The Agony and the Ecstasy of Making Things Up

Mrs. Cole Porter Teaching Writing

This week, my novel writing students have to think about whether or not they are “Outline People” or “No Outline People,” or (more likely) something in between. I decided to write about this, too.

What’s my process?

I'm probably on the left side of the spectrum....
I’m probably on the left side of the spectrum….

Here’s how I know I’m a plotter.

This is how I taught myself to write a novel. By writing a nonfiction novel rather than a fictional one, I didn’t have to “make up” plot. Actually, I had more plot than I knew what to do with.

Plot as a Given

What I’ve discovered is that I need a sense of the overall architecture before I start building, a blueprint, even if I end up modifying it.

Right now, I’m working on a novel tentatively titled, Mrs. Cole Porter. The first thing I did was create a storyboard. Cole and Linda Porter’s “real life” provides the base time plot, or at least a rough outline of it.

I spent a few months reading all the Cole Porter biographies, and these are the best.

  • The Life that Late He Led by George Eells
  • Cole Porter: A Biography by Charles Schwartz
  • Cole Porter by William McBrien

As I read these books, I used created “event cards” and “scene cards.”

Every time the biographers wrote “On such and such a date, Cole and Linda went to the Hotel Ritz…” I made an index card.

Since their lives are extremely well documented, I made a lot of cards, as you can see.

Obviously, I’ve got too many cards.

I remind myself daily that I’m writing a novel, not a historical biography.

My novel can’t cover all of those events, especially not in real time. I have to select specific episodes on that timeline that are ripe for dramatization.

Example: Trip to Egypt

One episode I very much want to dramatize occurs in 1908-1909. Here are the cards from 1908 to 1912.


Here’s what’s important in those cards: Linda’s douchebag husband, Ned Thomas, is going to have a car accident in 1908. She will nurse him back to health. His mother will be so grateful for this that in 1909, she pays for an Egyptian cruise down the Nile, which will include their friend and guide, Lord Carnarvon—who, like Ned, loves horses and fast cars.

Aside: All of that is true except that I don’t know for sure if Lord C was there, but in my imagination, he’s definitely there. I very much hope the reader will recognize Lord Carnarvon as the man who discovered King Tut’s tomb and the former owner of one Highclere Castle, also known as Downton Abbey.

I don’t know for sure if Linda ever went to Highclere, but in my novel, she’s going there. Fer sure.

This series of events—the car accident, the trip abroad—is important because

1.) It instills in Linda a love of travel and a love of ancient cultures, especially Egypt.

2.) She’ll equate her fastidious scrapbook practice with the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians, a way to live forever, which is important to the novel’s themes.

3.) As soon as her douchebag husband gets better, he returns to being a douchebag, but this trip to Egypt is going to give Linda the inner strength to finally leave her husband in 1912.

4.) when Linda marries Cole Porter, they will go on an Egyptian cruise just like this.

How many chapters do these ten cards represent? I’m not sure.

How many scenes do I need? To get from “Car Accident” to “Nile Trip” to “Leaves Husband”?

Do I dramatize Ned’s accident and her coming to care for him? Or do I start with them on the Nile and fill the reader?

I have no idea, but it comforts me to know that I’ve got something to head towards.

Give yourself an assignment

The way I’ve been writing the novel thus far is that the “real events” give me ideas for scenes, and I draft them quickly. Every time I sit down to write, I give myself an assignment.

  • Okay, write the scene when Linda goes to Ned’s side and says she’ll take care of him.
  • Okay now write the scene where they are going down the Nile and/or she sees the Sphinx. Explain what this does to her.
  • Okay now write the scene where she picks up the morning paper and sees in the gossip columns that her husband was out with another woman the night before.
  • Okay now write the scene where she confronts his family and demands the lucrative divorce.

This novel (which is based on a true story) requires me to be a plotter. I don’t want to stray wildly far from the way things happened. But it also requires me to be a pantser.

Playing with Dolls

Writing is like playing with dolls. I take up my Linda doll and move her around the dollhouse (a given). I know what her houses look like, because she had them photographed for Architectural Digest and other magazines, and because her house in Paris and her house in the Berkshires have recently gone up for sale.

“…I take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”
–Sharon Olds, I Go Back to May 1937

But then I start speaking as her (not a given). Sure, some scenes have been already been scripted a bit. I know what choices she’s going to make in her life, but I’m free to invent how and why she makes those choices.

That’s the “pantsing.” That’s the part of the writing process that can’t be outlined or scripted.

That’s the part of the writing process that fills you with something like ecstasy.  


What I’m coming to terms with is that some of the scenes I’ve dramatized (or really, really want to dramatize) will have to be summarized or cut entirely or the novel will be 1000 pages long.

To use another analogy: I’m like the documentary filmmaker who has to cut hundreds of hours of footage down to a story that’s 90 minutes long. She can’t regret the time she spent shooting all that footage, and I can’t regret the time I spent creating more scene cards than I can ever use.

How to turn stories into a novel, or vice versa

How to turn stories into a novel, or vice versa

Teaching Writing

If you’re looking for a way to turn a novel into short stories or (more likely) turn stories into a novel, try these activities.

Novels into Stories

1.) Read “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” a short story by Evan S. Connell published in The Paris Review 10, Fall 1955

2.) Take a good look at this short story. If you’ve read the book, then you know that Mrs. Bridge the novel is comprised of 117 titled vignettes. But “Mrs Bridge” the short story pre-dates the novel. “Beau Monde” the short story contains 12 of the eventual novel’s vignettes (in this order: 61, 39, 37, 60, 91, 99, 84, 86, 18, 102, 41, plus one titled “Equality” not found in the novel).

3.) Pretend for a moment that you are Evan S. Connell. You wrote the short story “Beau Monde” because you wanted to satirize the small-minded racial and class politics of your hometown. And you did that. Quite successfully. It’s just out in this new magazine called The Paris Review. But now what? Maybe you’re not quite done with this Mrs. Bridge. What about her husband? How did they meet? What would happen if this very American couple went on a European tour? What of her children? How will she respond when they grow up and challenge her worldview? And what about her best friend, Grace Barron? You open up the pleats. You write more vignettes. Most fit on a single piece of typing paper. They’re more than scenes, but less than chapters. They’re what Mark Oppenheimer in The Believer calls “chapterlets.” In fifty years or so, people might call them “flash fictions.” Each vignette is a building block, a movable unit, a piece of paper. You lay them out on the floor, tape them to the walls, trying to figure out how they go together.

This is exactly what I wanted to do when I finished the book: tear out the pages and lay them on the floor, tape them to the walls. I wanted them to be tangible, detachable things. So, I used post-it notes to create a thumbnail sketch of each vignette. This really didn’t take that long because I’d just read the book. A few hours.  


4.) Now you do it. Using index cards or post its, summarize each vignette. Use different colors to trace different “through lines” and subplots.

You  can do it by character:

  • Ruth in red. 
  • Douglas in green. 
  • Carolyn in yellow. 
  • Mr. Bridge in blue. 
  • Grace Barron in purple.
  • etc.

Or do it by subject matter:

  • Self-improvement. 
  • Americans in Paris. 
  • The Car. 
  • The Help
  • When the Children Start Dating

5.) Move the cards around. That’s the point. Lay out a line of red cards, followed by a line of yellow cards, followed by a line of blue, etc. See how the book would read less like a novel and more like linked stories if you followed one character, one plot layer, one color at a time.

When I did this activity, I realized that the way I had written fiction for many years was to take it color by color, one plot layer or subplot at a time.

Or to use another analogy: If you handed me the 117 vignettes of Mrs. Bridge out of order, I would have made piles—one for each character, then maybe smaller piles within the large ones. And that would have been my book manuscript. Hey, that’s almost exactly what my first book WAS.

I thought: Maybe a novel could be fashioned from stories by breaking up the piles and laying them out chronologically?

I considered re-typing Mrs. Bridge word for word, or xeroxing the entire book, just to test my theory, to see if these extracted stories would actually read like stories.

Confession: I have done this before with two short stories: “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, which I xeroxed, cut up and reassembled into “The Jimmy Cross Parts” and the “Alpha Company Parts,” and with Ethan Canin’s “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” which I reassembled into chronological order.

Then I realized that I didn’t have to retype or xerox Mrs. Bridge. The full text of Mrs. Bridge is available online. You don’t want to know how excited I was about this. 

6.) Now, extract some short stories from the novel. Go back to your groupings of colored post-its, find the corresponding text online, then cut and paste it into a Word document.

For example: I extracted one short story from the novel called “Etiquette Lessons.” It’s the story of Carolyn’s friendship with Alice Jones, alternated with vignettes of Mrs. Bridge “teaching” her children about manners and “teaching” her children about race and class. The climax of the story is a scene late in the novel when Mrs. Bridge wonders why her daughter uses a racial epithet and mentions her childhood friend Alice Jones who “looks very black” these days.

7.) If you can reverse engineer Mrs. Bridge, envision this novel as stories which were pulled apart, rearranged, and turned into a novel, then maybe it’s possible to forward engineer your own novel narrative from all those short stories sitting on your hard drive.

Stories into a Novel

Backstory: When I was finishing The Circus in Winter, a few agents read the manuscript. One said, “I will take you on if you let me help you turn these linked stories into a novel.” I said I’d think about it. A few days later, another agent got back to me and said, “I think you should write the book you want to write.” That’s the agent I chose, and I’m glad I did, but if I’m being totally honest here, and I am, I was also relieved that I wouldn’t have to figure out how to turn my stories into a novel. I didn’t think it was possible.

Backstory: Flashforward ten years. A group of college students adapts my book into a musical—and they find a linear storyline in my book. They broke up my piles of stories, laid them out chronologically, and focused on the events of the first five stories. They gave the narrative its “clock,” its basetime (a few months), decided that the flood would be the climax, followed by the denouement. Beginning, middle, end. Badda bing. Badda boom.


If they can do it, so can you.

The traditional musical has a familiar structure. There are two acts. Certain kinds of songs happen at certain times. The audience expects this structure, but the artists who make a musical must plug exciting and surprising variables into this structure.


Now, trust me, there is no “formula” for a novel, but generally, we think of it in terms of a Three-Act Structure.


Now: find some linked stories, such as the last three stories in Patricia Henley’s Other Heartbreaks (“Skylark,” “Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland,” and “Ephemera”).

  1. List all the events (25-30) that transpire in chronological order.
  2. Imagine cutting the stories up, moving the pieces around into a more linear or chronological narrative, like Mrs. Bridge.
  3. Consider a flashforward prologue to begin the novel. Describe the structure of this pretend novel–where it starts, where it ends.
  4. It might help to decide first what the climax will be–and work backwards and forwards from there. You might be interested in reading this interview with Henley, in which she confirms that “Other Heartbreaks” WAS a novel that she broke apart and turned into linked stories.
  5. Henley is visiting Ball State on February 15, and my students are eager to hear her talk about writing novels, writing stories, and writing novels that turn into stories.
  6. Or try this with The Things They Carried. Or with Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Please understand: I’m not saying those books should be anything other than their own wonderful selves. 

Please understand: Malcolm Cowley did exactly what I’m suggesting when he cut up, chronologically assembled, and edited The Portable Faulkner. And thank God he did. In his now-famous introduction, Cowley writes: “All the cycles or sagas are closely interconnected. It is as if each new book or story was a chord or segment of a total situation always existing in the author’s mind.”

Screenshot 2014-09-07 13.03.55Screenshot 2014-09-07 13.04.03

Then: take a few of your own stories that are (or could be) linked. Repeat 1-6 above.


My novel-writing students did these activities. When I asked them, “What did you learn this week,” one woman said, “I have to figure out a way to SEE my novel, to visualize it.”

Another said, “It really matters what you decide to put first,  but you probably won’t write the book in the order that it will eventually be read in. I have to stop worrying about my first chapter.”


What They Learned This Semester

What They Learned This Semester


It’s that time of year when our students turn in their portfolios–along with the “reflective essay” in which they articulate what they learned this semester. I love reading them. This term, I asked my students to turn those essays into blog posts. NOT something written to me, but to you.

As you know by now, my goal for the last year or so has been to help my students move from “story” to “book” by tweaking how I approach my courses. specifically, how I run (or don’t run) the workshop. I taught three classes this term, two of which had a public course blog attached to them. One was an undergraduate advanced fiction writing class on “novels” and a graduate course on “linked stories.” But really, they were BOTH classes on novel writing–one explicitly (the undergrad) and one implicitly (the grad).

Each class has a blog, which you can peruse.

  • The Undergrad/Novel/Explicit Approach class blog is #amnoveling.
  • The Graduate/Linked Stories/Implicit Approach class blog is #amlinking.

Here are some highlights from #amnoveling:

Researching and writing a historical novel.

Beating writer’s block by “writing without thinking” so you can surprise yourself.

Writing not just a novel, but a series of novels.

The benefits of planning vs. the benefits of not planning.

Writing a “novel that’s true,” and how you try and try to “get it right.

Honestly, all their posts are really great–about artistic influences, adapting screenplays into novels, talking themselves into attempting a novel in the first place, and writing a queer novel because you just really, really need this book to exist and it doesn’t yet.

Here are some highlights from #amlinking:

How writing in In Design–not MS Word–is helping one student create “haiku fiction.”

The pedagogical advantages of a “linked stories” workshop vs. a de facto “story” workshop.

Stories as legos–a great analogy. 

How “storyboarding” helps you move from “story” to “book.” (Here’s my post on “reverse storyboarding,” which is how we started the semester.)

A few posts (here, here, and here) on how I “tricked” them into embarking on novels by telling them they were writing linked stories.

I know it’s a busy time of year, but these blogs aren’t going anywhere. Come back to them and read what my students have to say. If you’re considering making some changes to your own creative writing teaching pedagogy, I hope you’ll start a course blog, too, so that we can all figure this out together.

Happy grading, everyone.

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.

Memo: Course Descriptions are due for Fall 2011

Teaching Writing

Are you ready to get serious about leading a Big Thing writing class? I know I am. Here’s my plan for my Advanced Fiction Writing course during Fall 2011.

Course Description

In this class, all students will be required to produce at least 50,000 original words, the first draft of a new work. This will not be done only during November’s “National Novel Writing Month,” but rather over the course of the entire semester. The course will be characterized by: intense focus on the writing process and on developing a writing regimen; weekly word count check ins; “studio” in-class writing time; practice in creating an outline or storyboard of a book; small peer groups for feedback; and analysis of a few contemporary novels that will serve as models.

Course Objectives

This semester, you will teach yourself how to write a novel. The manuscript you produce may be the first draft of a novel you will someday publish. Or it may be what many writers refer to as their “apprenticeship” novel, their “drawer novel.”

Course Rationale

In “The Habit of Writing,” Andre Dubus describes two types of writing: horizontal and vertical. For example, a short story might be composed horizontally (draft after draft)over the course of a month, or it might be composed vertically (one perfect sentence at a time) over the course of a month. Many of us write vertically because we’ve mostly composed stories and papers on short deadlines, and word processing allows us to edit as we write.

Principle #1: We will operate on the assumption that novels, as opposed to short stories, might need to be composed horizontally, that the fictional skill set we have acquired thus far is insufficient to meet the demands of novel writing.

Writing horizontally often means that what’s on the page is messy, incomplete, not the kind of writing we’d submit to an instructor to be graded, to a workshop for peer critique, and certainly not to an editor to be published. But that’s okay because:

Principle #2: We are not writing a novel so much as we are drafting a novel, which means that we are not overly concerned with the quality of the writing, but rather with the quantity.

Of his “failed” novel Fountain City, Michael Chabon has said, “Often when I sat down to work, I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.” So: how do we learn to distinguish the difference between “The Hand of Dread” (which would indicate that our project indeed should be abandoned) and “Normal Dread” (the fear and anxiety we’re confronted with every time we sit down to write)? When do we ignore the dread, and when do we listen to it?

Principle #3: You do not have to finish the novel you start writing this semester, but before putting it aside, you must think seriously about whether the problem is that the project is flawed or that you have reached the end of your ability to meet its challenges.

If that principle terrifies you, good. Writing a novel is a daunting task, but I also want to maximize your chances of success. In order to do this, I have drastically revised the way I teach fiction writing. This course will not provide you with a customary experience, and if you’re aren’t okay with that, please don’t take the class.

Principle #4: We will operate on the assumption that no one is here reluctantly. You’re here of your own volition. You want to learn. Perhaps because you love to read novels and want to better appreciate their composition and execution. Perhaps because you’ve “always wanted to write a novel.” Or because you have tried unsuccessfully to do so in private.

Methods of Evaluating Student Performance

Note: We have approximately 15 weeks. 50,000 words/ 15 weeks = 3,333 words a week or about 476 words a day. (To give you some perspective, the above section, “Course Rationale,” is 481 words.)

300 points or 30%: Weekly Word Counts. Every time you make your weekly quota, you get 20 points. If you fail to meet your quota, you don’t get 20 points. 15 x 20 points = 300 points

200 points or 20%: Book Report Project. You will choose a book from which you need to learn something, devise a method to learn that something, and write an analysis that demonstrates what you learned. You will turn in not just the paper, but also physical evidence of your grappling.

200 points or 20%: Your Storyboard. You will be required to create a blueprint for the book you want to write. It can be as complete or incomplete as you need it to be.

200 points or 20%: Participation. There will be no Big Group Workshop. Instead, you will work in Small Groups, which will meet in class and online. For the first few weeks, we’ll rotate around so that everyone can see what each other is working on, and then you’ll select your Small Group for the remainder of the semester.

100 points or 10%: Final. At the end of the semester, you will polish a 10-40 page writing sample and learn how to write a “pitch letter” summarizing your work in progress.

Possible Texts


Inspiration Book: Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Practical Book: Writer’s Digest Books, The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing: Everything You Need to Know About Creating & Selling Your Work

Realism/coming-of-age books: Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Suspense/”I couldn’t put it down” books: Emma Donoghue’s Room or Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs

Genre/Sci-fi/dystopic books: Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games or Justin Cronin’s The Passage

Plot as a given books: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife (based on the life of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway) or Irina Reyn’s What Happened to Anna K (modern retelling of Anna Karenina).

These books will serve as our models. I’ve organized them in this way, labeling their “type,” not because I’m encouraging you to embrace marketing categories, but rather because experience has taught me this: you stand the best chance of finishing a novel if 1.) you consciously choose to write the kind of book you yourself enjoy reading, and 2.) you do not set yourself up to fail by choosing as your model something akin to Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (which happens to be one of my favorite books). I’m not discouraging you from having literary or intellectual ambitions, but rather (again), I’m trying to maximize your chances of meeting the goal of drafting a novel, in this case by encouraging you to create reasonable expectations for yourself. Also, you will receive a long list of books on the CRAFT of novels upon completing the course.

In this class, everybody wins

There is no such thing as a “failed” novel, as long as we keep writing. Next week, we’ll hear from writer-teacher Lowry Pei, who will address that very subject in a guest blog post: “No Writing is Ever Wasted.”

Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction


Back to the Survey Monkey survey I gave my students on November 16. This is a fairly long post, but that’s because it’s about one of the most important decisions my students had to make.

Question 3: How would you describe the extent to which you prepared for NaNoWriMo?

Many hours, lots of concrete planning: 5

A few hours, some concrete planning: 6

Hardly any time, hardly any planning: 2

No time, no planning:  0

Are you happy with the amount of time you spent planning?

Everyone was either glad they’d planned or wished that they had planned more. Except for one person who planned a lot and hadn’t gotten very far at that point. S/he skipped the question.

Writer, Know Thyself: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

NaNo says there are two types of novelists: plotters (those who plan) and pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). I strongly encouraged my students to be plotters, but that’s because when it comes to writing a book as opposed to writing a short story, I’m definitely a plotter. But I didn’t demand that they plot just because that’s what makes sense to me. Like Richard Hugo said in The Triggering Town, “Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write.”

This topic-how much to prepare-was a big topic of discussion in our class in the months leading up to NaNo. Many of my students were afraid to do too much planning. They didn’t want to take all the fun and joy out of actually writing their novels. Some believed that “writing with a plan” was cheating somehow.

On the Road as NaNo Novel

To that end, we read On the Road and a wonderful essay on its composition history by Howard Cunnell, “Fast This Time: Jack Kerouac and the Writing of On the Road,” which refutes the perception that Kerouac “pantsed” that novel. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the product of a semi-magical, drug-induced twenty-one day binge writing session, but rather a fourth draft; three “proto novels” exist. And Kerouac didn’t compose the “scroll version” in 1951 off the top of his head. As he typed, he was surrounded by notebooks, journals, correspondence, and previous typescripts.

No matter what you think of On the Road, teaching this novel (or just an excerpt) along with the Cunnell essay are great pedagogical tools to dispel commonly held myths about the writing process.

I would not, however, recommend teaching “The Scroll Version” in addition to or in place of the published version of On the Road. There’s not a big enough difference between the scroll and the published book to generate much discussion. In fact, I think I unwittingly reinforced the idea that a novel written in one month can be and should be published almost as is, which is definitely not what I wanted to do.


Photo by Rachel Norman

I encouraged my students to storyboard their novels, to concretize their plot in broad strokes. We looked at lots of examples.

Anne Tyler’s famous “index card method.”

Even Faulkner storyboarded, as you can see in the photo above.

I pointed them to lots of resources: old-fashioned index cards or post-it notes or storyboard sheets, and new-fangled programs for their computer.

For the Plotters

I provided them a formula. Yes, a formula. When attempting something this large, it helps to have a blueprint, a map, some kind of guide so you know what you’re writing toward. Syd Field’s “Paradigm Worksheet” worked great for this purpose.

I asked my students to consider:

  • What’s the basic story? Roughly, what do you think is going to happen? Beginning, middle, end.
  • How much time will your novel cover? One week? One month? One year? Five years? Fifty years?

Students came in for conferences. They were required to fill out a paradigm worksheet, inserting their own plot points.


However, if they needed to adapt the worksheet for their own purposes, that was fine. If they needed to write a narrative synopsis instead, that was fine. If they decided NOT to fill this out, they needed to talk about why. Did they firmly believe that pantsing was the way to go, or were they “default pantsing” because they hadn’t given themselves time to plot?

This month, I saw many of them begin our in-class writeshops with something sitting next to the keyboard. An outline. An index card. A chart.

For the Pantsers

Some of them, however, didn’t have anything next to the keyboard.

The editors of Wired magazine suggest that, at the very least, you end each day’s writing session with a note to yourself about what to write the next day. “Having the scenes for tomorrow in your head today will give your brain time to work on it even when you aren’t thinking about it directly. In fact, you may well find yourself dreaming about your novel, working out ideas in your sleep.”

Writer Timothy Hallinan describes his process as a few months of what he calls “noodling around.”

Long before I begin to write a book, I begin towrite aboutthe book. I just open up and let it flow – no censorship, no self-criticism, no pressure. I write about the problem, the setting, the characters. I write biographies of the characters. I let them write about themselves, in the first person. I do a lot of work on what’s at stake – what it is, why it matters, how each of the major characters stands on it. (I may even diagram that.) What’s the worst that can happen, and to whom? What’s the best possible outcome? I make notes for possible scenes and, just for the hell of it, drop my major characters into those scenes and let them begin to talk to each other. (Quite a bit of this material later gets cut and pasted into the book, and then revised as necessary.)I give myself permission to make mistakes.

This is the kind of writing that isn’t always encouraged in creative writing classrooms.

Because how do you grade it? Who does this kind of writing mean anything to–except the writer herself? Is it “real” writing? When you’re writing about your book, does that count the same as actually writing your book? At what point does one become the other?

Hallinan says that usually after pantsing around for 100 or 200 pages, he realizes he’s writing the opening scene of the book, and that’s the moment he knows that’s he “really” writing a book, although he still may not know what’s going to happen.

Hmmmm….NaNoWriMo asks participants to write 50,000 words or about 175 pages.

In a few days, my students will send me the file that contains all the writing they did during November, and I really don’t care whether it was plotted or whether it was pantsed. Whether it’s the end result of scrupulous planning or determined noodling. I don’t care if that document is a Supreme Fiction or merely Notes toward a Supreme Fiction. It can be abstract. It can change. And as long as it gives pleasure, the effort, it seems to me, was worthwhile.