Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising Your Novel

Getting the Big Picture:

The Key to Revising Your Novel

January 4 – February 15, 2022

Deadline: December 6, 2021


Barbara Ashford



Live Class:

7 pm-8:30 pm EST
Tues., Jan. 4
Tues., Jan. 18
Tues., Feb. 1
Tues., Feb. 15



Course Description

Finished the first draft of a novel? In the final stages? Struggling with revisions? Getting the big picture can help you bring your novel to life.

Writers often approach revisions as an opportunity to polish their manuscripts rather than to take a hard look at the story itself. If your plot meanders and your protagonist’s goals are unclear, polishing your prose won’t help.

Award-winning author Barbara Ashford believes the most important skill required to transform a promising novel into a published one is the ability to see the “big picture,” to understand how the building blocks of a novel relate to each other, to identify weaknesses, and to make the necessary changes to strengthen the story.

Barbara will discuss the big picture elements at the foundation of every novel: premise, promise, theme, world, character, and plot. The course will explore ways to deepen the connection between these elements and create a more unified and powerful story, the key to lifting a novel out of the slush pile and onto an agent’s desk.

Through lecture, discussion, and writing assignments, students will analyze their premise, the promise that the story is making to readers, the themes they are exploring, the world they have created, the protagonist’s backstory, motivations, and goals, and the plot events they have chosen to lead the reader from the story’s opening to its final page. Analysis of the protagonist’s character arc and the causal relationships between plot events will help students add conflict, complexity and tension to their novels and emotional power to their storytelling.

The course is intended for all fiction writers, with an emphasis on those who write fantastic fiction. While it is targeted to those who have finished the first draft of a novel and are ready to begin revisions, analyzing these big picture issues can also be valuable to writers who are still working on their first draft and for those striving to improve their third or fourth draft. The course will be most valuable for intermediate writers, since it assumes students already understand the basics of novel writing.

Each student will have one private meeting with Barbara. Barbara will critique each of the three homework assignments and offer feedback. Students will also receive critiques from some of their classmates and must read and critique their classmates’ assignments.

Our goal as a class is to provide a supportive yet challenging environment in which students can improve their writing. You must be ready to hear about the weaknesses in your writing, to consider ways of addressing them, and to give honest, helpful feedback to your classmates.


Students will have some homework assigned before the first meeting, and will also be assigned homework during the course.

The first assignment will have a due date of January 3, the day before our initial meeting.

Homework will be assigned on January 4, January 18, and February 1, with due dates, respectively, of January 10, January 24, and February 7. You will also be required to provide critiques of some of your classmates’ work, which will be due on January 17, January 31, and February 14. Any student who misses a deadline may be expelled from the class and will receive no refund.

 All assignments should be in standard manuscript format and should be submitted as MS Word files or rich text files.   

You should reserve a minimum of 5 hours to complete each homework assignment. 

Assignments will include readings, writing exercises, plot and character analysis, critiques, and scene submissions. Barbara will provide feedback on your homework before the next class session.

The number of critiques students will be required to write is determined by class size; for a maximum class size of 14, students should expect to read and critique 3-4 submissions for each homework assignment.

Students are expected to follow guidelines about assignments and class materials established in the Odyssey Online Student Handbook


You are expected to attend all classes, except in cases of emergency. In such cases, you should notify the instructor

Classes will be recorded and made available to students for a limited time.

Any student who misses more than one class may be expelled from the course and will receive no refund.

It is your responsibility to find out what happened in any classes you missed and to complete homework by the deadlines.

Students are expected to follow the policies about attendance and behavior set out in the Odyssey Online Student Handbook

Students will be required to read a lesson on critiquing before the course begins.


Students will be required to read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, as well as selections from writing texts and scenes excerpted from various novels. A full list of required readings will be sent to students via email before the course begins.

Barbara will also reference various movies during the course, the titles of which will be provided to students in advance. It is strongly suggested that students be familiar with these films in order to better understand the context of Barbara’s examples.

Technical Requirements:

Technical requirements for all Odyssey Online Classes are covered on the Online Classes page.

Tentative Schedule:

January 4: First class meeting. Introduction and orientation. The relationship between premise, promise and theme. Understanding your story’s promise and the ways it can help you create your cast of characters and refine your protagonist’s journey. Using the controlling idea to crystallize story and character arcs. Building the bond between reader and protagonist. Using backstory effectively. Elements of character change. Tools to dig deeper into characters, including mindmapping, the protagonist questionnaire, and archetypes. Using conscious and unconscious desires to create conflict. Assignment of homework.

January 10: Homework is due.

January 17: Critiques are due. Homework is returned with Barbara’s feedback.

January 18: Second class meeting. Discussion of previous homework assignment.
Refining your supporting cast. Strengthening the relationships between your protagonist and antagonist and between the protagonist and the supporting characters. Point of view and psychic distance. Tools to analyze a scene’s effectiveness and heighten intensity and drama. Using beats to deepen characterization, conflict, and turning points. Keys to creating powerful opening scenes and common pitfalls that can undermine their effectiveness. Assignment of new homework.

January 24: Homework is due.

January 31: Critiques are due. Homework is returned with Barbara’s feedback.

February 1: Third class meeting. Discussion of previous homework assignment.
How the world of your novel relates to the other big picture elements. Building drama into your world. Analyzing your plot in light of premise, promise, and theme. The three levels of conflict. Understanding the spine of your story. Using key turning points to create a road map for revision. Raising the stakes. Developing a chain of cause-and-effect. Managing sub-plots. Techniques to avoid a flabby middle and deliver a powerful ending. Assignment of new homework.

February 7: Homework is due.

February 10: Some students will have private meetings with Barbara between 7:00-8:15 PM EST.

February 12: Some students will have private meetings with Barbara between 7:00-8:15 PM EST.

February 14: Critiques are due. Homework is returned with Barbara’s feedback.

February 15: Fourth class meeting. Discussion of previous homework assignment.
Getting it on the page – writing techniques to deepen the impact of your story: tempo, dialogue, subtext, showing vs. telling. Style and pacing issues that can undermine the power of your storytelling and techniques for addressing them. Establishing tone. Fulfilling the promise you make to readers. Practical tips for revision. Some students will have private meetings with Barbara after class.

Instructor: Barbara Ashford

Award-winning novelist Barbara Ashford knows a lot about revising that critical first novel. She spent more than a year rewriting Heartwood, the first book in her Trickster’s Game trilogy (written as Barbara Campbell). The process left her with a few gray hairs and a much better novel. Published by DAW Books, Trickster’s Game went on to become a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society’s Fantasy Award for adult literature.

Barbara’s background as a professional actress, lyricist, and librettist has helped her delve deeply into character and explore the complexities of human nature on the stage as well as on the page. Her musical adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd has been optioned for Broadway.

She drew on her musical theatre roots for her second series, the award-winning Spellcast and its sequel Spellcrossed, set in a magical summer stock theatre. DAW Books released the two novels in an omnibus edition: Spells at the Crossroads.

A graduate of the Odyssey workshop, Barbara has taught nine previous online courses for Odyssey and has served on the staff of the Odyssey Critique Service for more than a decade. You can visit her dual selves at and

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