Instructor Q&A: Carolyn Cohagan

“Writing a novel is like ‘juggling Jell-O.’ Using a framework like the three-act structure can keep your plot from stalling out or going astray and can aid in building more complex characters.”

-Carolyn Cohagan

Carolyn Cohagan is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Three-Act Structure for the Novel” on Saturday, April 8, at St. Edward’s University in Austin, TX. The class will familiarize participants with the three-act structure and give them tools to implement it in order to move forward with their novels.

Scribe: With contemporary fiction requiring authors to consistently bring original ideas to readers, why should writers look to arguably more traditional methods such as the three-act structure to assist in their writing process?

Carolyn Cohagan: Most writers already think in terms of the three-act structure, even if they don’t realize it. Our most dominant form of storytelling — movies — is told with the three-act structure, and we’ve been watching and absorbing the form since early childhood. It’s a structure that is satisfying to our brains and emotions. I don’t think every writer has to use it, but I think every writer should understand it.

Scribe: You mention in the class description that plays, screenplays, and novels can all make use of the three-act structure; what makes it effective for novels in particular?

CC: As a friend said, writing a novel is like “juggling Jell-O.” Using a framework like the three-act structure can keep your plot from stalling out or going astray and can aid in building more complex characters. It is particularly useful in diagnosing problems.

Scribe: Is there a particular formula for determining how long each act should be, or does it vary from piece to piece?

CC: Over the years, several writers have created strict formulas for how long each act should be. I will discuss those theories during my workshop, but I don’t adhere to them myself.

Scribe: Some people consider outlines to be limiting to the writing process; this class, however, will focus on creating an outline to help generate creativity. Why do you believe outlines to be important, or even essential, to the writing process?

CC: Some people are plotters and some people are “pantsers” (flying by the seat of their pants). I am a mix of both. I dive in with free abandon and when I hit a wall (and I always do) it is time for me to step back and use the three-act structure. I create an outline for where my plot and characters will go next. I go back to the beginning and create arcs for the characters to figure out what motivates each and every one.

There is no “correct” way to begin a book, but at some stage you will have to determine what the arc of the story is and how your characters have changed. If they haven’t grown or learned anything, your story is flat lining.

Thanks, Carolyn!

Click here to register for Carolyn’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.


About the Instructor

Carolyn Cohagan has an extensive theater background. She has performed stand-up and one-woman shows at festivals around the world from Adelaide to Edinburgh. She has published two novels: The Lost Children (Simon & Schuster/2010) and Time Zero (She Writes Press/2016). She is the founder of the creative writing organization Girls With Pens, which is dedicated to fostering the individual voices and offbeat imaginations of girls 8-17.

Instructor Q&A: Michael Hall

“You should be thinking of structure all the time — when you’re reporting, when you’re telling the story to a friend, when you wake up in the middle of the night — until you know how to tell the story.”

-Michael Hall

Michael Hall is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “Structure in Narrative Nonfiction: How to Put the Pieces Together.” This class will give writers strategies for finding structure that fits their nonfiction narrative pieces and to create a cohesive final product that flows.

mike_hallScribe: Why is it important to think about and take the time to develop structure in narrative nonfiction?

Michael Hall: Unless you’re a mad genius who can keep a zillion ideas in your head at once and then spit them out in a highly entertaining and readable fashion, you’ve got to figure out some kind of structure in advance of writing your story. Good writing is good thinking. Before you even sit down to write a story, you should have an idea of how you’re going to structure it — if you do, all the work you put into figuring that out will pay off in a big way. It’s like you have a pot of molten iron, and now you can pour it into a bunch of different shapes — stars, railroad ties, lawn chairs, airplane tails. The hardest part is figuring out the shapes. The pouring comes easy.

Scribe: At what point in the writing process should writers really focus on structure? Is this something they need to think about while writing the first draft, or is structure something to consider more in depth on a later edit?

MH: Before you even write a word! You should be thinking of structure all the time — when you’re reporting, when you’re telling the story to a friend, when you wake up in the middle of the night – until you know how to tell the story. Then you need to make an outline. It doesn’t have to be the kind of outline you learned in 7th grade. Your outline can be as simple as knowing you’re going to start HERE, go HERE, then go HERE. It can be a simple arc between several points. It can be a squiggly line going back and forth between two characters. But you have to have some kind of pattern in mind before you begin.

Scribe: Is there one common decision writers tend to make in narrative nonfiction structure that you think detracts from the final piece?

MH: It’s really easy to fall into telling a story based solely on chronology, which can get boring for the reader. “And then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened.” Chronology is important, but you have to find a way to marry your chronology with the themes that are at the heart of your story, the things that will keep people reading — the main character’s fatal flaw, how a troubled childhood affected someone, how a movement grew out of a bunch of cowboys and hippies enjoying country music — to move the whole thing along.

Scribe: Structure can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned writers, making craft less fun and more of an uphill struggle at some moments. What advice or words of encouragement do you have for writers who find themselves at that point?

MH: Stop and go back and figure out how to lay your story out. Take long walks and run everything through your head. Tell the story to your wife or husband or friend. See what comes easiest, which structure creates the most tension and gets the most laughs, what sounds phony and what sounds real. If you don’t think it out in advance, you will become frustrated when you hit that wall of not-knowing-where-to-go-next, then you’ll feel paralyzed, and finally you’ll give up. But if you know where to go next, it’s easy. And that’s the point where writing is actually kind of . . . fun.

Thanks, Michael!

Click here to register for Michael’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.

About the Instructor

Before joining Texas Monthly in 1997, Michael Hall was an associate editor of Third Coast magazine and the managing editor of the Austin Chronicle. He won a Texas Gavel Award in 2003 for his story about capital punishment, “Death Isn’t Fair,” which was also nominated for a National Magazine Award. Hall’s stories have appeared in the Best American Magazine Writing, the Best American Sportswriting, the Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Da Capo Best Music Writing. He has also written for Trouser PressThe New York TimesMen’s Journal, and Austin American-Statesman.

Instructor Q&A: Stephanie Noll

“The story might sing in your head, and you clearly understand all the characters’ motivations, the plot points, etc. But are you communicating that to your reader?”

-Stephanie Noll

Stephanie Noll is teaching a class for the Writers’ League of Texas called “How to Workshop Your Writing.” This class will teach students the fundamentals of the writing workshop, including giving/receiving feedback. This class also satisfies the requirement to participate in our Advanced Craft Workshop.

For some, the idea of receiving feedback on their work can be daunting; what words of advice would you give to someone attending a workshop for the first time?

Stephanie Noll: Sharing our work makes us incredibly vulnerable. Before sharing a piece, you’ve spent hours in solitude, clicking away at a keyboard, at times deciding you’re a genius and then (sometimes within the same hour) feeling certain that you are the worst writer who ever lived. Still, you aren’t writing a diary; you’re writing with the hope that some day your work will reach a wider audience, and you need trusted readers to consider your draft and help you find ways to make it better.

During workshop, it’s best to stay quiet and take notes while others discuss your work. If possible, separate yourself from the piece (easier said than done, I know), and imagine it as an entity that isn’t connected to you, your self-worth, or even your talent as a writer. Finally, I would suggest listening to those comments that speak to your own feelings about the piece. For example, if you’ve wondered if a line comes up as cliché and someone mentions that line as problematic, then your instincts were right and it’s time to cut it. You can’t take everyone’s feedback and apply it to your work, so listen for what resonates with your own sense of the piece.

Scribe: Writers are generally encouraged to reach out for feedback in many different ways; what might be more beneficial about a workshop with strangers or acquaintances who are also writers, instead of relying on feedback from friends or family?

SN: Your friends and family want what’s best for you—or not, right? Family members may be looking for themselves reflected in your work; a friend might be hypercritical or too generous, depending. And when we share with friends and family, we might be looking for validation that has nothing to do with the work. Soliciting feedback from fellow writers is best because they are doing the same kind of “butt in chair” work that you are. This is not to say every writer will be a good reader for you and your work, but writers will understand what it took for you to get the piece where it is, and they are the ones who will be better equipped to help you see what it can be.

Scribe: Is it possible to attend a workshop too early or too late in the writing process? How do writers know their work is ready for the workshop phase?

SN: A writer should put up work that is as done as they can get it. It’s frustrating to readers to have someone submit a piece to workshop that is clearly in really rough form. At the very least, the writer should line edit the piece for typos and glaring errors. When I put up work in workshop, I like to think that I am one or two revisions away from submitting to journals (if it’s a shorter piece) or agents (for a booklength manuscript.) A writer should go into their workshop with some clear concerns or questions they have about the piece so they can take in what others say and apply it as makes sense, given their own vision.

Scribe: Are there any common mistakes or misconceptions that writers face when attending a workshop for the first time?

SN: I think the biggest mistake a writer might make is to get defensive about the work. The story might sing in your head, and you clearly understand all the characters’ motivations, the plot points, etc. But are you communicating that to your reader? Sometimes we can fall into this place where we’re like, “they just don’t get my work,” but we should be asking ourselves, “how have I not communicated my vision?”

Finally, I think we need to see workshop as a part of the writing process. We don’t sit down, write a piece, and declare it “done.” We sit, we write, we workshop, we revise, and sometimes we workshop after a revision. It’s not easy work, but part of what makes it so worthwhile is to find readers who will work alongside you on your journey.

Thanks, Stephanie!

Click here to register for Stephanie’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.


About the Instructor

Stephanie Noll taught the Advanced Craft Workshop in Fall 2016. She studied fiction writing at Texas State University, where she earned her MFA. She is a frequent storyteller at The Story Department, a monthly fundraiser for the non-profit Austin Bat Cave, and has also told stories at Listen to Your Mother, Backyard Story Night, Hyde Park Story Night, and the Tellers. Stephanie has 18 years of teaching experience and works as a senior lecturer in the English department at Texas State where she recently was awarded an Excellence in Teaching award. Stephanie is the director of Old Books for New Teachers, an organization that helps first-year teachers build classroom libraries. She has written a novel about a standardized test cheating scandal at an inner-city Houston high school.

Instructor Q&A: Brittani Sonnenberg

“Setting is like a gentle friend: it’s right in front of you (or in your mind’s eye) and can be a lot less elusive than plot and character, so you might as well hang out with it.”

-Brittani Sonnenberg

Brittani Sonnenberg is teaching an online class for the Writers’ League called “The Secret Trapdoor: Transforming Setting into Story” on March 23. This class will teach students how to choose settings, how to depict setting in a way that captures a reader’s imagination and transports them to another place, and how to make setting work overtime (i.e., how setting can help evoke other fictional elements like character and plot).

Can’t attend the live class? Those who register will have access to the recording for one week after the class. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Scribe: Setting is usually introduced as a foundation of writing (right up there with plot and characters), but writers don’t always spend as much time developing it as they do the other two. Why do you think that is?

Brittani Sonnenberg: I think writers often take setting for granted the way humans take setting for granted. By this I mean that in our day-to-day lives, we often don’t stop to notice just what trees and birds are in our neighborhood, how pleasing the soft neon glow of a sign is against the night sky, or what the streets in downtown smell like. But when we do, we feel more alive, and when we do so as writers, our fiction comes to life. And setting is like a gentle friend: it’s right in front of you (or in your mind’s eye), and can be a lot less elusive than plot and character, so you might as well hang out with it.

Scribe: How would you suggest writers work towards finding a balance between giving readers enough information about setting without unnecessarily dragging out the exposition? Is there a good rule of thumb that you rely on?

BS: When you feel your own interest flagging, it’s a good cue to move on to dialogue or action. Most movies don’t begin with a slow panning of the moors or the beach that lasts much longer than the credits, and most chapters don’t dwell on setting for much longer than a couple paragraphs at a time. Instead, narration dwells in setting, which is a much more integrated approach.

Scribe: Certain settings are often associated with certain genres — outer space with sci-fi, high schools with young adult fiction, and so on. Do you think there is space for writers to push back against these associations, or is it better to play it safe and go with what has been proven to work?

BS: Absolutely. You should write whatever setting feels integral to your story: usually a place that calls to you or haunts you. Slapping a genre setting on a story because you feel like you have to will make you feel trapped and constricted as a writer.

Scribe: In the best stories, characters and plot are intertwined and have the power to affect each other; do you think the same can be said of setting, in that it can change and be changed by characters and plot?

BS: Definitely! While a grandmother’s mountain house may not physically change much over the course of a novel, the events that take place may cause the house to shift from a place of comfort and reprieve for the protagonist to one of terror and regret. I recently interviewed a choreographer who likes staging performances in unconventional spaces, and she said that much of her inspiration comes from reacting to those settings. In fiction, plot and character should be deeply informed by setting, just as the events of the novel will affect how your character views their surroundings.

Thanks, Brittani!

Click here to register for Brittani’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.


About the Instructor

Brittani Sonnenberg is the managing editor of Tribeza Magazine and the author of the novel Home Leave. She was raised across three continents and has worked as a journalist in Germany, China, and throughout Southeast Asia. A graduate of Harvard, she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan. Her fiction has been published in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008 as well as Ploughshares, Short Fiction, and Asymptote. Her nonfiction has appeared in Time, Associated Press, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NPR Berlin.

Instructor Q&A: John Pipkin

“Each character should have interests beyond the plot that will help you identify their emotional core. If characters have no interest beyond the pursuits of the plot’s goal, then they risk becoming lifeless vehicles to convey the plot.”

-John Pipkin

John Pipkin is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Establishing and Developing Convincing Characters in Narrative Fiction.” This course will give writers the chance to dive deeper into character development, as well as identify effective skills and strategies for creating dynamic characters that will carry the plot forward.

pipkinScribe: Oftentimes writers will take inspiration from real-life events or personal experiences for their fiction; is this something you recommend writers also do for their characters, or is it better to build them from scratch?

John Pipkin: Actually, I don’t recommend basing fictional characters on real life characters. Drawing inspiration from real life characters can be useful if you are just making use of a particular habit or quirk or behavior, but basing an entire character on a real person is actually far more limiting than inspiring. The problem I’ve seen in student writing is that once they begin writing about a real person, they feel constrained by the absolute literal facts, and facts will get in the way of good fiction every time. This is true of historical fiction as well. Even though a historical novel sometimes needs to make use of real historical figures, you have to find the space in that character’s life where invention can take over. Otherwise there’s no room for fiction.

Scribe: In your own writing, do you notice characters changing in response to the novel, or is it more often the novel changing in response to the characters?

JP: Well, of course, both things happen. Bust most often, it’s the novel that changes because of the characters. If you develop strong characters, you won’t be able to make them do whatever you want, because they have their own personalities, which is good. But this also means that strong characters will begin to make their own decisions in response to the conflicts that you throw at them, and sometimes these decisions will take your novel in a different direction. But this is ideal, since you want your characters to drive the plot, so that the story is rising organically from who the characters are.

Scribe: What’s one consistent roadblock that you’ve seen writers run into when developing characters for narrative fiction?

JP: The biggest roadblock is failing to understand what your characters would rather be doing if you weren’t trying to make them do the things you want them to do in your novel. Each character should have interests beyond the plot that will help you identify their emotional core. If characters have no interest beyond the pursuits of the plot’s goal, then they risk becoming lifeless vehicles to convey the plot.

Scribe: In narrative fiction, there is usually a cast of characters introduced throughout the story; does the author need to know each and every character like the back of their hand, or is it okay to rely on a few fully fleshed out characters to drive the plot?

JP: I think you need to know each and every character fully. The minor characters are only minor characters because they are minor in the narrative, and because they are minor for the reader. But in the mind of every minor character, they are all the main characters in their own stories (just as we are). So if you want your minor characters to be authentic and convincing, even if they are only briefly present in the story, treat them with the same respect you would your major characters. Just realize that you’ll know a lot more about them than you’ll ever reveal.

Thanks, John!

Click here to register for John’s class.

Click here for our current class schedule.


About the Instructor

John Pipkin‘s first novel, Woodsburner, was published to national acclaim by Doubleday in 2009. Woodsburner won the New York Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Massachusetts Center for the Book Novel Prize, and the Texas Institute of Letters Stephen Turner Prize for First Novel. His new historical novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, was published by Bloomsbury in 2016. John was the Dobie Paisano Fellow at UT-Austin for the spring of 2011, and he recently returned from a three-week writing fellowship at the MacDowell Artist’s Colony in New Hampshire. Currently, John is the Writer-in-Residence at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and he also teaches at UT-Austin and in the Low-residency MFA Program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky.

Instructor Q&A: Shennandoah Goodson

“It doesn’t matter if you plan to self-publish or to go with a traditional publisher; every writer with a desire to publish a book must start marketing themselves right away, even before the book is complete.”

-Shennandoah Goodson

Shennahdoah Goodson is teaching a 4-Class Online Marketing Series for the Writers’ League of Texas starting on February 28. The classes are “Marketing Yourself to Your Audience,” “Mastering PR and Media,” “Marketing Online,” and “Marketing Beyond the Basics.”  Marketing is an essential skill for writers to learn in order to be successful in the industry; this series is designed to help writers at any stage in the writing process who want to learn more about the many different parts of marketing.

© ClemPhoto.Com 210-862-0843

Scribe: At what point should writers begin to concern themselves with marketing? Is this something to work on after the written piece is complete, or is it better to consider marketing as they are working on their projects?

Shennandoah Goodson: NOW!! RIGHT NOW! Marketing begins IMMEDIATELY! It doesn’t matter if you plan to self-publish or to go with a traditional publisher; every writer with a desire to publish a book must start marketing themselves right way, even before the book is complete. This is because it is important to have a built-in audience ready to go before your book hits the shelves. Traditional publishers want to see an existing fan base and network, even for first time authors. They want to know that you have skin in the game and have a chance of moving some books. Self-published authors have no choice but to market themselves, but the longer you wait to start marketing the longer you are stuck with inventory in your garage collecting dust. Did I mention you want to start marketing right way?! Just want to drive home the point!

Scribe: You mention identifying a target audience for marketing; why is it important to focus your efforts on one particular section of the market, instead of trying to reach all readers across the board?

SG: A few reasons. First, not all readers will be interested in your work. Sure, some books have mass appeal and the potential to penetrate other readerships, but most books are written for a particular genre or readership. Die-hard mystery fans tend to stick with mystery while chick lit fans rarely wander over to science fiction. We have different book categories for a reason, but it also works in your favor, as many who stick to a particular genre or style are always looking for the next book or series to fall in love with.

Second, compelling and effective marketing is focused and speaks directly to a specific target. It is impossible to be “everything to everyone.” To make a sale, you have to connect with a specific audience and make a persuasive case as to why they should read your book. To do that you have to know who they are, what they like, and why they would want to read your book.

Third, it’s safe to assume that most of the writers reading this are first time authors. It’s also safe to assume that most are not millionaires with an army of marketers at the ready. Instead they are one-man bands trying to do it all on a very tight budget and in their “free” time. You don’t want to waste your precious time and resources marketing to people who will never care about your book. When you are talking about getting the best return for your effort, it’s best to market to those who are most likely to buy.

Scribe: As part of the series, there will be an entire class dedicated to online marketing. With the wide range of social media available to writers and readers alike, do you think one platform is key above the others for a successful online presence?

SG: There is no magical social media platform that will bring home the gold. As we will discuss in class, each platform attracts more of a certain type of use, and the demographics vary from platform to platform. What matters is where your reader is at, what time and resources you have available to invest, and which platform you are comfortable using at this point in time. I often suggest starting with a single platform, but any long-term marketing strategy is going to leverage a mix of marketing techniques and platforms. Focusing on one platform long-term is a bad idea. We will discuss the demographics, expectations, investment, and skill level of each of the major platforms in class so attendees can make their own informed choices about where to spend their time. Oh, and if anyone tells you there is a silver bullet on social media, they have an agenda and it isn’t helping you do what’s right for you.

Scribe: If you could give one piece of advice to authors in regards to marketing, what would it be?

SG: You have to market, there’s no avoiding it; but it’s not the horrible thing so many writers make it out to be. So first of all, make your marketing fun! You won’t do it if it’s not fun, but honestly it is fun if your head and heart are in the right place. Marketing’s main function is to connect the writer to the reader. As a writer working in your cave alone, you’re longing for that validation that someone likes your work. You’re always bugging every friend and family member you can find to hear you out, read what you’ve got, and to be as excited about the content as you are. Marketing lets you connect with willing participants in your madness! And you don’t even have to wait for your book to publish to make that connection!

Second, get creative. I’m just one of a thousand experts giving you ideas and best practices, but when it comes to marketing there are no limits. The ones who really find success are the ones who are unique and innovative in their marketing. You don’t have to come up with someone totally new to be innovative, by the way. You just have to be fresh and interesting and different enough compared to the next gal. So be willing to experiment and even fail with your marketing. As long as you are honest, humble, and keep at it, no one will fault you or a screw up here and there. That’s how you learn.

Thanks, Shennandoah!

Click here to register for the first class in this series.

Click here for our current online class schedule.


About the Instructor

Shennandoah Goodson is Director of Marketing and Business Development for Connor Creative Co. In her many years as a PR and Marketing consultant, Shennandoah has worked with numerous authors and publishers to build successful book marketing campaigns and author platforms. A writer herself, Shennandoah is passionate about writing and books and loves empowering authors to take ownership of their book’s success.

Instructor Q&A: Deanna Roy

“Self-publishing is really about believing in the words you’ve put together, no matter what an agent or editor is saying.”

-Deanna Roy

Deanna Roy is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Succeeding in the Current Self-Publishing Market.”  This class will give writers a better understanding of what the self-publishing market has to offer, to help them make a better decision about whether or not self-publishing might be the right track for them.

Deanna RoyScribe: What is one of the best benefits of going the route of self-publishing? One of the greatest challenges?

Deanna Roy: Biggest benefit: Your success is completely on your shoulders. Greatest challenge: Your success is completely on your shoulders.

Self-publishing is really about believing in the words you’ve put together, no matter what an agent or editor is saying. Are they right that your book is not marketable? Maybe. But most likely they are only right that your book is not marketable by them.

Scribe: One appeal of the self-publishing route is the assumed quicker turnaround than the traditional publishing route. Is there any truth in this, or any unintended consequences that people often overlook?

DR: This made me giggle a little. Traditional: 18 months average. Self-publishing: 12 hours average.

The beauty of traditional publishing is that the system is all in place. Acquisitions, legal, editorial, then placement in a catalog and orders by bookstores. It’s a system that does what it needs to do for print. Ebooks are a bonus.

Self-publishing is really about preparing for an online digital market. Paperbacks are a bonus.

So if your book is written and edited right now, could you be selling it by this time tomorrow? You bet. Upload your Microsoft Word doc to Amazon, let it convert it, and go. (Sometimes it goes live within an hour.)

These days, I do about six months of marketing prior to the release of anything big. But I have done fast turnarounds if the market demands it. The fastest I’ve gone from “Readers want a sequel?” to “Here are buy links!” was seven weeks. Was it a terrible book? Maybe. It sold about 20,000 copies and has a rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars on Amazon. That’s good enough for me.

Scribe: In the spirit of supporting local authors and businesses, do independent bookstores play a significant role in the process of establishing self-published authors?

DR: Independent bookstores have evolved a little to help with local self-published authors who want to do book signings or have books in stock. They have consignment agreements and group signing events. It definitely happens. But self-publishing is really about digital books. That’s where we have taken publishing by storm. We market directly to our readers through online platforms using primarily email lists, social media, and virtual reader groups.

Scribe: What one piece of advice would you give to someone wanting to self-publish their work?

DR: PLEASE watch out for scams. With the rise of self-publishing, the opportunists have set up shop. They want you to think this is so hard that unless you want to “spend all your time formatting your book,” you should pay them to prepare your book for the market or (EEK!) let them upload it for you.

Learn what you need to know before handing your book baby over to anyone. Take the time you might have spent researching agents or querying publishers to instead figure out the steps you need to take to get it into the hands of readers yourself. The more you know, the more you maximize the return on your investment of time and creative energy (Your success is completely on your shoulders!)

Thanks, Deanna!

Click here to register for Deanna’s class.

Click here for our current online class schedule.

About the Instructor

Deanna Roy is the six-time USA Today bestselling author of women’s fiction, college romance, and middle grade books under three pen names. She is a regular speaker and instructor for authors who choose the self-publishing route for their books.