Storyboard Class

Storyboard Class

Teaching Writing

There are Two Kinds of Novelists 

Outline people (aka “Plotters”)

No Outline People (aka “Pantsers,” because they write by the seat of their pants).

I am an Outline Person. I was born that way.

On Saturday, December 10 from 1-4 PM, I’ll be teaching a class called “Storyboard Your Novel” for the Writers’ Center of Indiana.

Here’s the description:

Aspiring and working novelists can get a jump-start on their New Year’s resolution to “write that novel.” Author Cathy Day will offer practical advice on how to create a blueprint or “storyboard” for the book you want to write or are in the process of writing. Participants are encouraged to bring a package or two of index cards and/or lots of paper, Post-it notes, markers, etc.

I also suggest bringing a laptop if that’s how you work best. The class will take place at Marian University, Clare Hall/#128. Here’s a campus mapHere’s the cost and how to sign up.

A few months ago, I taught a similar class at the Midwest Writers’ Workshop and the attendees were incredibly motivated about mapping out their novels.

My storyboarding intensive at the Midwest Writers Workshop, July 2011

Really, storyboarding is a pre-writing stage that many of us skip because it doesn’t feel like “real writing.” But it is. Some novelists storyboard from the beginning. Some wait until they have a first draft. But almost all novelists do it.

If you’re signed up for the class at WCI and you’re reading this (or even if you’re not), consider this doing this activity before Dec. 10: reverse storyboard a book you want to learn from. 

How to Reverse Storyboard

  1. Is there a book that’s similar to the book you want to write? Meaning: it takes place over the same amount of time, uses a single first person narrator (Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower), uses multiple first person narrators (Tom Perotta’s Election), uses multiple 3rd person narrators (Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs), switches back and forth between two different plot lines (Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain), uses an inner and outer frame (A.S. Byatt’s Possession), uses multiple 3rd person narrators in non-chronological order (Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me), etc. Choose a book that does the one thing you’re most nervous about, the thing you feel the least sure of in your own writing.
  2. Don’t pick a book because just because it’s got a similar setting or the character is the same age as your main character. This is about understanding structure.
  3. Read the book once for pleasure.
  4. Read the book again using index cards or post-its (real ones or virtual ones) in order to thumbnail each scene in the book. Take note of WHO (pov character and who s/he is interacting with), WHAT (1-2 sentence scene summary), WHERE (setting), WHY & HOW (purpose the scene fulfills in the overall narrative). Make sure you number the cards in the corner, in case they get out of order.
  5. If using different colored cards/post-it’s helps you further visualize, great.
  6. Determine what the major plot points are in the book. Narrow it down to 3-6 “big moments” in the book. Mark them.
  7. Lay out the cards. Move them around. If there are 30 chapters in the book, lay out the cards in 30 descending stacks.
  8. Now, what’s Act 1, Act II, Act III? 
  9. Try rearranging the book in some other order—Dan Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me arranged chronologically, or Silence of the Lambs with a prologue.
  10. What can this book teach you about how to begin your novel, how to keep your reader interested in the middle, and how to work toward a satisfying end?

Storyboarding Really Works

In a recent interview, writer Rebecca Skloot says she knew “very early on that I wanted [The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks] to be a disjointed structure that told multiple stories at once and jumped around in time between different characters.” 

As soon as I realized I had to structure the book in a disjointed way, I went to a local bookseller, explained the story to her and said, Find me any novel you can find that takes place in multiple time periods, with multiple characters and voices, and jumps around a lot. So she did. Some of the most helpful books early on for me were Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg; Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich; As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner; Home at the End of the World and The Hours, by Michael Cunningham. I read a long list of similarly structured novels that all proved helpful in some way or another: The Grass Dancer, by Susan Power; How to Make an American Quilt, by Whitney Otto; Oral History, by Lee Smith. 

Skloot knew the book was going to be a braid of three narratives (the story of Skloot and Deborah; the story of Henrietta and the cells; and the story of Henrietta’s family), and so she “mapped it all out with index cards.”

There it is. A bestseller. Three timelines. Three colors.

For the last year, my students have been completing reverse storyboards of published novels and novels in stories. I have found that it works like nothing else to help them move from “just reading” books passively—in order to be entertained or to interpret meaning—to reading books actively—in order to figure out how they work, how they will read, how to set up the effect they want the book to have. By breaking a novel down into its component parts, you contrive a way “to see” the narrative in one fell swoop. It’s like taking an engine apart and putting it back together again.

Here are some other blog posts on this topic:

My grad students reverse storyboarding.

My undergrad students doing it.

I’m looking forward to a large class on December 10. Please come and learn how to write your big thing.

SOP: Do’s and Don’ts

SOP: Do’s and Don’ts

CW Programs General Teaching The Biggest Things Writing

Here are some specific and potentially provocative things about that interesting little document called a Statement of Purpose. If you agree or disagree with me, great! Put it in the comments. I’d love to get some more do’s and don’ts archived here. 

Don’t talk about how, as a child, you loved to read and write. Everyone says that. For perhaps the first time in your life, you’ll be with your kind of people! I know that it’s important to YOU that your journey started when you were a kid, but it is not as important to me as what happened to you from that point on.

Do talk about who you read now, who influenced you. Everyone’s journey starts in a very similar way (at the library, at a desk making up weird stories, etc.), but then those journeys take lots of interesting forks. Don’t focus on how your story started, on your Act I. Focus on Act II. Because what you’re trying for is an Act III.

Don’t say that your goal is to teach creative writing, eventually becoming a professor. I know that I might be the only writer you have ever known personally, but that doesn’t mean that “being a writer” means “being a college professor.” You don’t aspire to it in the same way that say, you aspire to become a high school teacher. Your first priority is to self-identify as a writer. Aspiring to become a professor of creative writing is not a reasonable goal right now, the academic job market being what it is, and every time I read it in an SOP, I cringe inwardly and think that the applicant must be either naive or ill-informed. An MFA (even a PhD in Creative Writing) guarantees nothing in terms of employment, and you should understand that from the outset. It’s not a pre-professional degree (like law school or med school) so disabuse yourself of this notion. 

Do say that you want to be a writer, that you intend to pursue a literary life, and that the MFA is a step in that direction. If you become a writer, meaningful work of some kind will follow. An academic career is predicated on you becoming an expert in your field. Focus on that. 

Don’t try to talk abstractly about what creative writing is, what it’s for, what it all means. You’re not ready for that yet, and you’re avoiding the topic of this essay, which is to state YOUR purpose, not the purpose of the discipline or the activity of writing.

Do talk about yourself. We want to know you, and you have to tell us concretely and specifically who you are. Where you worked. Where you went to school, who you studied with. What you read. What you’ve been doing since. How you have been making a literary life for yourself.

Don’t talk about how much your writing life has sucked since you got out of college and how swell grad school will be. Grad school is not utopia. If you weren’t writing outside the structure of “class,” if you need to be “in school” in order to write, then I think that means you are not in the place you need to be in your adult life in order to make the most use of a graduate education. And especially do not say that everything about whether or not you become a writer is riding on my decision to admit you. That’s emotional manipulation–and it’s not true anyway.

Do say that that writing outside the MFA program hasn’t been easy. Say that having spent some time “writing in the cold” (as my teacher Ted Solotaroff called it), you have learned to appreciate the opportunity, the time, the community, the mentoring, the rigorous training that graduate school will afford you.

Don’t say that you are going to graduate school with either a.) a very very specific plan, or b.) no plan at all. I often tell my students that graduate school is the place where you go to polish a manuscript, not to generate one. But if your statement of purpose gives the impression that you will single-mindedly focus on your work-in-progress, then the question arises: why attend an MFA program and take a bunch of classes taught by veteran writer/teachers who might have something different to teach you? On the other hand, if your statement of purpose gives the impression that you have no work-in-progress at all, no sense of your subject matter or aesthetic, then the question arises: are you only pursuing a degree so someone will make you write? My preference when reading SOPs and Writing Samples is for students who DO have a sense of what kind of book they are coming to grad school to write, but I know that other faculty don’t like this at all, wishing instead for a “blank slate” upon which they might inscribe themselves.

Do strike a balance between being dedicated to a project and being open to the possibilities. And know that there’s absolutely no way to know how a given admissions committee will react to your particular plan. You can’t know. Just like with the submission and editorial process, you put your work into the world and see where and with whom it sticks. If you’re going to grad school to polish a novel and start another one, and the faculty aren’t “simpatico” with that plan, then that’s not the right place for you anyway.

Don’t write a boilerplate statement of purpose and send to each school.

Do address what each particular school has to offer you. Mention the name of the literary magazine or a particular course you’re interested in taking. Mention the name of a faculty member you’re interested in studying with–while bearing in mind that s/he might not be the one reading applications that year, but rather another writer in that genre who wonders, “Hey, what am I? Chopped liver?” If the city or region has a particular attraction for you, mention that. 

Don’t go on and on, not about anything, but especially about the writing sample. Trust me, we’re reading the writing sample. You shouldn’t explain it much. We’re reading so much, so many pages, actually, that if I look down and see that your statement of purpose has some glorious white space on the page, I will be inclined to fall in love with you a little. 

Despite my previous advice–to imagine the SOP as you talking to me–don’t forget that what you’re really doing here is talking to strangers. Maybe you have a great anecdote about what a strange child you were, and this relates to how and why you became a writer. Dan Chaon talks about being a strange kid in an interview that appears in The Fitting Ends, how moments such as these were part of his journey in becoming a writer. But when Dan tells this story, he’s doing so in an entirely different context than that of your Statement of Purpose. He’s telling these stories as an adult, as a respected and well-published writer, as a college professor. If you told the same story in your SOP–about purposely getting lost in a department store and refusing to appear even when your mother called hysterically for you–I might be inclined to wonder about your mental stability. 

Yes, writers are strange creatures, but try not to come off as crazy. Stay classy. Do remember that the people reading this SOP don’t know you, and they especially don’t want to invite unnecessary drama into their lives. 

Do try to keep it under a page. Do make it easy on the eyes.

Don’t write any sentences like this: “I am applying to your program in order to avail myself of the variety of opportunities you will provide in terms of my achieving my ultimate goal of being a published writer in the 21st century, whatever that means now or will mean in the probable future.”

I’m not going to rewrite that sentence for you. I think you can figure it out for yourself. And if you can’t–well then, young grasshopper, God help you.

[Here is an earlier post on requesting Letters of Recommendation.]

MFA FAQ: the SOP

MFA FAQ: the SOP

CW Programs General Teaching Writing

I often make these remarks to MFA program applicants: You’ll never write a good Statement of Purpose (SOP) until you realize that everything I say today is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write the SOP I would write. But I hope you learn to write an SOP like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write an SOP but how to teach yourself how to write an SOP. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go. Don’t start arguments. They are futile and take us away from our purpose, which is to get you into graduate school. As Yeats noted, your important arguments are with yourself. If you don’t agree with me, don’t listen. Think about something else.

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Talk to the Volleyball or “Know Your Audience” (Real or Imagined)

General Teaching Writing

Blogging has taught me that some of my best writing–my clearest, most readable narrative voice–emerges when I imagine that I’m writing (or talking) to a specific group of people.

You may have noticed that I often interview myself here at “The Big Thing.”

Really? I never noticed that, Cathy.

Well, I do. I learned this trick writing Comeback Season; whenever I got stuck, I’d bring out my handy-dandy sideline reporter Suzy Hightop. She asked me pointed questions, and I was forced to answer them. Eventually, Suzy became not just a device, but a real person to me. She became my Wilson, the volleyball/friend in Castaway with Tom Hanks. 

Since I started blogging, I’ve learned that when a post is swirling around and going nowhere, I should make up fake interview questions posed by the ideal reader of that particular post.

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