The Agony and the Ecstasy of Making Things Up

Mrs. Cole Porter 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

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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.   Continue reading

Reflective Essays: 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. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

A course description for a novel-writing class

A course description for a novel-writing class


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 Continue reading

Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

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? Continue reading