subplots, and weaving a story).
  • Michelle Hoover, “Plotting the Novel, Part III: Conflict”

  • James Scott Bell on “Confrontation”

  • My students are reading chapters 7 (Scenes) and 10 (Plotting Systems) in the Bell book, Plot and Structure.

  • This is one of those situations in which I’m not sure what to do. For the moment, the entire book by Bell is available as a pdf. Someone scanned in the whole thing and uploaded it as a pdf. You can find it if you want, but I’m not going to include the link here.  I highly recommend that you buy Bell’s book. You will need it.

  • Other books that might help: Blake Synder’s Save the Cat, Chris Vogler’s Writer’s Journey, and Robert McKee’s Story.

  • I wish there was a book like How Fiction Works by James Wood on this subject–plot and subplot. But as we all know, literary fiction eschews plot, so we novelists wind up learning from screenwriters.

Writing Assignment

Fill out this worksheet or Blake Snyder’s “Beat Sheet” or Syd Field’s Story Paradigm worksheet for:

  • Sideways (or another novel you’ve read recently)

  • Your own work-in-progress

Weekly Words #3

  • Focus: Identify potential plot layers or subplots for your novel. Write about those subplots by creating a list of specific plot points for each. Think consciously about what different strands you can create and weave together. Follow the prompts for “Conflict” from Hoover and “Confrontations” from Bell. This is where you start thinking about how you’re going to make things happen and force the issues.

I Want to Know

  • As you started “plotting out” your novel’s subplots, filling out these worksheets, how did you feel? Did it feel wrong or right?

  • This is where you start to determine whether you’re a plotter (outline person) or a pantser (no outline person) or somewhere in between.

  • It’s absolutely crucial that you understand this about yourself.

  • [I’m in the middle of the spectrum, but more towards the plotter/outline person side.]

  • What are you? Share with the group via FB or Twitter.