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Meet the Teaching Artist: Plotting the Novel with Ethan Chatagnier

by Writing Workshops Staff

11 months ago


Meet the Teaching Artist: Plotting the Novel with Ethan Chatagnier

by Writing Workshops Staff

11 months ago


We're excited to introduce you to Ethan Chatagnier. Ethan's novel, Singer Distance (Tin House 2022), made waves as a best book of 2022 according to NPR and PopSugar, and his stories have been published by the Pushcart Prize anthology, the New England Review, Georgia Review, Colorado Review, and Story.

Now, aspiring writers can benefit from Ethan's knowledge and experience through his new 6-Week Zoom workshop titled Plotting the Novel.

In this course, writers will gain invaluable insights into the intricacies of plotting, exploring essential elements such as inciting incidents, plot points, beats, reversals, A and B stories, driving questions, and more.

By deconstructing established plot formulas used by screenwriters and genre-fiction writers, Ethan empowers writers to understand and master the techniques that captivate readers and keep them eagerly turning pages.

Ethan's course offers opportunities for personalized feedback on participants' outlines and a one-on-one consultation with Ethan to discuss individual projects. For those seeking to enhance their storytelling abilities and unlock the secrets of effective plot development, Ethan Chatagnier's workshop is an invaluable resource.

Hi, Ethan. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

I'm an omnivorous writer and reader. I love to explore different genres, styles, and approaches. Literary fiction has always felt like my home base, but in recent years, I've found myself drawn to where it meets other genres. Science fiction, mystery, fantasy. Near future worlds, alternate histories. My recent novel, Singer Distance, is about alien math and emotional distance, blending many of those things.

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft?

A number of years ago, I learned the plot term "reversals" from a Ben Percy essay. Reversals are one of the core plotting moves, and although I'd used them before, I had no vocabulary for them, or for many other plotting strategies. Plotting is rarely taught in depth in fiction writing, but in screenwriting it's the core focus. They have developed the concepts and vocabulary that make it easier to understand and solve story structure. I wanted to help bring those tools to fiction writers.

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

Week One will introduce the students to a variety of plotting templates from novelists and screenwriters to learn classic plotting structures and movements. The next four weeks will delve into the four techniques I think are the core of good plotting:

-creating narrative momentum
-creating suspense with the use of narrative questions
-keeping the reader engaged with reversals
-managing subplots

The last week covers the two territories that make writers cry the most: middles and endings.

I love seeing some students encounter Hollywood beat sheets for the first time, and the moments of excited recognition as they link those structural moves to those movies and books they've loved.

What was your first literary crush?

First? Virginia Woolf, I think. I found Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse early in college and fell for her lush interiority and modernist sense of structure and playfulness.

What are you currently reading?

In print, the latest from one of my all-time favorites: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. On ebook: Andy Weir's Project Hail Mary.

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

I do a reasonable amount of jumping around from project to project. A project that's going well feels alive and energetic. I want to be working where that energy is. When a project feels inert, I need to leave it, mull it, reconsider it, until it starts to feel alive again. The pathway to 'the end' is really about finding the way through that keeps that energy going all the way through.

Where do you find inspiration?

All kinds of nonfiction. Lots of podcasts or sometimes documentaries. I like sources that find lots of interesting, untold stories, because some of those stories resonate with me and won't let me go. I know those are the ones that are the seed of something. I'm rarely at a loss for ideas to work on, but when I am, I'll make sure to dive back into my roster of podcasts.

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

If you're bored writing a scene, a reader will be bored reading it. You have to find a way through the book that excites you. Hard as that may be, it'll be harder for a reader to get through it if you can't find that way. I'm always thinking about the bored reader as I write, always trying to swerve, to stay a step ahead, to surprise--not in a cheap way, but to create something they can't anticipate. That's the biggest joy of reading, right? Picking up a book that pulls you along because you just have to know what happens next.

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

I'm cheating and choosing two. My favorite comprehensive craft book is Wonderbook, by Jeff VanderMeer, which is detailed and rigorous but full of wild diagrams, illustrations, and guest essays. I love that it's genre-agnostic and useful to all kinds of writers. It's also the only craft book I know that gives significant time to the imaginative process before you get to the page.

My cheat recommendation is Matt Bell's Refuse to be Done, which is short and breezy, but at the same time an encyclopedic collection of writing wisdom and a guide to his hardcore revision approach.

Bonus question: Why do you teach creative writing?

I've enjoyed teaching test prep, high school English, and college English for a long time, but nothing is as fun as teaching fiction writing. Nothing compares to that nerdy rush of deconstructing what works in the sometimes oblique art of fiction writing, to brainstorming approaches and problem solving. Getting to dig into that and discuss those things with students is the most rewarding kind of teaching I've ever done.

Learn More About Working with Ethan:

You can learn more about Ethan's upcoming class, Plotting the Novel, and sign up now!

Instructor Ethan Chatagnier's novel, Singer Distance (Tin House Books), was a best book of 2022 at NPR and PopSugar and a most anticipated fall book at LitHub, Gizmodo, Vulture, Tor.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer, ALTA, Debutiful, and DailyHive. Ethan’s short stories have also appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology, the New England Review, Georgia Review, Colorado Review, Story, and other journals. 

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