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8-Week Online Fiction Workshop: Mastering Novel Openings

What makes a novel impossible to put down? How does a novelist create momentum from the opening page? In her essay, “That Crafty Feeling,” Zadie Smith posits “two breeds of novelist: The Macro Planner and the Micro Manager.” Defining herself as a Micro Manager, Smith details her success rewriting the opening twenty pages of her novel On Beauty before drafting the rest of the book. She chisels sentences, changes perspective, tense, and setting all in the service of creating the appropriate tone for her novel. After perfecting the first twenty pages, she concludes, the rest of the book was written over the course of five months.

Students will read and critique the openings of published novels from authors like Renee Gladman, Gabe Habash, Katie Kitamura, Alexandra Kleeman, Andrea Lawlor, Lauren Oyler, Brandon Taylor, Bryan Washington, Charles Yu, and others to learn how to craft novel beginnings that convey the arc of the book to follow. As readers, we will focus on tone, setting, characterization, and plot to get a sense of what the writer has done to draw the reader into the world of the novel. As writers and workshoppers, we will concentrate on those same craft elements in our shared manuscripts, looking to sharpen the opening chapters of in-progress novels. Topics covered will include world-building, character development, shifting points-of-view, nontraditional form, unreliable narration, and dialogue. The opening two sessions will center on class discussion. All following classes will be split between reading discussion and workshop. The attention to both introductory and advanced craft elements will make this course suitable for writers at every level.

Class meetings will be held over video chat, using Zoom accessed from your private class page. While you can use Zoom from your browser, we recommend downloading the desktop client so you have access to all platform features.


- Writers will learn what makes a successful novel opening

- Writers will strengthen crucial craft elements—like tone, setting, and voice—in their own novel beginnings

- Writers will gain a deeper understanding of their novel project as a whole.

- 10% discount on all future Catapult classes


Students will read 10-30 pages of published writing every week. Once workshop begins, students will be expected to read and comment on their peers' manuscripts.

Writers will submit 5-15 double-spaced pages of a novel opening and will receive detailed feedback from their instructor and peers. Each writer will also have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with the instructor over Zoom to discuss their work. Students will leave this course with a strong understanding of what goes into crafting the opening of a novel.


Week One: Setting & Character

Week Two: Setting, Tone, & Mystery

Week Three: 1st Person Voice

Week Four: Form & Structure

Week Five: 3rd Person Voice

Week Six: Dialogue/Polyphony

Week Seven: Revision

Week Eight: Publishing & Professionalization

Alex McElroy

Alex McElroy is a non-binary writer based in Brooklyn. Their first novel, The Atmospherians, will be published by Atria in May 2021. Other writing appears in Vice, The Atlantic, Tin House, TriQuarterly, New England Review, and elsewhere. Their chapbook, Daddy Issues, was published in 2017.

​Alex has received fellowships from The Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, The Tin House Summer Workshop, The Sewanee Writers Conference, The Inprint Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, and The National Parks Service. 


"What a gift it was to work with Alex. They asked all the right questions to help me elevate my work. I’m so grateful for Alex’s perceptive guidance and their gentle encouragement to dive deeper into themes and ideas I hadn’t given myself permission to explore. They have a pretty special mind, and I was honored to be in conversation with them, untangling topics that are difficult to transfer to the page.”

Devon Fredericksen past client and author of HOW TO CAMP IN THE WOODS

“Alex McElroy is just the kind of reader and editor every writer dreams of working with—sharp, curious, patient, and alive to the needs and possibilities of a story. Alex was one of the first editors I worked with, and I found them to be a supportive and generous collaborator in the editorial process. They’re the real deal."

Brandon Taylor author of REAL LIFE and FILTHY ANIMALS

"When it comes to editing, Alex is a real powerhouse. They were extremely careful with my story and worked tirelessly to craft the draft to its best possible shape. It was a genuine pleasure to receive their notes throughout the process. Every thoughtful comment that Alex provided helped make the story better - in the process, it made me a better writer."

Kristen Arnett author of MOSTLY DEAD THINGS and WITH TEETH

“Alex McElroy’s debut novel is wickedly funny, graceful in prose, and brilliant in execution. With its exploration and critique of contemporary culture in general, and masculinity gender performance specifically, THE ATMOSPHERIANS is a FIGHT CLUB for the Millennial Generation. I feel particularly bullish on this novel, and this writer.”

Mat Johnson author of PYM and LOVING DAY

"THE ATMOSPHERIANS is a thrilling satire about wrecked reputations and flawed stabs at redemption, but it’s also an earnest examination of the fragile place between community and mob; most disturbingly, Alex McElroy draws an accurate portrait of this agitated era."

Catherine Lacey PEW and THE ANSWERS

“THE ATMOSPHERIANS is a marvel, a wonder, a gift. McElroy's characters glide across the page, in and out of love, and we see ourselves in their conflicts, their crucibles, and what they hold dear. Simply put, McElroy dazzles. This novel is dazzling.”

Bryan Washington author of LOT and MEMORIAL

“Alex is that best thing in an editor: a true collaborator. They read my work thoughtfully and respectfully, asking the right questions along the way. Never pushy, but always probing, Alex wanted exactly what I did - to make the work more brilliantly itself.”