Debrief: Session One

Photo of an eerie house with a bunny clutching a carrot seen in the windowsill. Used to illustrate the idea of an enticing opening of a novel.
Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

This is the first of what will be seven updates on the seven month 3rd draft novel writing course I am currently undertaking. The course is divided into seven sessions, each requiring a submission to my tutor. Once I have digested the session feedback, I’ll be posting on course content, my novel progress and what I have garnered from my tutor’s feedback.

When I refer to the first or second drafts of my novel, they are in fact detailed drafts of a synopsis, planned to the nth degree. The third draft is the first stab at writing the novel proper (in a course context), and at the end of the course I will have a handful of solid chapters and the tools to finish the rest on my own. My attitude with this course is to have fun. What was my attitude previously? Well, there were times where drafting and re-drafting the story structure felt like slow torture, even slower than molasses in a southern hemisphere July and I continued not out of love, but a frugal need to not waste the already expended effort.

Progress on my novel between the second draft course and this was limited to NaNoWriMo 2016 which as I will talk about later, has come in handy, but not so much through direct use of words.

Session one was all about re-acquainting myself with the story, and getting my tutor up to speed on it as we had not previously worked together. I reviewed some of my work from the second draft and submitted summaries of the following:

  • Story outline
  • Central dramatic question
  • Central conflict
  • Character arc
  • Theme
  • Seven turning points
  • Story steps for turning points one and two

Much of the above was unchanged from what I’d already developed in the second draft. The submission also included a summary of the first five chapters—new work for me, with the chapters covering the story between the prison (turning point one) and the inciting incident (turning point two). It was in writing the chapter summaries that my NaNoWriMo efforts proved worthwhile, with some of the imagery and backstory in that 50,012-word output seeping into my subconscious and finding an outlet in fresh writing.

The feedback I received from my tutor was constructive, although she was only taken by a few elements of the story. Most importantly, the magical realism aspect excited her, which is just as well because that is the genre! It was helpful having a fresh pair of eyes look over the story, and some of the questions she asked forced me to think through the logic of some plot points which I’d taken for granted, having sat with this story for about 6 years now in various forms.

In trying to resolve my tutor’s questioning of one particular part of the story, I came up with a new angle which I am much happier with—specifically, the reason my main character is in debt, which is a crucial part of her struggling to get out of her prison/predicament—remaining stuck in an unfulfilling, financially dependent relationship. A plausible reason for the debt was essential, and now, thanks to my tutor’s questioning, I have arrived at one. Throwing out ideas that don’t work is part and parcel of this writing gig—no room for sentimentality or attachment. The changes I made strengthened the plot without changing the greater story I am trying to tell.

Much of the rest of the feedback was to do with detail I had removed from summaries in my pedantic attempt to keep to the word count (which my tutor subsequently told me is flexible). It was also a lesson in ensuring I convey information clearly and not assume the reader knows the story like I do, within reason though, as it is always better to show rather than tell.

I am currently feeling stuck and unmotivated (hence plenty of time to blog and play with Canva!) while revising the first five chapters and re-imagining their ordering. Perhaps a different approach is called for over the coming days, sketching scenes from each chapter and throwing words onto the sketch like a comic strip, borrowing from the ‘bricks of detail’ idea taught in an earlier course I completed with The Writers’ Studio. It involves brainstorming details about emotion, setting, smell, sounds, touch, sixth sense, sense of irony…all that in addition to considering character arc, central dramatic question and conflict in each of these sketches. I will then follow the sketching/brainstorming with a quiet few moments with my eyes closed, visualising the story.

Session 1 officially closed on 21 September so I am behind, but provided I continue doing something, I am okay with that. Once done with the revised chapter summaries and order, my final session one task is to write the opening 600 words.

The course material emphasises the importance of the opening. It must entice, with each sentence ending with a juicy carrot dangling in sight but just out of reach, keeping the salivating bunny/reader hopping on to the next and the next.

I thought I’d put this to the test by revisiting the opening lines of books I have read and loved. Some have been an influence, whether in style, genre, or sparking the dream to be a writer. All are books I’ve read over the past 15 years, listed in roughly the order in which I read them. I was a voracious reader when I was a child and in my teens, but apart from vague recollections of Agatha Christie, Stephen King and some true crime books such as one on Charles Manson (don’t ask), I cannot really remember the books I read.

Have you read any of these books? If not, which samples make you want to read more? My favourite opening (out of the examples I have given here) is the one in White Teeth.

Are you writing a novel? What do you do when you are stuck or short on motivation? Has this post given you ideas on how to approach your story planning?

51 thoughts on “Debrief: Session One

  1. “Throwing out ideas that don’t work is part and parcel of this writing gig—no room for sentimentality or attachment. ” Sounds like my therapy session. 😉

    I have taken a deep breath and decided to do NaNoWriMo this year. Facilitating a writing group will help. There a number NaNo participants in the group. Plus this year I am in a area with a Muncipal Laision who is planning some write-ins.

    Right now I attempting to do an outline. My first time to try this (which is probably in part why past attempts have failed). This post has helped focus on the structure of structuring.

    One thing I do to give myself out of stuck mode is to cut and past some passage about the theme or a type of personality from wiki or somewhere else, then start estending the sentences that relates specifically with my work in progress.

    Also for my writing group (not because i was stuck, but I think it might work) I would take each sentence or two that I had already written and write out the reasons why I choose that word or had this and that happen in the sentence(s).

    Looking forward for the next posts from your endeavor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should add that, regarding the exercise I mention in the last paragraph, what is helpful is trying to articulate what was going on in head for someone who is in the dark about the story that help bring together what were actually more often than not mere fragments. The exercise help me become more conscise, more fleshed out thoughts about what I really wanted to say. At least for me, it is intriguing how I think I have something thought out and it turns out I am only have partially thought out something very specific, like motivation, personality quirk, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I feel like I already have done the work in thinking through what is driving my characters (although I could probably delve deeper into their psyches), but what you are talking about is so true…in trying to get my tutor to understand my story, it was funny how un-clearly I communicated some parts. I think taking a break from a piece of writing helps in a similar way, giving you the chance to see it in different ways. I took the last few days off because I had a lot of life things on and feel a lot more positive and inspired than I was when I wrote this post.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. So glad I’ve helped you out on structure! Well done for deciding to do NaNo again. I imagine participating with your writer group and going the sit ins will be really inspiring…might also shift your writing group’s focus beyond NaNo. I love your idea about snippets of passages…I immediately thought of the Shrilker (?) guy…the young pharmaceutical company sociopath who was recently found guilty of fraud or something. Thanks for taking an interest in my endeavour…I look forward to updates on your pre-NaNo planning! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like you’re doing fine. Don’t get sabotaged by the expectation that you need to reach a target/word count each day, sometimes it can be counterproductive. Sometimes it’s better to step away and do something else, the inspiration will soon come crawling back begging you to write.

    I’ve found keeping a diary for the novel invaluable. Each day I recap where we are with the plot, and ask ‘okay, well what happens next?’ and ‘why? why does that happen?’. And sometimes I jot down sentences or scenes that I may later use. Or I mind map to explore ideas for future development. But then again I’m a shameless pantser, other more organised people would probably do these things in advance. 🙂

    Yes, a dangly carrot opening is crucial. You’ve quoted some great examples. Gabriel Garcia Marquez also wrote wonderful opening sentences, I feel:

    ‘Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows and the flapping of their wings stirred up the stagnant time inside, and at dawn on Monday the city awoke out of its lethargy of centuries with the warm, soft breeze of a great man dead and rotting grandeur’ — from The Autumn of the Patriarch


    ‘It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’ — from Love in the Time of Cholera

    Keep reading and writing. Good luck with the rest of your course. Look forward to reading some samples. Keep us posted.


    1. Thanks Dave. I am not working on a word count, but trying to ensure I finish a session’s content within a month. I have a feeling after the work in getting the 5 chapter summaries right, the rest should be easy…well, at least in that I can just continue with the writing within the bounds of the structure, which I have always found easier than structuring. Like building a house. I imagine choosing the fittings and final interior design (which I liken to the writing) would be more fun than pouring cement and laying bricks.

      Mind map! that’s what I was trying to say but couldn’t think of the term so I used ‘brainstorming’. Totally on a tangent, I read a Franzen interview on the Guardian over the weekend. He mentioned The Wind Up Bird Chronicles as a novel he wished he’d written, but also made not that he wouldn’t really have wanted t o write it and miss the chance to enjoy Murakami’s groundbreaking work (words to that effect).

      I love the openings you have quoted, particularly The Autumn of the Patriach! wow! I think I have read 100 years of solitude but I can’t really remember….but I haven’t read anything else of his yet I know I would love his work.

      How is your writing going? Apologies, I have not had a lot of time to read but keep meaning to read you recent posts, starting from the mood board one.

      Have you looked into Scrivener or something similar? Might be a great tool for a shameless pantser! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have no doubt you’ll find your best path through this novel-writing minefield, Mek. Hopefully I’ll see you sometime on the other side of it. 🙂

        I read an interview with Martin Amis saying that writing a novel is less about planning and plotting constantly but having, what Nabokov described, as the throb — that is the passion to realise the idea. And it’s clear you have that.

        I like your analogy of interior design and can relate — says the man whose wife has been chasing him to finishing painting the house for the last few months.

        I read somewhere that mind map/clustering works by bypassing the analytical side of the brain, which often serves as an obstacle for creativity. I’m finding I’m doing it more and more. For me it’s another way of surprising myself in fewer words. 🙂

        I love exploring my favourite author’s favourite reads. It’s always fascinating to discover what inspired them. It’s fortuitous then that you stumbled on the Franzen – Murakami link!

        No apologies needed, unless it’s to apologise for not having worked on the novel 🙂 — that comes first. I’m assuming you’ve received the email. But again no rush on that.

        You’ll definitely love Garcia Marquez. When you get time between everything else, I’d recommend ‘Of Love and Other Demons’, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, and his short story collection: ‘Strange Pilgrims’.

        Yes, I’ve been using Scrivener ever since my first draft. I couldn’t cope without it. An indispensable tool — not just for pantsers. 🙂 What do you use?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks Dave. I feel so fortunate to have so many supportive friends in my fellow writers 😊 I am certain of the amazing book you’ll write- the only thing between now and completion is time and hard work…You have the rest of the ingredients in spades.

        Those walls may be just the gift your novel needs…embrace that task! Plus you’ll have a happy wife cheering you on when you resume your novel writing in your paint spattered clothes. At the very least, the Mrs will be wondering how long before her name is published in the credits at the front of your book 😜

        I find it easier to retain bew information that way too- scribing with colours and images.

        Yes, I got your email- and will reply soon. I’m trying to be electronic free a little more before bedtime so not replying to messages and emails as promptly as I used to. All in aid of sleeping and waking earlier and my new thing if doing a swim before work…which I’m sure will help my writing among other things.

        I might give the short story collection a look in first…so I can read a little at a time. You’ve inspired me to dig out my collection of Nabokov’s short stories too.

        I use word 😨 with headings and a table of contents for navigation. I’ve been meaning to get scrivener since the start of the second draft course but never got around to it. My ptoblrm is that my writing is split between my iMac at home and a windows laptop while I commute so unless I can install the one purchase on each machine, it will require a bit of pffafing.

        Also way behind on reading your stuff, but I’ll get there 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ditto re the support. Would be languishing much further behind in this minefield without the encouragement. It’s true I get a lot of inspiration from doing non-writing tasks (just don’t want to tell the wife that 😉). Need to take a leaf from your book (no pun) and sleep more. Tired today, no writing done. Recently read a Nabokov collection called ‘Tyrants Destroyed’, I didn’t get along with it much—more a fan of his longer works. It’s possible to synchronise Scrivener between devices, but AFAIK you’d need to purchase it twice. Happy redrafting! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      4. AFAIK? is that an unqualified opinion? I’ll look into scrivener at some point but am hesitant about being slowed down by it. ideal time to use it might be at end of this course as there are lots of exercises involved in this course which won’t directly go into the novel. Yes, get rest- the need for good sleep is not to be underestimated! First swim in about 30min when my train pulls into my stop. I had a stab at the opening words and was really stuck after a few sentences so I’m going to nap 😪

        Hope you have a better writing day today!

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I only use it on my iMac at present. I’ve just checked, you can purchase a Mac/Windows bundle at a discounted price. Definitely look into it at sometime. It takes a huge chunk of worry out of the process. My day is just starting here, hope yours went well and you got some good words done. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. You are very thorough in your approach. When stuck for ideas, do something you can do and don’t think about being stuck. Just do the other thing (blogpost, washing, whatever) and ideas will usually come. I find mindless monotony helps generating ideas in the meditative void created by the other task.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Sandra! Yes, monotony is gold. I love washing dishes for that reason. I did nothing on my story over the weekend and voila…this morning got some really great ideas, one of which will actually be central to the narrator’s voice.


  4. This post makes me realize what a very difficult task writing a novel is!
    The only book on your list I’ve read (and loved also) is “The Wind Up Bird Chronicles”, but “Birds Without Wings” definitely intrigues from its opening line.
    I agree about not dwelling on being stuck. I get ideas when I give up. The shower is a particularly good place for my mind to go exploring…(K)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the process has made me have a great deal of respect for anyone who has completed the task…even trashy novels in the sales bin of a department store required grit and stamina to produce. It is a really good book- I highly recommend it. I think you’d like Middlesex too. It is a new week and after a 3 day weekend being immersed in life with a 3 year old, I found some fresh ideas on the train ride to work 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Train rides are good too. I often find myself reaching into my bag for a little notebook I keep there to write things down (whether I can read my handwriting later is another matter…)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha yes I can relate. On my way home I pulled out a notebook I occasionally scrawl in and had to guess a lot of the words. Was hard as it was notes I’d taken after going to a red tent even and a lot of the references to astrology and tarot type stuff were unfamiliar.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t read any of the books on your list Mek, but the opening lines make me want to. Funnily enough this was a subject of discussion at our writing group on Friday. I hope you don’t mind but I copied your list onto the group Facebook page. As always I’m inspired by your enthusiasm.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I imagine you’d love The Corrections and A Fraction of the Whole. I love this pairing of blog friends with books I’m doing in the comments here 😃. Happy that you found some use for my list. How’s the writing group going?


      1. I’ll get these books to read on holiday! The writing group is stimulating! Last ‘term’ two Druids joined the group. Awe had planned for the next anthology to be on a Halloween horror theme but the arrival of the Druids caused a rethink as Halloween is a sacred time for them! So the book ‘The Darkening Season’ will cover horror, witches and Druid mythology! One of the members has self published two crime novels : sold 150 paperbacks and 15,000 kindle versions. Amazon have approached him about republish through their formal publish arm. Another girl writes children’s stories and successfully self publishes through Amazon. All this encourages everyone! Unfortunately the current tutor, the poet James Nash, retires next year so there is inevitable uncertainty about who will replace him. Great to hear from you Mek!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Great- let me know how you find them. Sounds like a really inspiring group of writers to be amongst- and how wonderful to learn and celebrate the culture of your new members. When is that holiday, and where to?


    1. Thanks Nadine. So glad you’ve found it useful. Did you notice my climate appropriate mollases reference 😜

      Btw, the course is online so you could do it from Jam Rock 😊, although there are 3 courses agead of this one.

      Next update on about a month. Currently still plodding through edits do not started session 2 yet.


  6. I echo those who hope you catch that motivation soon, and bottle it so you can figure out the recipe. I’m sitting on several manuscripts and would love to polish one one day. Only a long break has given me the distance to see the drafts in a better light. And show me flaws I’d overlooked. Happy editing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Wonderful to hear it and hope you do share it with all of us. Inspiration can feel fickle some days, that’s for sure. Yes, school is here; it’s a little like standing in a waterfall: free time rushing in toward me one way, then vaporizing just as quickly the other. Time to learn to kayak, I suppose. Cheers!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. How is your son taking to school life? How was it emotionally for you after all that time home with him? It might take getting used to, but once you establish some new routines you won’t feel so pulled bt those forces at either end of the day. Happy writing, you lucky person with all that free time! 😊


      3. It was very hard letting go as the community gets the next chance to teach him full time. Luckily his teacher has been a perfect fit so far. As my energy reserved start to fill, well, I think it’s all working out for the best. Just need to return to my time management mode of old. Will be curious to see how the transition goes for you down the road! Have you been able to line up priorities pretty easily in the past?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. So glad to hear that his teacher has been a good fit. You’ll get there- emotional adjustments take their toll on other areas of life too- maybe enjoy the free time by doing NOTHING for a while 😊 I guess the transition for me won’t be as huge as it has been for you as I work 4 days a week, but I intend to drop down to 3 days in my boy’s final year before starting school so that will make it a little harder not to hang out with him so much. Cross that bridge when I get to it I guess- makes me sad thinking about how quickly time flies. Lining up priorities has generally been easy for me as I am a fairly process driven person and really love (and need) routine. The hard part is defining priorities and the path required. Enjoy this new life stage! 😊


      5. Will do! I think any transition can be tricky for those of us who need routines. Hoping to teach that to my son sooner than I realized it. Also hoping you get that totally unscripted downtime too. Sometimes I have to remember it’s best for others before I let myself off the hook. ☺️ The time definitely flies in the meantime! Be curious to hear if it seems your son grows over night during the first weeks of full-time school! I’m a little in reverse lately, getting past blocks on the path to clearer priorities. Your focus shows in your postings, and I much appreciate your kind insights.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. So…what is your name? Or would you rather maintain anonymity? I’m guessing Chris? 😊

        Has it felt like your boy has grown up overnight? 😢 I know they have to grow but why so quickly???

        Have a lovely weekend…bet you cherish weekends even more now! 👪😊


      7. Ah! I don’t mean to be mysterious, even if it would build some kind of mystique. I haven’t decided how WREADITOR will connect to the rest of my digital footprint, so for now I guess that’s the name. If only it were an alias for something cool like Cassius, or Chris, or. . . Cool?

        There sure seems like a rush to grow up to assimilate with the other children in school, from our experience. Probably a good sign of cooperation.

        Wishing you and yours a great weekend! It’s autumn in this hemisphere–hope the weather is bright there. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      8. No problem. Whatever you are comfortable with Cornelius. Weekend here has been great so far. Daylight saving starts tomorrow and we will have a fire barbeque to celebrate! Enjoy the beautiful shades of those falling leaves.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I think I could do with this course! I’m in the third editing of my first book…slightly stuck on how much to change or leave…see how it goes. Best of luck with your work and look forward to reading your posts. Of the books, I’ve read Birds Without wings and it is one of my favourites – I recall that opening very well and think it’s just terrific – it immediately invites a host of questions!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Annika. Yes, it is a really good course. I imagine you’d have to do their first and second draft course first and the pre-req before any of that is unlocking creativity. I should mention, I am simply sharing my experience and not in any way promoting the course for personal gain or financial benefit…

      Well done on getting as far as you have! Have you given it to an editor or beta readers yet? I’ll definitely follow your journey too!

      Lovely to meet you…I have seen you about in comments of blogs I read…funny how this blog world gets smaller the longer we’re here 😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mek, it’s lovely to meet you too and I’m smiling at your last comment – how true and I’m starting to feel the same as names of bloggers become ever more familiar – small world indeed!

        At the moment I’m concentrating on publishing a volume of short stories and am in final editing stages before sending to an editor…I’m also looking at cover ideas so the main book is taking a slight back seat for the res of the year! Many thanks for your kind enquiry.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Mek! I’m glad you’ve decided to share updates about your progress with your novel’s 3rd draft with us – we get to support you AND learn about approaches to the process😀. I think that moments of “feeling stuck and unmotivated” are normal (-but that doesn’t keep me from feeling anxious about it!), and we need to find a way out of our own heads and onto some effortless inspiration! Anyway, it looks like you blogged your way out of it, so I don’t know why I’m rambling….

    I read and loved Middlesex. White Teeth – I don’t know why I won’t read my copy it’s ages old and everyone recommends it and those opening lines are everything! The opening of Birds Without Wings makes me want to read more.

    May good writing days be in your immediate future!😘

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Leslie. If you loved Middlesex, you’ll definitely love Birds Without Wings. That’s ao funny that something is stopping you from reading White Teeth. It had been on my radar for many years before I read it late last year. You’re guaranteed to love it and fall in love with Zadie too. Word of caution- give Swing Time (her latest) a miss! How’s your writing going?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Mek, my writing is going well, although I am SOOO impatient to really comprehend the shape and direction of some work that I have been working on for many years. Thank you for asking.

        You know, I DID read Swing Time. I totally see Zadie Smith’s writing chops but the story just did nothing for me. I attended an “author conversation” with her, and had my books signed. White Teeth and Changing My Mind (essays) are sitting around in my personal library waiting for me to give them some love….I may have to give myself a deadline😬.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. So glad your writing is going well. What are you working on?

        If you started on Swing Time, that totally explains your lack of enthusiasm to read White Teeth. not sure what was going on when she write Swing Time but I’m willing to forgive it and will read On Beauty at some point. She is a great essayist too- have read one she wrote for the Guardian while promoting Swing Time.


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