To Do for Week 9: Theme

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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…

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To Do for Week 8: Storyboarding

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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.

Week 7 Report: Risk-Taking


By Camille Germain

The term “risk-taker” has many connotations in our society. It is often seen as a person who indulges in ideas upon impulse, challenges the norm and jumps into situations that are not ideal in the concept of safety. But they are almost never seen as boring. As writers we kind of have to take on the role of a “risk-taker”. We must put our characters into situations and circumstances that provoke the reader to ask questions. There must be a reason to turn the page.

How do we take risks in our writing?

1.      1.  Raise the Stakes

2.      2.  Increase the Voltage

The easiest way to test the height of your stakes is to ask the question “So what?” Act like your character is a test subject and put obstacles in front of them to see how they react. What will happen to Character A if Conflict C happens? Or what if Character A becomes discouraged after Conflict C and then Conflict D happens?

To have “High Stakes” means that something is at risk and that you can clearly state something could be lost. There are both public and personal stakes and we must ask “What will society lose as a whole if…?” Each scene or chapter is relevant to raising the stakes. To move the story forward ask “What can I do to get my character closer to where I want them?”

Personal, deep-down stakes act as an insight to the characters. It shows who and what they are.

How can you make the stake matter more?

You must ask “How can this matter more?” If Y doesn’t happen… what will my character do or go through? Ask “How could things get worse?” And even though this seems malicious, make sure to ask “How can I make my character suffer?” You must figure out why the outcome of whatever situation or circumstance or conflict matters to the novel.

Dig Deeper

1.      1.  There needs to be something at stake for you personally.

2.       2. Your audience needs to feel anxious.

3.      3.  There needs to be a question of “Will they or won’t they?” for your characters.


What happens when you foreshadow the outcome of the irrevocable commitment early on? Decide if there is a bridging conflict or if it starts with a bang and there is no backstory and figure out how to make it create a backstory throughout and the initial, uniting character conflicts. There needs to be a temporary conflict, mini-problem, or interim worry that makes the opening matter.


1.       1. There needs to be conflict to move the story forward.

2.       2. Determine what your stakes are and raise them.

3.       3. Make your character suffer.

4.       4. Your audience needs to feel anxious.

5.       5. Be a “risk-taker”.

What I learned:

It is important to care about your characters. If they do not overcome conflict and endure then we are less likely to care. There must be personal and public stakes and society is affected by both. Each scene is relevant and acts as a catalyst to whatever outcome we want. Make the character matter.

Week 6 Report: Setting


by: Heather DiGiacomo 

The Setting of your novel is one of the most important tools that a writer has. It’s the reader’s eyes and ears into the world that you are creating or writing about. Setting is one of the first things that lets a reader know just what kind of book they’re reading. Are you in a fantasy world with mystical creatures? Are you in a gritty city full of crime? Are you in a quiet town where not much happens? See, just asking questions like that can help shape what’s going on in your plot.

What if I don’t think my setting is important?

Setting is always important! It doesn’t matter if you’re describing Hogwarts or your town’s local high school. If we don’t know where your characters are, we can’t be a part of that world. Reading is like travelling. If you don’t take pictures, people will have no idea where you’ve been. If you don’t know your own setting, your characters (and readers) may end up getting lost.

Which sounds better?

  1. “She walked down the street in her hometown and looked at the old shops that were there.”
  2. “She walked past the old Crown movie theatre, recently reopened for business after serious renovations. Outside the quaint little tea shop with the chalkboard door she passed two girls from her high school who were laughing and sharing a pair of headphones, watching something that she didn’t catch. At the corner before crossing the street, she stumbled on the cracked and uneven sidewalk, cursing both herself for being clumsy and the city for not  fixing it.”

With just a little bit of setting description, the same scene has so much more life in it. So you shouldn’t think your non important small town doesn’t need big words to fill it. Because if Stephen King can create small towns in Maine and make each of them distinct and interesting, you can build up one setting for your own novel. Your setting is important, even if you don’t think it is.

Writing Setting in 1st Person POV

Anything your character sees they can describe. It is up to the character to talk about the setting around them. If the character cannot see something outside of their vision, they can’t talk about it. If you want to describe what’s going on in another setting, move your character to that area.

An example would be something like “I pushed open the old porch door, wary of its rusty hinges that wanted to give out. Stepping out on the rickety old porch, I surveyed the tall grass around my house, looking for the sign of the noise. The cool autumn air blew the dead leaves littering my driveway up around my feet I kicked them away and heard the soft crunch of them breaking.” The setting is described by the narrator as they react with it instead of just having them make a list of things they see around them.

Writing Setting in 3rd Person POV

Many writers will try to write setting around their character instead of with them. You need to make sure your character notices the setting instead of just talking about it. Say your character is called Mary and she’s in a room with a floral coach. Tell the reader that Mary interacts with that floral couch by leaning against it, sitting on it, etc and not just that saying there is a couch in the room.

An example of this would be “He picked up the old picture frame sitting on his grandmother’s shelf. The glass was cracked, but he could still see his grandfather’s smiling face through it. Setting the photo back down, he crossed the small room to her old brick fireplace and stooped down to poke at the fire with the iron poker. The brick leading up to the chimney was sooty, and he made a mental note to clean it out for his grandmother.” Instead of just describing the things in the room, the unnamed narrator interacts with them, making them important.

Remember there are 5 narrative modes

  1. Action
  2. Description
  3. Dialogue
  4. Thought
  5. Exposition

You can combine these to your will in order to set the best setting you can! Switch it up with different combinations. Remember: dynamic and organic > static and inorganic

Exercise to try

In class this week, we did a really cool exercise JT Dutton called “Here is not There, or Setting as Character”. Cathy Day links to it on her blog here. If you’ve already done that exercise, try going to The Wilderness Downtown and typing in a random address. Take wherever it gives you and describe it as though you were telling someone who’s never been there what it looks like.


  1. Your setting is not like everyone else’s. Think of your reader as someone running into your world for the first time
  2. Think of how your characters see the world they’re in. How would they talk about it?
  3. Mix up the narrative dynamics in order to keep the setting interesting

What I learned:

Setting is an important and unique aspect to your novel. It’s almost like a character. Just like you don’t want to leave a character too ambiguous, you don’t want to leave your setting a blank, nondescript place. Expand your world and all the little details in it!

To Do for Week 7: Stakes and Voltage

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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

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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.

Week 5 Report: Plot and Structure

plotBy: David Connors

Let’s talk about plot and structure. We all have to deal with them sooner or later. They’re the engine to our story, the way we put our ideas into motion and thread them all together.  It’s different for every writer. Just like music you have the melody and lyrics, writers have plot and dialogue. Some go dialogue first, some go plot.

Also, remember that a lot of this advice comes from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

“Begin every story in the middle. The reader doesn’t care how it begins, he wants to get on with it.”
Louis l’Amour


The plot creates the pace of the novel by building to external turning points, inner turning points and high moments. A good novel plot is multi-layered, meanings lots and lots of the external and internal turning points. External turning points are things that change within the story, internal turning points are things that changes inside your character or characters. Within these turning points there needs to be conflict that they connect and build to the plot and the characters. The conflict needs to be

  • Meaningful
  • Immediate
  • Large scale
  • Surprising
  • Not easy to resolve
  • Must happen to people for who we (the readers) feel sympathy

If you want and feel it make the central conflict as deep and as bad as it can possibly be.

Learning Activity

Look through your story and at the end of each chapter identify the external and internal turning points and connect them to the main structure of the plot. Then either draw it out, write it out with bullet points, or color code the events and how they are connected. By doing this you will be able to identify and mark your plot in a simple skeleton sketch of the story.

See if your plot is similar to any of the story types or plot structure types.

Four Story Types

Four Plot Structures

Another way to look at a plot structure is:

The Balance. The Unbalance.

Quest for Resolution.

The Climax. The New Balance.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories (Watch This!)


So when you’re having trouble with the plot, where to go, what to do or just where to start when you find yourself at a dead end try these tricks to freshen up the writing process while also developing the plot more. They’re from Ben Winters, author of The Last Policeman. We talked about them here, too.

  • What are the conflicts of my book?
  • Are there any unexpected consequences?
  • Complicate the needs and wants of your characters.
  • Create consequences that branch of their needs and wants.
  • Switch Point of View at the high points.
  • Stretch the tension.
  • Flashback into your characters background.
  • Skip time forward.
  • Boomerang the plot. Return to things that you threw out earlier.
  • Tell the story of the story to your bestfriend.
  • Work on parts of the story that seem exciting and interesting to you at the moment.

Also, don’t be scared to make these particular things happen within your plot. They are cheesy and you see them everywhere but when reading a story these are some things that make the novel real and help connect the reader to the plot and story.

Cheesy High Moments!

  • Forgive someone!
  • Sacrifice something!
  • Sacrifice herself/himself!
  • Change direction in life!
  • Face moral choice!
  • Die!

And like I said above connect the readers to the characters and make them want to read more.

Think Primal

  • Deny to the characters- Food, Shelter, sex, protection of loved ones.
  • Keep the outcome in doubt by making failure seem likely.
  • Plot often feels like plodding. This then this then this happens. So when the weaving the plot feels old don’t be scared to throw something new and to freshen up the plot and you’re mind.

What I Learned/Figured Out This Week

1. Get into your plot or the action of the story early. Readers do care about what happens before the action starts but they care more about the plot and action of right now more.

2. Give your story as many external and internal turning points as you want. Build and stretch the tension. It doesn’t hurt to complicate the journey through the novel. Keep the reader on their toes with external turning points.

3. If you need to write or draw out the plot and all the turning points within your story to help visualize what’s going on and keep it clean, tidy and concise so not even the writer gets confused.

To Do for Week 5: Plot & Structure

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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

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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.