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The Jump Start: Playful and Practical Strategies for Breathing Life into the Characters in Your Idling or Abandoned Novel-In-Progress with Phil Bildner

Creative Lab Syllabus


Has that middle grade novel you’ve been working on been idling for what seems like forever? Are you thinking about revisiting that teen novel you gave up on long ago, but you’re not sure how to return to it? Well, if you’re looking for ways to inject new life and direction into a work-in-progress or abandoned project, this is the Creative Lab for you, a writing workshop that centers joy and fun. By focusing on character, and by providing a variety of playful lenses through which to view your characters and creations, this workshop will jump start your novel, breathe fresh life into your work, and move it ever closer to the those magical words, “The End.”

Prerequisites and Advanced Preparation:

This Creative Lab will be best suited for and most helpful to those who are struggling with a work-in-progress novel or for those who have abandoned a work-in-progress novel and are contemplating returning to it. Attendees should bring their novel in a format that permits them to mark it up and take notes. Attendees should also bring a journal or notebook – preferably a new one – because following this intensive, that journal will contain full-of-life-and-joy notes and tools for those works-in-progress and abandoned novels.

Attendees are asked to “familiarize” themselves with the novel and picture book pairings listed here. Attendees should read at least one picture book and have a general knowledge of the novels.

Five Book Pairs

  1. Wonder by R.J Palacio and We’re All Wonders
  2. The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate (Patricia Castelao, illustrator) and Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla (G. Brian Karas, illustrator)
  3. The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste and Looking for a Jumbie (Amber Ren, illustrator)
  4. We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March by Cynthia Levinson and The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist (Vanessa Brantley-Newton, illustrator)
  5. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park and Nya's Long Walk: A Step at a Time (Brian Pinkney, illustrator)


  • Introduction: (10 minutes)
  • Doing Pockets, a character-centric jump-start writing activity (5 minutes)
  • Take Two, a partnered, purpose-building writing activity (15-20 minutes)
  • Throwing Rocks, a small group, story/plot enhancing activity (15-minutes)
  • Doing Pockets, Part II (15 minutes)
  • My Space, another character-building strategy activity (15-20 minutes)
  • Break (10 minutes)
  • What’d I Miss, a brief discussion of banned books and censorship (15 minutes)
  • Homework Check, a brief discussion of the picture books on the syllabus (5 minutes)
  • Picture This, a character-targeting writing activity (20 minutes)
  • The Spinoff, a related, character-targeting writing activity (15 minutes)
  • The Lightning Round, a rapid-fire, wrap-up writing activity (15-20 minutes)


  • Have fun and experience joy while engaged in writing tasks
  • Discover ways to develop characters through items and objects
  • Identify creative ways physical objects can move a story forward
  • Identify creative ways to “throw rocks” at your main character
  • Create a character inventory
  • Learn important and go-to resources to help fight book banning and censorship
  • Repurpose your novel in alternative formats
  • Analyze how repurposing your novel can assist the editing process 
  • Discover strategies for enhancing peripheral and secondary characters
  • Have more fun and experience more joy while engaged in writing tasks.


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