Backwards design

I’m working backwards these days.

Normally, I figure out what I want to write about, then I jump in and draft a bunch of scenes. This book has been such a long-term project that I’ve produced hundreds of pages and many versions of some scenes. There are whole subplots that I’ve written and abandoned, entire characters who’ve emerged or disappeared in different drafts.

Anyway, now I’m trying a different approach to this whole novel-writing project. I’m making a plan, stripping my story down to its skeleton and checking that the head bone connects to the neck bone, the neck bone connects to the back bone and so on, all the way down to the toes. (And now I’ve got that song in my head. Thanks, brain.)

Backwards design” is an educational term that kind of describes this process. Basically, backwards design means that you first decide what you want students to learn, then you figure out how they will show this learning, and lastly you plan out your lessons.

I feel like I’m doing the same thing with my book; I’m going back to basics, figuring out my characters’ internal and external journeys and making sure there’s a logical progression from beginning to end. My online course is making me create a stripped-down scene-by-scene outline for my novel, so I’ve dug out some index cards and I’m doing some very disciplined analysis of the scenes I need to include.

I’ve just started this process, but already I can see that there will be scenes that I’ve already written that need to be expanded so that they serve more of a purpose in getting characters from one point to the next. On the other hand (gulp), some of the scenes I’ve written have got to go; some of the chapters that I’ve rewritten and revised and polished are not going to make the cut. I’ve got to kill some of my darlings, as Faulkner put it.

Scary stuff! But I should end up with a clear idea of exactly what scenes I need in order to tell my story, and I’ll be able to follow that outline like a roadmap. Here’s hoping, anyway.



Let me start by saying that I have taught High School English. I have studied literature at university (in English and in French). I know all about plot elements. In fact, I could probably draw and label that classic pyramid-shaped plot diagram with my eyes closed.

And yet.

This week, my online writing course has me watching video lessons on the protagonist’s “journey” through a novel. It’s weird. I know this stuff backwards and sideways.

And yet.

I have always avoided applying my literary analysis skills to the book I’m trying to write. I worried about ending up with a predictable, cookie-cutter narrative: Inciting event. Rising action. Climax. Blah blah blah.

And yet – this is working for me. I’m doing character exercises to articulate the ways my two protagonists see the world at the beginning of the book vs. the end. I’m pulling back and thinking about the structure of my story and the pros and cons of keeping it linear. I wrote a synopsis with ALL the events I see happening, and all that information fit on one page, made sense and included elements of a beginning, middle and end: Inciting event. Rising action. Climax.

So maybe I don’t need to reinvent the wheel? Maybe I can take these characters, who have been haunting and inspiring me for so many years, and fit their stories into a logical framework. Maybe I can actually write this book.

How to Write a Novel

This week I started my online course: “How to Write a Novel: Structure & Outline.

It’s a non-credit course offered via edX through UBC’s Creative Writing program. The instructors (pictured above) are Annabel Lyon (who wrote the wonderful books “The Golden Mean” and “The Sweet Girl”) and Nancy Lee. It’s a six-week course with video lectures, weekly assignments, discussion forums and virtual “Office Hours” given via Google Hangouts.

I signed up because my book needs more structure (and so do I!). I have rewritten the first third of the book a few times now, each time making major (necessary) changes, but it’s so easy to get muddled in the middle. I originally only had one character telling the whole story, but now my other main character is stepping forward and narrating her own action, so my novel has become even more complicated.

Apparently, this course will help me create a scene-by-scene outline of the ENTIRE book I’m writing, then I can follow that roadmap to “fill in” the chapters. Sounds great, right?

This week, the course focussed on character motivation (how well do I really know my main characters? Less well than I thought), plus recognizing “antagonists” (inner and outer obstacles) and doing some “world building” (i.e. setting, which is pretty established for me). This week’s assignment was to put myself in my character’s shoes and complete a “self-questionnaire” to consider/create more depth and backstory. Some of the questions were straight-forward, like “How old are you?” and “What’s your favourite item of clothing?” Others took some real reflection, such as “Who is your least reliable friend?” and “Name three personal heroes/role models.”

My only concern with this course is that I’m not actually “writing”! It feels strange to put so much time and energy into planning, since I usually plan a bit, write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit. While I am committing to this course and this new process, I find myself missing the energy of drafting a new scene and having my characters come alive on the page. I may have to “cheat” on my novel and spend some time with one of my unfinished short stories in order to get that literary thrill of creation, since I don’t think I can go without for the next six weeks!


Writing enough

This week went way too fast.

I thought this sabbatical year would involve long, uninterrupted days of concentrated writing time, interspersed with cups of tea, long walks and occasional errands. Maybe I’ll get there, but this particular week was not like that. This week, I spent most of my time running around with my kids or helping out at their school with the committees I’ve joined (and there is a LOT of volunteer work required at the beginning of the school year).

I got some great writing work done on a couple of days, but not everyday. I did some research and added to a (very important) scene where my two main characters meet up after ten years apart. I’m happy about what I accomplished, but I don’t feel I accomplished enough.

What is “enough”? Ah, that’s complicated. Sometimes it’s a daily or weekly word count. Sometimes it’s finishing a scene. Sometimes it’s putting a certain number of hours into writing. On rare, wonderful days, I can step away from my desk and pat myself on the back for accomplishing “enough.”

When I don’t get “enough” done, though, my instinct is to beat myself up. I feel guilty and I start berating myself and feeling anxious and down and hypochondriacal, wondering if I’m making a huge mistake by even attempting to write this book.

Not helpful!

I’m trying to change that. I’m striving to stay positive and be nicer to myself when things don’t go the way I planned. I wrote 1000 words this week; maybe next week it’ll be 2000. Or 3000. Or more. Or maybe life will interfere again, and I have to be ok with that.

Morning Pages

This week my kids went back to school and I didn’t. My year of staying home and writing has begun!

On Sunday, I took part in a QWF writing workshop called “Finding the fun in writing,” led by the fabulous Montreal author Monique Polak. Monique introduced us to a number of writing exercises designed to kick-start our creativity and tap into the more playful, intuitive sides of our writing. I’m sure I’ll use most of these exercises again when I get bogged down in my work, but the idea that has already transformed my daily writing sessions is called “morning pages.”

Basically, morning pages involve sitting down at the beginning of the day and scrawling out three notebook pages of stream-of-consciousness; anything that crosses your mind goes onto the page. Rereading my pages, I find myself listing mundane domestic tasks as much as exploring my ideas for writing projects. It’s a brilliant exercise for skimming all the random thoughts off the surface of my mind so I can dive right into my creative work with clarity and focus. Amazing, right? I’ve been doing morning pages all week and I’m completely hooked.

My main writing goal this year is to finish the novel that’s been in progress for (way too many) years. I am about 30 000 words into my latest draft but I hadn’t opened this file since June, when we moved into a new house and life got extra crazy. This meant that my first task this week was to reread my work to get myself back into that fictional world. After that, I made a list of some scenes that seem to be missing, then I worked a bit on a document to clarify the backstory and motivations of one of my main characters.

Of course, it was nerve-wracking to re-open that document; what if I’d reread my work and it was terrible?! Luckily I didn’t hate it (or at least, not all of it), and I was able to slip back into the project with minimal stress. Overall, I’d say I’m off to a good start.