Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction

Teaching

Back to the Survey Monkey survey I gave my students on November 16. This is a fairly long post, but that’s because it’s about one of the most important decisions my students had to make.

Question 3: How would you describe the extent to which you prepared for NaNoWriMo?

Many hours, lots of concrete planning: 5

A few hours, some concrete planning: 6

Hardly any time, hardly any planning: 2

No time, no planning:  0

Are you happy with the amount of time you spent planning?

Everyone was either glad they’d planned or wished that they had planned more. Except for one person who planned a lot and hadn’t gotten very far at that point. S/he skipped the question.

Writer, Know Thyself: Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

NaNo says there are two types of novelists: plotters (those who plan) and pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). I strongly encouraged my students to be plotters, but that’s because when it comes to writing a book as opposed to writing a short story, I’m definitely a plotter. But I didn’t demand that they plot just because that’s what makes sense to me. Like Richard Hugo said in The Triggering Town, “Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. But I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write.”

This topic-how much to prepare-was a big topic of discussion in our class in the months leading up to NaNo. Many of my students were afraid to do too much planning. They didn’t want to take all the fun and joy out of actually writing their novels. Some believed that “writing with a plan” was cheating somehow.

On the Road as NaNo Novel


To that end, we read On the Road and a wonderful essay on its composition history by Howard Cunnell, “Fast This Time: Jack Kerouac and the Writing of On the Road,” which refutes the perception that Kerouac “pantsed” that novel. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t the product of a semi-magical, drug-induced twenty-one day binge writing session, but rather a fourth draft; three “proto novels” exist. And Kerouac didn’t compose the “scroll version” in 1951 off the top of his head. As he typed, he was surrounded by notebooks, journals, correspondence, and previous typescripts.

No matter what you think of On the Road, teaching this novel (or just an excerpt) along with the Cunnell essay are great pedagogical tools to dispel commonly held myths about the writing process.

I would not, however, recommend teaching “The Scroll Version” in addition to or in place of the published version of On the Road. There’s not a big enough difference between the scroll and the published book to generate much discussion. In fact, I think I unwittingly reinforced the idea that a novel written in one month can be and should be published almost as is, which is definitely not what I wanted to do.

Storyboarding

Photo by Rachel Norman

I encouraged my students to storyboard their novels, to concretize their plot in broad strokes. We looked at lots of examples.

Anne Tyler’s famous “index card method.”

Even Faulkner storyboarded, as you can see in the photo above.

I pointed them to lots of resources: old-fashioned index cards or post-it notes or storyboard sheets, and new-fangled programs for their computer.

For the Plotters

I provided them a formula. Yes, a formula. When attempting something this large, it helps to have a blueprint, a map, some kind of guide so you know what you’re writing toward. Syd Field’s “Paradigm Worksheet” worked great for this purpose.

I asked my students to consider:

  • What’s the basic story? Roughly, what do you think is going to happen? Beginning, middle, end.
  • How much time will your novel cover? One week? One month? One year? Five years? Fifty years?

Students came in for conferences. They were required to fill out a paradigm worksheet, inserting their own plot points.

 

However, if they needed to adapt the worksheet for their own purposes, that was fine. If they needed to write a narrative synopsis instead, that was fine. If they decided NOT to fill this out, they needed to talk about why. Did they firmly believe that pantsing was the way to go, or were they “default pantsing” because they hadn’t given themselves time to plot?

This month, I saw many of them begin our in-class writeshops with something sitting next to the keyboard. An outline. An index card. A chart.

For the Pantsers

Some of them, however, didn’t have anything next to the keyboard.

The editors of Wired magazine suggest that, at the very least, you end each day’s writing session with a note to yourself about what to write the next day. “Having the scenes for tomorrow in your head today will give your brain time to work on it even when you aren’t thinking about it directly. In fact, you may well find yourself dreaming about your novel, working out ideas in your sleep.”

Writer Timothy Hallinan describes his process as a few months of what he calls “noodling around.”

Long before I begin to write a book, I begin towrite aboutthe book. I just open up and let it flow – no censorship, no self-criticism, no pressure. I write about the problem, the setting, the characters. I write biographies of the characters. I let them write about themselves, in the first person. I do a lot of work on what’s at stake – what it is, why it matters, how each of the major characters stands on it. (I may even diagram that.) What’s the worst that can happen, and to whom? What’s the best possible outcome? I make notes for possible scenes and, just for the hell of it, drop my major characters into those scenes and let them begin to talk to each other. (Quite a bit of this material later gets cut and pasted into the book, and then revised as necessary.)I give myself permission to make mistakes.

This is the kind of writing that isn’t always encouraged in creative writing classrooms.

Because how do you grade it? Who does this kind of writing mean anything to–except the writer herself? Is it “real” writing? When you’re writing about your book, does that count the same as actually writing your book? At what point does one become the other?

Hallinan says that usually after pantsing around for 100 or 200 pages, he realizes he’s writing the opening scene of the book, and that’s the moment he knows that’s he “really” writing a book, although he still may not know what’s going to happen.

Hmmmm….NaNoWriMo asks participants to write 50,000 words or about 175 pages.

In a few days, my students will send me the file that contains all the writing they did during November, and I really don’t care whether it was plotted or whether it was pantsed. Whether it’s the end result of scrupulous planning or determined noodling. I don’t care if that document is a Supreme Fiction or merely Notes toward a Supreme Fiction. It can be abstract. It can change. And as long as it gives pleasure, the effort, it seems to me, was worthwhile.

MFA vs. NYC = Team Short Story vs. Team Novel

CW Programs Teaching

In his book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl says that it’s time we paid attention to the “increasingly intimate relation between literary production and the practices of higher education.”

So. This is me. Twenty years as a writer-teacher. Finally paying attention.

Apparently, I’m not the only one wondering whether the creative writing classroom can accommodate Big Things.

Here’s Michael Nye at The Missouri Review blog, where even Peter Turchi weighed in with a comment.

Here’s another response.

HTMLGiant noticed.

And today I read this fantastic essay on Slate, “MFA vs. NYC: America now has two distinct literary cultures. Which one will last?”

Novelist and n+1 editor Chad Harbach says:

The MFA system also nudges the writer toward the writing of short stories; of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form. This begins in workshops, both MFA and undergraduate, where the minute, scrupulous attentions of one’s instructor and peers are best suited to the consideration of short pieces, which can be marked up, cut down, rewritten and reorganized, and brought back for further review. The short story, like the 10-page college term paper, or the 25-page graduate paper, has become a primary pedagogical genre form. It’s not just that MFA students are encouraged to write stories in workshop, though this is true; it’s that the entire culture is steeped in the form.

I highly recommend that you read this piece, an excerpt from n+1. For one thing, Harbach suggests (rightfully so) that without “MFA program culture” to offset “NYC publishing culture,” the short story might cease to exist at all. For another thing, it’s a useful paradigm. MFA vs. NYC might seem reductive, but it expertly frames the difficulties of making a literary life in the late 20th but especially the late 21st century.

As I think about my cohort, the “second generation” of writers-teachers who will one day take the leadership reins of AWP and academic writing programs, I wonder (perhaps more than I should) about the future of creative writing instruction. Forty years after the first generation of writer-teachers established our curriculums and classroom practices, what have we learned? Where are we going? Where have we been?


Harbach wonders this, too.

It will be interesting to see what happens when this group of older writers dies (they are unlikely to give up their jobs beforehand); whether the MFA canon will leap forward, or back, or switch tracks entirely, to accommodate the interests, private and aesthetic, of a younger group of writer-teachers. Perhaps (among other possibilities) the MFA culture will take a turn toward the novel.

And now, back to my novel…

Changing Habits During NaNo

Teaching

Survey Question 2: Did you start writing on Nov. 1 or before?

9 students started on Nov. 1

4 students started before Nov. 1 (sometime around Oct. 1)

Are you happy with that decision?

All the students who started on Oct. 1 are happy with that decision. And they are all cruising right along, almost done.

Of the 9 students who started on Nov. 1, five are happy with that decision and four are not. Not surprisingly, the four who are not happy with their decision had the lowest word counts.

In an earlier post, I talked about why I encouraged my students to start NaNoWriMo on October 1 instead of November 1, so I won’t rehash that here, except to say that next time I do this project (and I will do this again) I am going to mandate that everyone starts on Oct. 1. It’s just more reasonable to ask students to write about 850 words a day than it is to ask them to write 1667 words a day while taking classes, working, etc.

Besides, writing 50,000 over the course of two months rather than one instills a far more practical lesson in young writers: that it’s better and easier and healthier to do a little writing every day.

I’m serious people: doing this NaNo thing as a class activity is very, very enlightening. It forces students to confront their writing process–or lack thereof–in ways that would never happen otherwise. My god, it’s forced ME to confront my writing process–or lack thereof–in ways that should have happened years and years ago.

I’ve been teaching craft for years, but I’ve never really talked with students about time. How much freaking time it takes to write a book. Probably because until recently, I was just like my students, writing without a regimen of any kind.

In The Writing Habit, David Huddle says:

“The major difficulty a writer must face has nothing to do with language; it is finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible. The first project for a writer is that of constructing a writing life.”

Later on the Survey Monkey survey, I asked my students, “What has been the hardest thing about this process?” The responses were almost unanimous: finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible.


Before NaNo, one of my students said she planned to create that circumstance by finishing all her homework so she could focus solely on her writing. I told her, “I used to think that way, too. But that’s a sure way to never write. Because the desk will never be clear. You’ll never get all your work done, and besides, even if you do get it all done, you’ll be so tired and brain dead, you won’t have any energy left to write. Write during your good hours.”


Write during your good hours. That’s advice from Huddle, too.

If you’re a would-be writer, what you need to find out is not how someone else works but how you are inclined to work. You have to determine your good hours, the writing tools and the writing environment that best suits you, the limitations you can overcome and the best methods for dealing with the limitation you can’t overcome. You also have to become aware of your inclination toward laziness, dishonesty, glibness, and other personal foibles. You have to become skillful at outwitting those negative aspects of your character.”

Turning my class from a workshop into a writeshop has created the circumstance that makes writing possible for 16 people, myself included. And that’s a good thing.


In The Writing Habit, David Huddle describes his “Lake St. Clair Experience,” a few productive months he spent writing in solitude, which “demonstrated to me what it felt like to have a real writing life–I have never been able to duplicate that experience, but because I had it that once, it gave me something to aspire to again.”


Will my students continue writing a little each day even after NaNoWriMo and the semester are over? I don’t know. I hope so. But even if they don’t, I’m glad they’ve had a version of their own Lake St. Clair experience.

Next time: Plotting a novel vs. “pantsing” it

The Gamification of Novel Writing

Teaching

Are Word Counts like “Points”?

For twenty years, my writing practice had no structure. I wrote when inspired and I would keep writing until I wasn’t inspired. If I didn’t have a big block of time, I wouldn’t write. I waited until I did have a big block of time–which happened…oh…never.

I was 25 years old, two years into an MFA program, and I still acted (without really realizing it) as if writing was something I did “for school.” And then one fall, the buzz among all students in my program was that Inman Majors had returned from summer break with a 200-page manuscript, a rough draft of a novel. Of course, we all hated him immediately.
I ran into him at a back-to-school party, and I asked him how he did it. He took a swig of beer and spoke the words I have been quoting ever since: “Well, I’ll tell you, Cathy. Every day, I’d write two pages. And then I’d play golf.” [Inman has since informed me that he was playing BASKETBALL that summer, not golf. My apologies.] I felt like Moses at the Burning Bush, hearing the voice of God. Really? It was that simple? Well, of course it’s that simple.
It only occurs to me now (because I am incredibly slow sometimes) that Inman turned lots of things into games. It’s in his blood, so to speak. He liked to make things interesting. He was the guy who always organized the NCAA Bracket Pool (before the internet started doing it for us). He liked to place a bet or two, as I remember.
You can’t just sit down and draft a book. You can’t just sit down and write 50,000 words. A marathon is run mile by mile. A football game is played one down at a time. Like Anne Lamott says, you have to take it bird by bird. NaNoWriMo forces students to turn an abstract big thing into a series of small concrete things. Words. Pages. Accumulating incrementally over time.
Like gold stars.

Like X’s on the calendar.

Like Weight Watchers points.

Like frequent flyer miles.

Like earning your stripes.

Like racking up points in a video game.

Aha!

This is why NaNoWriMo is so popular with Generation Y: because it turns writing a novel into a game. A huge, dynamic multi-player game in which you accumulate words and pages instead of points.

Here’s an interesting article from The Chronicle on the trend of  “Gamifying Homework.”

Here’s an interesting talk (30 minutes long) by Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell on the Gamification of…well…Everything.

Are you appalled by what I’m suggesting? Are you thinking, “But Cathy, novel writing isn’t a game! How dare you suggest such a crazy ass thing!”
But anyone who has written a novel knows that, indeed, it is a game–one you play against yourself, mostly. The only way to win is to get a first draft, and you do it bird by bird, page by page, racking up words until you hit 50,000. Game over? No. There are many more levels, but you can’t get to those levels until you hit 50,000. 

[Here, my video game metaphor breaks down a bit because I know nothing about them. Sal Pane, where are you?]

For a very long time, what separated “real writers” from “wanna-be writers” was that real writers figured out some way to get the writing done. More than likely, this involved creating some kind of internal rewards system or “gamification” to tap into the motivational part of their brains. And then they crafted, yes, and they used their talents and intellects, yes, but first, they had to write a freaking draft.

Now we have have lots and lots of external rewards systems. Like NaNoWriMo. Like 750words, whose creator, Buster Benson, is a big believer in “gamification.” And–oh my god–what are creative writing classes and programs but another form of external rewards?

More and more people writing more and more words. The word count keeps climbing.

You either find this up-ticking counter frightening, or you find it thrilling.

I’m the latter.

Survey Says!

Teaching
On Day 15 of NaNo, I created a Survey Monkey survey so that I could check in with my students. This was so incredibly easy to create and implement, I know I will keep using this tool.
This is what the survey looked like.
I have 15 students, and 13 of them took the survey, and I have decided to share this enormous amount of scientific data with you.
And because I am also trying to get to 50,000 words while teaching classes, grading papers, living life, and blogging about this teaching experience, I am going to post the results one or two questions at a time, along with a little reflection on those results. 

Tomorrow’s post: the “gamification” of writing a novel. 





Writing Together

Teaching

On Monday, I opened the door to my classroom and my Advanced Fiction students filed inside. I opened up some cookies, scattered some leftover Halloween candy on the desk. I showed them that we’d received another postcard from the students in Lori Rader Day‘s class. They’re doing NaNo, too. I passed around a postcard, and a few students wrote down their words of encouragement.



I walked around the room to find out how everyone was doing. “What’s your word count?” Some people started in October and are farther along than others. At this point, one week in, they should be at about 25% of the goal or 12,500 words. Most were. Some weren’t, but they recognized this and told me their plan to get back on track. I marked their progress on this handy-dandy poster I got from the Office of Letters and Light.




They settled in. Some like to use the computers already in the room, always the same one, same spot. Some bring their own laptops. Some sit on the floor. One student brings her own pillow for this purpose. They fired up their iPods. Logged into 750words.com. Opened up Word or Q10. And then they started writing. Tap tap tapping. Everyone entered the world of their story.


I have been teaching creative writing for almost 20 years, but I’ve never witnessed anything like this.


My students.


Writing.


Right in front of me.


Usually, this activity takes place privately, out of sight, and I am merely presented with the fruits of said activity. Over the course of the semester, I’ve slowly gotten them used to writing in this room, with each other. It wasn’t easy. Many of them resisted, and I understand why. I’ve never liked writing in public places–coffee shops, libraries, etc. But I’m realizing now that there’s something profoundly comforting about doing so, like the difference between practicing yoga alone vs. in a studio full of people.




Writing is a profoundly meditative activity, and to do so in the presence of others reminds us that we aren’t alone in this endeavor. Anti-NaNo-ists are troubled by the idea of millions of people engaged in the act of writing–alone or in small groups, in real rooms and virtual ones–but I don’t understand why they are so troubled.


This morning, I got up at 6 AM so that I could spend an hour inside the world of my book. This is my 43rd day of continuous writing. Sometimes, I rise a little earlier than normal so I can get my words in before the day begins. Sometimes, I close the door to my office for twenty minutes. Sometimes, I write in the classroom with my students. I’ve come to look forward to this time. Its sanctuary. Its blessing. I’m beginning to realize that writing isn’t something I should associate with a physical place. Not a desk. Not a particular computer. Not a room. Rather, it’s like a small garden in my head, and finding a way to spend time in that garden–making time for it–is what matters.


Everyone wrote for 70 minutes or so, and then I gently announced that class was almost over. Slowly, we all left our stories and returned to the room, returned to the real world. We looked around at each other. And then we left the room and went on with our days.


Publicity as a Motivator

Teaching

The Ball State Daily News ran a story today about National Novel Writing Month.

Seriously. Front page. Above the fold.

The neighboring headline read “Sex Study places BSU 31st.” And right above, there was a huge picture of Conan O’Brien. So: the editors could have led with a story about S-E-X, or a story about a HUGE CELEBRITY, but instead they went with a story about a bunch of students writing fiction.

Which is pretty awesome, I think.

It was a nice article (thanks Keshia Smith!) and it definitely got my students pumped today. They walked into class full of energy and quickly got to work. Making the front page of the student newspaper will do that to you.

This is what my classroom sounded like today. I think it’s a glorious sound.

The Virtual Teacher’s Lounge

Teaching
Over the weekend, I responded to a Facebook status update.

“KYLE MINOR notices that MFA programs are producing more good short story writers than good novelists. Many of my friends from many different programs have had difficulty, post-graduation moving from the short form to the long. Five-plus years into this novel, I’ve come to believe that the novel and the story are very different animals which might require different training.”

And so began an interesting exchange, lots of writers discussing their experiences as students and teachers. One of the responders, Michael Nye of The Missouri Review, just posted his thoughts on TMR blog. You need to read this.

Any veteran of fiction workshops can tell you: the short story is a more workable and practical pedagogical tool than the novel. Nye discusses this at length. I related to many of his frustrations, both as a former student and as a teacher and mentor.

However, I remain convinced that writing programs can (and should) accommodate both long and short-form fiction. I don’t agree that a writing program is only capable of teaching you how to write a short story, that graduates of fiction workshops must figure out how to write novels entirely on their own.

We can do it. We just have to start thinking outside the box we’ve been living in for 50 years.
Do you teach fiction writing in a creative writing program? Then read Kyle Minor’s FB thread. Read the responses to Nye’s blog post. Think about your own pedagogy. Talk about it here or elsewhere. If you’ve figured out ways to encourage novel writing in your classes, share your insights and ideas.

Because it seems clear to me that inquiring minds want to know.

Five (or Six)

Teaching
five
Charles Demuth, Figure 5 in Gold

A few days ago, Sonya Chung posted this great essay on The Millions about being a teacher of creative writing and about the uncertainty that’s inherent to the writing life.

She mentions a recent visit from author Jennifer Egan, who confessed to being an unconscious writer. The first drafts of her novels are written by hand on legal pads. The handwriting is illegible. She doesn’t consciously think about craft at this stage. She just goes, and because she’s writing by hand instead of on the computer, she doesn’t fiddle with what she’s written. It’s only after she’s hand-written a full draft that she goes back and revises and shapes and crafts and starts thinking and making choices.

Chung says one of her students raised her hand asked Egan about what sort of goals she sets, given her largely unconscious way of writing.

“Five pages, she said. Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend, I could sit for three hours and not get any pages. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable.”

It’s worth pointing out that a NaNo participant is doing the same thing as Jennifer Egan. Some proceed with a plan, some without, but still, they’re just trying to get pages done every day. Not five, but six pages down every single day during the month of November.
The next time I hear someone criticize NaNo, I’m going to tell them that Jennifer Egan is a NaNo writer, too. And I’m going to tell them to read this passionate, articulate defense, too.

Egan’s not an official NaNo Novelist, of course. She doesn’t sign up on the website or get a widget. She doesn’t need external reinforcement and the behavioral rewards system. Maybe she did once upon a time, who knows? She’s come up with her own regimen, which she self-enforces.

[Which begs the question “Does writing performed with the aid of constraints or rewards make said writing less valid than writing performed without those aids?” I’ll address that issue soon.]

My students are very resistant to the idea of writing a shitty first draft, to letting their unconscious minds run amok. They say to me, “I respect novels too much to write something crappy.” Or “I had three hours to write new pages today, and all I did was fiddle with what I wrote yesterday. I can’t stop myself.” Or “It’s just embarrassing to me to know that I have written all these crappy sentences. Eventually, I will have to fix those crappy sentences, so why not now?”

All their lives, they’ve had to write, tinker, turn in, get a grade. The rhythm of the semester demands that a messy first draft needs to quickly become a polished final draft. It’s interesting to me that even though I’ve said to them over and over again, “You’re not required to turn that messy first draft into a polished final draft. So just write. I’m not grading this.” But the impulse to “revise as you write” is so well ingrained they want to do it anyway. Some days, I have to forcibly tell them to stop it.
[Could it be that it’s the “credentialed writers” especially, those who emerge from writing programs, who have the most difficulty moving from short stories to novels? I’ll address that issue soon, too.]

For now, I’m going to tell my students about Jennifer Egan’s process. Five–or six–pages every day.

“Workshop” to “Writing Group”

Teaching


I love what Peter Turchi has to say about workshop here. This and Madison Smartt Bell’s introduction to Narrative Design have really informed my thinking about how I teach workshops.

When I’m teaching a workshop in which students are sharing “big things,” I ask them to read Turchi’s essay, especially this part:

The first step in preparing to discuss another writer’s draft is to try to identify the work’s intention. This is much more challenging than it might sound. It’s difficult to truly suspend our own tastes; it’s also difficult to identify with any confidence the intention of a work that isn’t fully realized (especially since the author might not have a clear intention, yet). But we need to try; and we need to be patient in doing that before we start talking about any specific scene or character or line of dialogue or description. (Far too often, workshop discussions are devoted to a few details at the expense of the whole.)


How do we recognize the intention of a work in progress? When students are workshopping stand-alone short stories, my mantra is: The story must speak for itself. But when students are workshopping big things, I think it’s okay (and necessary) for the author to speak on behalf of the manuscript. Not during the workshop itself, which causes much awkwardness, but before class, outside class.

Idea: require students to use the Blackboard learning environment to create a process blog about their big thing. Ask each writer to articulate the larger goals of the project, its structure, the character’s overall arc, the possible chapters to come, where things are going.

Another idea: require students to turn in their pages presented like a book manuscript: cover page with title and contact information, table of contents, epigraph, even maps and photographs, if they wish. I teach them to use the abbreviation “TK,” the printing reference that signifies that additional material will be added at a later date. If they think their book will be comprised of eight stories, but they’ve only written two and a half and the other five are still in their heads, I tell them, yes, it’s okay to give us two and a half stories, to give us placeholder titles, maybe even short synopses of what is “to come.” Basically, they need to teach us how to read their book. We need to know: are we reading stand alone stories, related stories, or a novel?

This approach often shifts the default setting of the class from “workshop” to “writing group.