Open Mic Blog

Jump Start Your Novel

Posted on July 30, 2011 at 11:33 AM

Have you ever dreamed about writing a novel or need some inspiration on how to organize or complete your latest novel-in-progress? Well, you've come to the right place!


What a stroke of luck to have noted author and teacher Meredith Sue Willis agree to be my guest blogger! As you will discover, her post "Jump Start Your Novel" is filled with solid ideas and fresh perspective on how to tackle the complexities of novel writing.


Meredith teaches creative writing and is a masterful and prolific author who has written novels, short stories, and books about the craft of writing. Born and raised in West Virginia, she graduated from Barnard College Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude and took a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University. She has won many prizes for her writing, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Oradell at Sea for adults and Billie of Fish House Lane for children are her most recent novels. Her new Appalachian short story collection is Out of the Mountains, and her latest book on writing is Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel. 


Meredith will be taking questions for the next two days, and she has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share with us. Don't miss this fabulous opportunity to ask questions about writing your novel!


 ~ Jump Start Your Novel ~


                                 Meredith Sue Willis


The momentum that got you rolling on your novel is almost certainly going to die out before you finish. Inspiration alone can take you through the draft of a short story, but rarely a novel. When I run out of steam, my favorite approach is to let it rest a while, then come back a month or half a year later. I skim over what I’ve written (trying hard not to start improving the sentences), and try to see the novel as a whole. What scenes are missing? What did I forget about? What scenes might get me writing again?


I tend to think in scenes, especially when I’m coming back to a project, because often that’s where the energy is, in these mini-stories where people interact and talk– the dramatized if not necessarily dramatic parts.


One approach is to use what I call the Archipelago Method. This requires listing the five or seven most important scenes in the novel, including those you’ve written but especially those yet to come. The number is arbitrary, but the idea is to write first the parts that engage you most.


And what engages you is essential for restarting a stalled project. These important scenes, once drafted however roughly, stand in the ocean of your ideas like the islands of an archipelago. Once they’re drafted, you go back and start from the beginning, revising the “islands” and adding connective material and new scenes as well.


The Archipelago method focuses on the structure of your novel as a way of building momentum again, but taking the opposite tack works too.


Make a list of quotidian scenes: people eating or kissing. Have a character look at a refrigerator or pantry or other food storage place that belongs to another person. Have your main character take a shower or bath. The point here is to use the quotidian as a magnet to attract material from your sources.


Or, try something even smaller and more concrete. Describe an ordinary object that might appear in any novel. Use more detail than you ordinarily would, and emphasize the senses other than sight. Use the description to sink into your story almost meditatively and see what other ideas come to you. Draft quickly, trying to make the thing fit into your novel.


Give yourself these assignments or similar ones:


– Put a pair of shoes in your novel. How do they sound, smell, and feel?


– Put an apple in your novel.


– Put a bird in your novel– a pet, a ceramic bird, or a bird cooked for a festive meal.


It’s important to repeat that the aim here is not description for its own sake, but description as a way of priming the pump so ideas will bubble up. There’s no right or wrong, and if you go off on a tangent, enjoy the trip! You might find a subplot or a character or even (at last) your ending.



 ~ Visit Meredith Sue Willis's website at


                                  Meredith Sue Willis   


~ Read about and buy her books at    


Discover her wonderful page of resources for writers at 


New Books: OUT OF THE MOUNTAINS: Appalachian Stories.


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Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
8:56 AM on August 3, 2011 
Welcome to "Open Mic," Meredith. What a thrill to have you have you with us for the next two days!
Reply Christina
9:44 AM on August 3, 2011 
Hi Meredith:
I appreciate your expertise. In fact, I went to your website to look for the book, "Jump Start Your Novel." Do you have any plans on writing such a book? I bet it would help a lot of writers.
Reply MSW
10:08 AM on August 3, 2011 
Delighted to be here! It's a big honor to be invited. A lot of what I have to say about Jump Starting a Novel is in my book TEN STRATEGIES TO START A NOVEL. I've been thinking, though, of a little bitty chapbook sized Jump Start. Thanks for the suggestion, Christina-- that's the kind of suggestion all of us writers like best.
Reply Marie Manilla
2:42 PM on August 3, 2011 
Hi, Meredith:
I love your ideas about how to sneak back into stalled projects. I imagine they would also work on projects that loom so large that writers often don't know where to begin. Would you say that you're more of a linear writer (start to finish; beginning to end) or a patchwork-quilt writer (working on whatever section you're inpired to write at the time)? I can see the benefits of both methods.
4:39 PM on August 3, 2011 
Hi Meredith, wonderful to see you on Laura's blog. I'm still hoping you'll come to Morgantown sometime and do one of your wonderful workshops. I really like the idea of creating scenes as "islands" to get writing moving when it's stalled. I tend to be a linear writer, but I can see how this idea would work well with scenes that tend to be flat. If they are worked on individually and then returned to the novel, they should also show where additional writing can be energized and provide new ideas for moving it forward. I was also wondering what you think is the most challenging change you've encountered recently in the publishing world that is ever-changing in this technological age.
Reply MSW
4:48 PM on August 3, 2011 
Thanks, Marie, for your good question-- the thing about novels is that they are so long, you can be many kinds of writers during the process. I certainly do patchwork, but I always do at least one draft that goes straight through as a reader would, not too slowly, in the order a reader would read.
Reply MSW
4:51 PM on August 3, 2011 
I love Morgantown, Patricia. As to challenges and changes in the publishing world-- oh dear. I like a lot of it-- reading on an e-reader, the democratic ease of self-publishing. But the big commercial publishers have essentially dropped us mid-list not-blockbuster writers. Turning to university and small presses isn't a terrible thing at all, but there's not much money in it.
Reply Laura Treacy Bentley
5:36 PM on August 3, 2011 
I really like the idea of creating 6 or 7 scenes and then weaving them together later. I like to use Post-Its on a large mirror to help me map where I'd like to journey to in a novel. I keep rearranging, writing different things on the Post-Its, etc., trying to discover the arc in my writing. I will definitely experiment with writing scenes or islands and float them on my mirror! How do you know when your writing is really going well? Do you feel an emotional pull? An excitement? Also, do you know the ending of your novels before you begin?
Reply Eddy
5:45 PM on August 3, 2011 
Hi, Meredith,

I just wanted to mention that I think your character, Oradell, in Oradell at Sea is one of the most memorable characters I've ever run across. Do you mind saying where you got the idea for Oradell's character?

Reply MSW
8:13 PM on August 3, 2011 
I rarely know the end of my novels until I've written a lot. When I find the ending, I know that I have a REAL draft and can consider myself revising from that point on.

I know writing is going well when I lose track of time-- when I'm gone from this place and deep in that place.

And thank you so much for liking Oradell, Eddy-- that book was WVU Press's first original novel in maybe ever, and I don't think they had fully figured out how to release a new novel. So I'm always so happy when someone reads it. Oradell was based on a woman I met on the only time I was on a cruise ship-- a free trip my husband got for us. I really didn't like this woman, and kept trying to imagine where such an unpleasant person came from. And I ended up with Oradel, who I adore.
Reply A BRIT
12:23 PM on August 11, 2011 
So glad to see Meredith Sue Willis has a guest post here! I've done three advanced fiction courses in the last few years, one at the New School and two at NYU, and just finished another about characterization. Meredith Sue's course was hugely more informative and enjoyable than the others. Great author and great teacher.
Reply Cara Lembo
7:06 AM on November 2, 2011 
Awakening to this page today, has been a gift...I only wish I found it sooner, and look forward to your class on November 12th. Jump-starting the novel, I intended to complete over 4 years ago, is way over due. Thank you for your help.
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