University of Iowa

Fire Up: Novel Engines

Weeklong June 09 to June 14 2019

A common belief among writers is that we can’t know a novel’s appropriate first chapter until we’ve completed a full draft or two of the novel. Only after conceiving the whole does the writer truly know where and how to begin. While this might be the case, it does not mean that we should discard our linearity of thought. More often than not, we start writing from what, at the time, occurs to us as the most appropriate of beginnings. What, then, must we be conscious of in order to ensure that when we return to the beginning, we tweak rather than uproot? What elements make a novel’s opening pop? Is it the kind of pressure Ian McEwan applies on his characters in the first chapter of Atonement? Is it the mystery of Beloved’s opening lines?


In this class, we will explore novel openings. We will learn ways in which the greats—McEwan, Morrison, Marquez, etc.— fired up their novels’ engines. Brazenly writing in conversation with these masters, we will fire up our own novels’ engines. We will also engage in another kind of conversation—the workshop. We will discuss in-class exercises and participants’ longer pieces. Elements we will consider in workshop include structure, plot, dialogue, characterization, theme, pacing, tone, and individual sentences.


In this workshop we will generate new writing through guided exercises and prompts; provide feedback on writing you bring from home; provide feedback on writing you produce in our week.