We have talked about Donald Maass and his Writing the Breakout Novel and the workbook that goes with it, but seeing Agent and Author John Cusick reading and using both during his down time last week at the Ocean Writer’s Retreat reminded me how much it can help all of us develop our craft. Then, I noticed Writer’s Digest University has an eight week online workshop that just started on September 27th. You might be able to still get in. Even if you can’t, you can buy the book and the workbook to follow along with the planned schedule. I know I am pulling out both and going to give it a try.
Gloria Kempton is the instructor for this class. She coaches writers in the Seattle area and teaches creative writing classes at writers conferences. Gloria is a former Contributing Editor for Writer’s Digest magazine, and her most recent book is Write Great Fiction: Dialogue (Writer’s Digest Books). Gloria also developed the Writing Effective Dialogue and Voice and Viewpoint workshops for Writers Online Workshops.
The workshop will consist of eight one-week sessions. Each session will include online lectures (text based), associated textbook reading assignments, and creative writing and exercises submitted to the instructor for private review. In addition, the course provides a number of interactive venues through which you might further the conversation with your peers and advance the cause of the course as community.
Session One: Premise
Reconciling plausibility and originality
The importance of inherent conflict
Writing Assignment (Fundamentals): Do exercise on creating a breakout premise, culminating in a 300-word opening paragraph.
Writing Assignment (Advanced): Do exercises from the workbook (pp. 200-207) to break down your existing premise, character, and motivation, along with a 3-paragraph memo examining the potential problems or obstacles in your approach and how these might be solved.
Session Two: Characters
All stories are character-driven
Greater or lesser than, but also equal
Creating a cast
Writing Assignment (Fundamentals): The goal of this assignment is to consider how your character’s personality, motivations, and perspectives come through in voice. If the first assignment led to a premise and character that you want to continue with, go back to that exercise and look at the voice you’ve chosen to tell the story. How do the word choice and tone fit with the character and situation you’ve set up? Does the voice fit with and reveal character? Rewrite the scene if you need to, seeing how your narration reveals character, and then write an additional scene (of 1,000 words) where you try to hear the voice clearly and allow it to direct the course of the scene and your character (meaning, that the character, actions, thoughts, and voice all sync up clearly on the page).
Writing Assignment (Advanced): Do exercises from the workbook (pp. 18, 24, 31-2, and 35) on defining character, motivation, personality, and voice in your work-in-progress. Then choose a scene—perhaps an early one, or your opening—to rewrite or revise, matching the voice and tone with your character and premise.
Session Three: Stakes
All stakes are personal stakes
Raising stakes without straining credulity
Avoiding so what
Writing Assignment (Fundamentals): Write three early scenes (500 words each) where the stakes are revealed and/or raised for the character on his or her quest. Consider how all three illustrate both public and private stakes (or, internal and external conflict) and consider how or why your character will keep moving forward even as he or she experiences resistance or complication. (By the way, these need not be scenes of gigantic personal stakes; every bit of external conflict reveals something about the personal conflict of the character. Even a small moment can reveal important things about your character.)
Writing Assignment (Advanced): Do exercises from the workbook on personal and ultimate stakes (pp. 48-9, 54-5, 86), then pick two scenes from your work in progress (around 1,500 words) to rework, identifying the internal and external motivations/conflicts of the protagonist in the scenes and raising the stakes.
Session Four: Plot
The five essential plot elements
The importance of conflict
Structure and high moments
Writing Assignment (Fundamentals): Write a scene (around 1,250-1,500 words) that precedes or in some way builds up to one of your “high moment” scenes. (You may even arrive at a high moment by the end.) How does the character come into direct conflict, in both big and small ways, in achieving his goal? What are the personal stakes that resonate not just for the character but for the reader? Set up the conflict and arc of the particular scene and then allow your character to lead … and perhaps even surprise you.
Writing Assignment (Advanced): Do the exercises on adding tension (pp 152-3) and rewrite the scenes you’ve chosen from your work in progress to not only heighten the tension of the scenes for the character but for the reader … that the underlying stakes and conflicts are identifiable and in some way universal.
Session Five: Time and Place
Selective show and tell
When and where to be wary
Writing Assignment (Fundamentals): Do exercise on building specific details of your primary setting, culminating in a brief 1,000-1,250-word scene introducing the place and building the world so not just physical setting emerges but the feel or mood you intend the place to evoke.
Writing Assignment (Advanced): Do the exercise from the workbook on “The Psychology of Place” and rework a scene from your work in progress (1,250-1,500 words) in which the primary setting is featured. Make sure we understand the place in terms of how the character sees it and feels about it … and rewrite the scene so that the setting strikes the tone you intend.
Session Six: Contemporary Plot Techniques
The character-driven story
The non-linearity of consciousness
Writing Assignment (Fundamentals): Write a scene (around 1,000-1,250 words) in which the protagonist’s conflict is primarily internal … in other words, where he or she views something going on from a distance which his or her own internal motivations or perceptions, or where a simple exchange with another character alters or reaffirms his views, what-have-you. The purpose of the brief scene is not to focus on the external event but his or her internal view of it … to move us close to the character’s thinking or perception of some (even small) external event, thereby moving us into the character’s consciousness (no matter if you’re using 1st or 3rd person narration).
Writing Assignment (Advanced): Do the workbook exercise on “Strengthening Point of View” (pp. 185-186) and then follow through with the scene you’ve randomly selected from your work in progress (no more than 1,500 words) for the exercise, heightening the sense of character, consciousness, and internal tension in the scene.
Session Seven: Multiple Viewpoints, Subplots, Pace, Voice, Endings
Relationship of plot and subplot
Pacing and playing God
Writing Assignment (Fundamentals): Write a brief scene which does the following: 1) spans the course of many hours (say, half a day), 2) unfolds in several different locations, with several auxiliary characters, 3) introduces or suggests a possible sub-plot with one of the secondary characters, 4) has an overall and identifiable arc which is self-contained (having to do with a specific goal the protagonist has in the scene), and 5) does all of this in 1,000 words. The goal of the exercise is to consider how the author gets to “play God” with the voice: expanding on what needs expanding, compressing or doing away with what isn’t needed or would drag the scene down, etc. Consider especially how transitions (such as “hours later” or “that night” or “At the hotel … ”) might help you cover lots of time and place/space simply and economically.
Writing Assignment (Advanced): Do the exercise “Brewing Tension” on pp. 139-140 and choose a scene from your work in progress (around 1,500 words) that you can revise in order to practice both building tension and using compression. (If you were writing the Fundamentals exercise, for example, three paragraphs about the protagonist driving from one location to another would be a good place to target.) Keep in mind that tension and compression both come from the same place: not from the action (or lack thereof) in a scene but from voice.
Session Eight: Theme
The difference between theme and “moral”
Theme as unifying structure
Writing Assignment (Fundamentals): Write the last 1,500-2,000 words of your novel, in whatever way you see the novel ending at this moment. (This might include the climax of your story but will likely be denouement, the winding up of story that comes after the climax.) Consider what aspects of story you have to tie up at the very end … but, more importantly, consider what the feel of the book’s ending should be, what mood you wish to strike at the end and what kind of moment you want to end on, considering your language and tone as you write. Look back at what you’ve written and consider how the closing words of the novel suggest the book’s theme … in other words, how the ending suggests the meaning of the book in such a way that the meaning is universal, something your reader can easily identify (and identify with).
Writing Assignment (Advanced): Revisit the memo and the workbook exercises (pp. 200-207) that you did in the first lesson and consider whether your existing ending in the work-in-progress really fulfills the thematic point or tone you want. Then, rewrite your last 2,000 words to strengthen the theme we see at the end … or to re-envision an alternate ending for the book that strikes at the heart of what you want the book to be about.