Caitlin Jacobs is a graduate of the 2022 Odyssey Online class “Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising Your Novel.” Caitlin writes science fiction and fantasy. Her stories have been enjoyed by thousands of children from her time as the lead writer for a program that teaches kids to read, and she was the 2019 scholarship recipient for the Writing Excuses retreat. She lives in Texas with her husband and three young boys, and will do basically anything for a bowl of ice cream.
I have taken many classes that focus on those first few pages in a novel. Heck, I’ve taken classes on just the first few lines of a novel. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had my first chapter critiqued I could pay an editor to look at the rest of my novel.
I’ve had workshops that promise to look at the first 50 pages of my novel. Or the first 100 pages. All of these were helpful. But none of them could tell me why agents would request 50-100 pages of my manuscript and then…stop. So when I saw that Odyssey Online was offering a course on “Getting the Big Picture” and figuring out how to pull together all the disparate pieces of a novel, well, I couldn’t sign up fast enough (just ask my husband, who held our crying newborn while I worked on my application in a postpartum haze).
But how could a course that meets every two weeks over a month-and-a-half period actually comment on my entire manuscript? Was this going to be another workshop that spoke in generalizations but fell short when it came to feedback on my personal story? Was this going to be a rehash of things I’ve learned again and again at conferences? Happily, the answer to both those questions was no.
Our instructor, Barbara Ashford, taught us what it is that pulls a novel together and how to look for it in key scenes. We then submitted these scenes and gave and received feedback on them. And really, I feel like that should be written capital-F Feedback. This is not just your everyday writing group feedback consisting of “ooh, I like that” or “this character is falling flat for me.” No, ma’am. This feedback dives deep, looking at the bones of a piece and analyzing how it supports and is supported by the words on the page.
And that wasn’t just for the feedback I was given—this was the feedback I was expected to give as well. In being held to such a high standard of critique, I was being trained in how to look at my own work in the same way. It’s not just that I walked away with awesome feedback on the pieces I submitted—I walked away with tools to make future pieces come out right the first time (or, at least much closer to the first time than my current track record of about 5 million rounds of revision).
In addition to submitting the scenes themselves, we were required to submit an analysis of the scenes, prompted by a set of questions with each assignment. This was where the real meat of the work was for me. Oftentimes I would spend the hours of the assignment just thinking through my story and making little notes to myself, all to end up with a three-word answer to a question. But I found that the more succinct and precise I could be in whittling down the heart of my story, the better I understood it. The better I understood it, the better I could see what needed to be changed and how. It was like putting on a new pair of glasses that suddenly made everything clear.
I worried that the class would feel intimidating, or that the critiques I received would be harsh and would make me feel more dejected than inspired. That wasn’t the case at all. Barbara is an incredibly approachable instructor and fostered a friendly environment that invited asking questions. The pre-assignment taught all the students how to care for the work of another so that critiques did not attack and did not coddle. And everyone did great at it—I felt safe sharing my work the whole time AND got that capital-F Feedback.
The classes built on each other and on the homework, carefully stepping us along from one understanding to the next so that by the time I looked back over the course of the class I felt as though I had crossed some great chasm in my understanding of story. Since finishing the class I’ve started work on a new novel and am approaching it in a totally different way than I have before, and I can already tell this is going to launch my first draft miles farther than first drafts of the past.
And you want to know the best part? Odyssey doesn’t end at the end of class. I’ve picked up new critique partners and have been given access to message boards of Odyssey Online graduates. Which makes this transformation in my writing feel sustainable—there are people I can reach out to who have learned the same things I have and can help me spot what I’m still weak on as I flex these new writing muscles. I’m not just going to be left to remember all of it on my own.
Hands down, Odyssey Online classes are the best thing I’ve done for my writing. I already can’t wait to take another.