Battling the Blank Page: Writing the First Third of Your Novel

with Elisa Bonnin

Write the First Third of Your Novel

Ink will be spilled.

Novels are daunting projects. Many times longer than a short story, with word counts ranging anywhere from 50,000 to hundreds of thousands of words, it can be hard to look at a novel and know where to begin. If you’ve always wanted to write your own novel, and have been looking for support to help you get started, this course is for you.

In this course, we’ll buckle down and tackle the first third of your first draft, working together to get words down onto paper. You’ll spend the first two weeks of this course planning the project that you want to write, turning ideas into concrete goals, and the next eight weeks drafting intensely. The goal: to finish the first third of your novel.

This class is for writers who aspire to write a novel. Novels can be from any genre or for any age group, and there are no prerequisites for this course. However, writers should come prepared with the basic idea of their novel, and should ideally have some experience with drafting, even if they have never finished a piece before.

Following the completion of this course, considering continuing work on the second third of your novel in my follow-up course beginning in late September 2023.

Learning and Writing Goals

Learning Goals:

In this class, students will:

  • Identify their protagonists, major themes and character arcs
  • Develop their novel’s hook and stakes.
  • Learn about common novel structures and decide whether to use a structure model or write free-form.

Writing Goals:

In this class, students will:

  • Make a plan for their novel that includes writing goals and word counts based on genre, target age group, and industry expectations.
  • Draft 4-5 page synopsis of their novel, including major plot points
  • Make significant progress on their novel, ideally completing the first third of the project.

Students will have an individualized goal for each week of writing, and will have the opportunity to present 1,000 word snippets of their work to their peers for feedback and review each week. Students will also have weekly opportunities to check-in with the instructor and ask for help on specific issues.

Zoom Schedule

There will be no scheduled meetings during this course. Instead, the instructor will record 30 minute to 1 hour lectures to be viewed asynchronously throughout each week.

Weekly Syllabus

Week 1: Making Commitments

This week, we’ll learn about genre, age group and word count expectations for novels. There’s a wide world of genres out there, and while there’s a place for every project, your readers will come to your work with expectations (doubly so if you’re planning on attempting traditional publishing). We’ll also talk about plot structure, and how to make a simple synopsis. At the end of this week, you’ll have the basic framework of your novel (word count, genre, age group) down, as well as a basic idea of your novel’s hook, premise, and stakes. Students will also have the opportunity to name a reward that they promise to give themselves for successfully completing the course.

Assignment: List your novel’s basic information and your weekly goals for the remainder of the course.

Week 2: Structures and Synopses

This week, we’ll talk about the Three-Act Structure and other commonly used novel structures. We’ll prepare to write by expanding our basic premise into a 4-5 page synopsis, which we will use as an outline for our work. After this week, we’ll dive right into writing, but students who want to create a more detailed outline will be given the resources to do so.

Assignment: Create a 4-5 page synopsis that details the major plot points of your novel.

Week 3: How to Open Your Novel

And we’re off! From this week onward, class material will be focused on supporting you as you write. This week, lecture material will focus on how to start a novel, how to choose your starting scenes and craft compelling first lines, and how to show your protagonist’s ordinary world.

Assignment: Meet your personal word count goal for the week. 

Week 4: Chapter Structure and Pacing

As we approach the first 10% of the book, we will discuss common ways that stories are divided. We will talk about chapter and chapter length, the difference between long and short chapters and their impact on pacing, and where to end a chapter to keep your readers where to end a chapter to keep your readers engaged.

Assignment: Meet your personal word count goal for the week.

Week 5: Inciting Incidents and Conflict

This week, supporting material will be focused on inciting incidents, the turning point that locks the protagonist into the plot, which occurs between 10-15% in most story structures. We’ll discuss the role that conflict plays in a story, and about how to manage conflicting forces while maintaining the protagonist’s agency.

Assignment: Meet your personal word count goal for the week.

Week 6: Finding Time to Write

As we pass the 15% mark, supporting material this week will be focused on time management. We’ll talk about the practical side of writing, how to find time to write, how to set achievable goals, and how to keep going when it feels like the initial spark of inspiration has been lost. We’ll also talk about mental health for authors and what to do when you fall behind.

Assignment: Meet your personal word count goal for the week.

Week 7: Subplots and POV

In this week’s supporting material, we’ll discuss subplots, what they are and how and when to add them to stories. We’ll talk about POV, why some authors choose to use multiple POVs and how to manage them. We’ll also talk about single POVs and how to develop characters whose POV is never shown in the story.

Assignment: Meet your personal word count goal for the week.

Week 8: Turning Points

As we approach the first 25% of the story, we’ll go back to structure. Multiple novel structures have major turning points at the 25% mark, and we’ll discuss ways in which the story can change from here.

Assignment: Meet your personal word count goal for the week.

Week 9: Evolution of Story

In our second to last week, we’ll take a look at the work we’ve done so far and talk about what happens when the story starts to veer away from the outline. We’ll talk about how to make changes in the story’s plot without breaking the flow, and how to deal with the fact that what we’re writing may not be turning out the way we initially planned.

Assignment: Meet your personal word count goal for the week.

Week 10: Next Steps

In our last week, supporting material will focus on where to go from here and what to do next. Students will have the opportunity to reflect on what they have done so far and consider how to move forward. Course material will include an overview of the second third of the novel (the dreaded “messy middle”) and will include tips and tricks for finishing the project.

Assignment: Meet your personal word count goal for the week. Celebrate writing the first third of your novel! 

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Student Feedback for Elisa Bonnin:

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Elisa A. Bonnin was born and raised in the Philippines, after which she moved to the United States to study chemistry and later oceanography. After completing her doctorate, she moved to Germany to work as a postdoctoral scientist. A lifelong learner, Elisa is always convinced that she should “maybe take a class in something” and as a result, has amassed an eclectic collection of hobbies. But writing will always be her true love. Publishing a book has been her dream since she was eight years old, and she is thrilled to finally be able to share her stories. She is the author of Dauntless and Stolen City.