This is the 7th Time I Taught Novel Writing

This is the 7th Time I Taught Novel Writing

Beta Group 1 meets while the rest of the class gets some writing done.
Beta Group 1 meets while the rest of the class gets some writing done.

End-of-Term Observations

As you probably noticed, I didn’t blog much about teaching this course this semester.

I think that’s because I’ve almost got it “down” now, which is a relief after three years of tweaking!

What They Wrote

This is the seventh straight semester I’ve taught this course, and it always works out that: of 15 students

  • about a third write realism
  • about two thirds write something else

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Most Words Drafted–Fall 2013


Here are the winners of the Most Words Drafted competition in my novel-writing class. The whole semester of this course is archived here.

First place: Liz Winks

LizLiz wrote 64,309 words this semester. Her satirical novel is entitled The Grand War: or, How We Screwed Over the World to Get What We Wanted. She plans to keep writing during the break and the spring semester until she’s got a first draft–and given her amazing productivity, I have no doubt that she’ll do it, too.

You can follow Liz’s main character Otto von Visscher on Twitter. He’s a scientist.

I asked Liz to talk about how she got all this writing done this semester. Here’s what she said. Continue reading

When and how do students write?

When and how do students write?


I found this great article the other day, “Seven Effing Great Ways to Build Your Writing Routine.”  The author encourages us to find our writing “sweet spots” in order to maximize our daily/weekly output.

Consider the following questions:

  • How long does your typical writing session tend to last?
  • How frequently do you sit down to write?
  • On average, how many words do you write per session?
  • At what time of the day do you do your writing?

Back when I taught novel writing as a “writeshop,” my students wrote in class and we talked a lot about writing process. I’ve moved away from that model over time, but next year, I need to be more explicit and deliberate about talking to students about WHEN and HOW they write. I’ll share this article with them. Continue reading

How to talk about a WIP

How to talk about a WIP


To my novel-writing classes,

Next week, you’ll meet with your small group and talk about 25-50 pages of  your WIP (work-in-progress), the novels you’ve been working on this term. This is the moment when a lot of novels fizzle out, but it’s also the moment when a lot of novels get a much-needed vote of confidence.

My book, The Circus in Winter, got that kind of boost back in 1993. I describe that workshop in full here.

Forty-five minutes of productive discussion, and I walked out with pages of scribbled notes, stories crystallizing in my brain, and boom, I was off.

I was lucky.

Typically, students want to prescribe. They want to talk about what’s not working. It’s up to the instructor to create the default setting, to frame the workshop so that big things can be brought to the table and discussed meaningfully.

That, my friends, is what I’m trying to do here: change the default setting, frame our small group discussions so that everyone walks out the door elated, not deflated.

In order to change the default setting, I’ve purposely placed you in groups of Potentially Sympathetic Readers. The people who like fantasy are reading each other’s stuff. The young women writing about relationships, they’re reading each other’s stuff. The sci-fi folks are reading each other’s stuff. Does it matter if the sci-fi folks would hate the novels about relationships, or vice versa? Not one little bit.

This week I asked you to share you fears about showing your partial to others. I’ve cut and pasted some of your comments, and provided my responses.

What you’re worried about

“I’m worried about whether my story is good or not.” 

It’s impossible to say whether a novel is “good” at this stage of the game. Readers might like the premise, the character, the idea, but there is no “good” or “bad” at this point. There are only possibilities.

“I have no qualms about showing my work in progress. The worst thing that can happen is you all hate it, right?”

Actually, you aren’t allowed to “hate” each other’s manuscripts. It’s too early to decide if you hate anything. The only reason you might is based on subject matter or genre, which is why I placed you in groups of Potentially Sympathetic Readers!

“I feel like what I’m sharing with my group is the equivalent of the first scene/section of a short story.”

This is a wonderful analogy. It’s like being in a poetry workshop and getting the first stanza of a poem-in-progress.  Or being in a fiction workshop and getting the first page or two of a short story…dot dot dot.

Typical Workshop Response: You’re mad at the writer for submitting something unfinished. What are you supposed to say? She didn’t even finish the darn story/poem! What a lazy bum! So you go off a little. The writer, who can’t say anything, takes her lumps, collects her critiques, and scurries out of the room.

Small Group Response: You say, “Given what’s going on in this stanza/scene, here are three questions I have that I hope you will answer in this poem/story.” And the writer, who gets to speak, says, “Yeah, I’m going to do number 1 an 2, but where did you get the idea for number 3. I didn’t realize I was even talking about that…” etc.

For people who write as scenes come to them

“I wrote a lot of good scenes I think. It’s just being able to string them all together that is throwing me off.”

If your manuscript is comprised of scenes without all the “connective tissue,” simply tell your small group this. Include a prefatory note at the top of the manuscript, or include a note between two scenes that says, “I need something to connect the last scene to this one. Any suggestions?”

Then the group can’t say to you, You have a lot of good scenes, but they don’t fit together. Because you have already admitted this. Thus: pointing out this flaw is no longer the point. The point is: how might they be strung together?

“I switched what I was writing at week 4, so I’m not entirely sure how much material I have to work with. I’m hoping that I have enough and I don’t have to use completely new material to make it to 25 pages. I think I have about 7 right now.”

I don’t know why this writer thinks he has just 7 pages, because I know I’ve read more than that each week. Maybe the writer has the first 7 pages and then various chunks from elsewhere in the book. Not necessarily sequential pages. This is fine. As long as we get something of an introduction or preface, you can submit non-sequential pages, as long as you make sure you tell your group that you’re doing that, and you make sure that by the time of the final, you’ve got the first 25-50 pages nailed down as best you can.

“I’m confused about what to include. We polish writing from the beginning of the novel, format it, and email it, but what if the writing that we have doesn’t follow a particular order? I have scenes from different areas of the novel that’s and now I have an ending, but they’re all rough drafts and scattered on a word document.”

Like I said above: it’s okay to show us disparate pieces as long as you try to have some kind of opening, and as long as you preface your manuscript with a note to the readers explaining that they are NOT reading sequential chapters.

“I think my biggest worry so far is the structure. I’m still unsure of how I want to break the novel up into chapters or sections, so I’m hoping for some feedback on that.”

Best way for a reader to help this writer is to say, “This what it was like for me to read this manuscript the way it’s currently structured,” and then describe it.

For people who are writing a less-than-perfect “down” draft that they will fix “up” later

“I know the writing and language isn’t fancy – I haven’t taken the time to make it such, so I know that needs work. What I would really like to know is if my ideas are going in the right direction. Can you see this turning into something bigger and better with more work?”

To do a micro-editing job on this person’s manuscript would be a huge mistake. What this person wants and needs is some encouragement. To tell him that no, you can’t see this being a book would be—in my opinion—quite cruel. I’ve been teaching creative writing for 20 years, and I’ve read a lot of work, and I have never once said “No, this isn’t a good idea. Don’t tell this story.” It is not up to you or me to decide that for someone. It’s up to the writers themselves. There are those who DO think it’s their job to discourage writers, but I am not that person, and I don’t want you to be that person either.

I’ve had students who sat in my office and BEGGED me to tell them whether they had “it” or not, and I said, “It’s not up to me to tell you that. You have to figure that out for yourself.”

For the masochists

“Often, I feel paranoid when people read something I do and don’t tell me what I did wrong, as it makes me feel like they are being too nice. By all means, rip my novel to shreds, if need be!”

Nobody’s ripping anybody’s anything. Readers, you’re not supposed to be “too positive” nor “too negative.” You’re supposed to be somewhere in the middle. How the writer interprets that approach is up to him.

“I’m looking for very critical feedback, the kind of stuff that you wouldn’t say to your closest friend. I’m not worried about feelings and pride, only honesty.”

I say it again: IT IS TOO SOON TO BE “HONEST” OR “HARSH” or “BRUTAL” WITH PEOPLE ABOUT THEIR NOVELS. I know that some of you are saying, “Rip me to shreds,” but what I’m saying is, according to all my research and experience, that is not the way a novel workshop works, esp. novels that have barely gotten started.

Note: If ever I am in a position to offer this course as a two-semester sequence, then I would step up the level of critique in the second class. 

For the fragile

“I’m terrified.” 

“I’m not sure if I ever want to share my work publicly.” 

“I think it will be nice to have someone other than my good friends read it because I will get some writer’s advice instead of friendly advice. I need to know what to change, what works and what doesn’t.”

Readers, imagine that your job as a reader is to be both a writer AND a friend to the writer.

“I don’t typically share things that I am in the process of writing, except with a few select people. People I went to school with didn’t have the best attitudes toward my desire to write, and as a result I don’t tend to trust anyone with my writing. A professor is one thing – something I have become comfortable with – but students I’ve never met, never spoken to, and couldn’t pick out of a line-up is a totally different matter – something I am very uncomfortable with. If given the choice, I wouldn’t be sharing a partial with people I don’t know.”

Please know that the number one consideration I made when placing you in groups was that you’d get a sympathetic reading from that group of people. If I was wrong in how I made my selections, please let me know.

“I think that the feedback I will receive on it will greatly help me decide exactly what I want to do with the novel.”

This is a very good attitude to take.

“Since this is such a massive undertaking, I want someone to tell me what I need to change early on before it becomes to overwhelming to change.”

Ditto this.

For those who are writing pages that are summaries or synopses of their novel, not real pages.

“My biggest worry about my story is that I am writing it in a compressed format. I know this can easily be changed through revision and expansion, but for me I feel it is easier to just get the story “down on paper” before worrying about expanding and lengthening.”

It’s vital that you explain to your group what you are giving them! And if you’re the person reading this kind of manuscript, it’s vital that you be able to picture what they are synopsizing. Imagine that you are trying to decide if you want to watch a movie, and you read the synopsis of the plot off of IMDB or Wikipedia.

For those who say they just don’t care

“I guess what it really comes down to is that I’m really pretty detached from my work. It’s still personal, and I still take pride in it, and I still get my feelings hurt a little when people say bad things about my writing, but I’m not totally emotionally invested in the work.”

A little detachment goes a long, long way. But don’t feel too detached!

Remember that this class is about process, not product

Remember: we are not “workshopping” your WIP.

The kind of “workshopping” you’ll be doing in your small group is fundamentally different. I talk about the difference between a typical workshop and a novel workshop here.

In the typical workshop:

  • You assume that you’re looking at a whole piece that has a beginning, middle, and end.
  • You read and “mark up” the manuscript on the sentence-level.
  • You assume that the manuscript is a “problem” and your job as the reader is to “fix” it.

But in a novel-writing group:

  • You’re not looking at a whole piece.
  • You’re looking at something on the macro level, not the micro.
  • Your job is not to fix the manuscript.

To be honest, the manuscripts you’re going to read will have many, many problems. So what? The whole point of writing a novel is that you have to flounder around quite a bit. So how can you fault someone for floundering? And how can you say, “Give it up, man,” when they’ve barely gotten started?

In sum

Writers: Tell your readers how you need them to read what you’re giving them. It’s important to tell them in the manuscript itself, and during the discussion.

Readers: Tell the writer what they want to know, and aim for a critical, but generous frame of mind.

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

Novels vs. Stories in MFA Programs Survey Results

CW Programs Teaching

My plan was to release the survey results one question at a time via ruminative blog posts like this one on whether MFA programs are “anti-novel” or not and this one on the “professionalization” question.

But I’ve changed my mind. Many people wrote to me privately and said, I want to see the results! I’m curious! 

Also, I’m going to be under the weather for the next few weeks.

So: here are the results of my Novel in MFA Programs survey.

The faculty results.

The student results.

Tell me what you find interesting, surprising in these results, and when I’m back to my desk, I’ll talk about it!

David Haynes: “My goal is to produce novelists, not novels.”

David Haynes: “My goal is to produce novelists, not novels.”

CW Programs Teaching The Biggest Things

This is important: no matter what Chad Harbach and John Stazinski say, my little informal survey did NOT indicate that MFA programs concentrate solely on short stories. They are not “anti-novel.” At least not on purpose anyway. The perception that they are “against novels” (discussed here) is a product of the fact that they try to fit novels into a workshop pedagogy that’s built to accommodate shorter forms.

A lot of people showed up for the panel “A Novel Problem” at AWP 2012. David Haynes told the packed room at the Chicago Hilton that it’s not just a question of whether or not individual instructors “allow” novel chapters to be brought to workshop. It’s this: Do the primary pedagogies of workshop serve novel writing?


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Survey Results: 56% say MFA favors story over novel

CW Programs Teaching Writing

It is possible to teach novel writing in MFA programs, and many do. My panelists (David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French) prove it here, by sharing their syllabi with you. You’ve got everything you need to design your own novel-writing course. You’re welcome!

Opening Remarks: “A Novel Problem: Moving from Story to Book in the MFA Program.”

About a year ago, I submitted an essay to The Millions titled, “The Big Thing: 10 Thoughts on Moving from Story to Book,” which the editors were kind enough to publish, but with a more provocative headline: “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis.”

The essay touched a nerve. I got a lot of reactions, from faculty and from students in both residential and low-res programs, and from people who opted not to pursue an MFA because they felt programs were “anti-novel.”

They are not alone in this opinion. Continue reading

Novel-Writing Class Best Practices

Novel-Writing Class Best Practices


If you’d like to teach a class in novel-writing but don’t know how, have no fear. My panel is here!

David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and I have all taught the course, and we’ve compiled a Best Practices handout: syllabi, exercises, and other resources to guide you on your way.

Some of us focus on the early stages of writing a novel–generating ideas, writing a summary or treatment, studying published books as models, getting scenes on the page–while others focus on later stages and include all-group workshop of novels in progress. There’s 16 pages of material here, and we hope you find something that works for you.

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

Take My Survey about Novels in MFA Programs

CW Programs Teaching Writing

“Of all the ambient commonplaces about MFA programs, perhaps the only accurate one is that the programs are organized around the story form.” Chad Harbach said this in his n+1/Slate essay, “MFA or NYC?” Do you think he’s right? I want to know. I’ve created two Survey Monkey surveys, one for faculty, one for students (past and present).

Survey for Graduate Faculty

Survey for MFA Students (Past and Present)

Remember: this is about graduate creative writing programs, not undergraduate.

Because your response will be anonymous, I hope you will provide honest answers. 

Survey Sample 

  • True or False: It is unreasonable to expect an MFA student to complete a publishable novel during an MFA program.
  • True or False: The best way to learn how to write fiction is develop some level of mastery over the short story before moving on to novels.
  • True or False: It is the responsibility of MFA programs to “professionalize” students about the business of fiction writing.
  • True or False: Mentoring a novelist takes more of a faculty’s limited time than mentoring students in other genres and forms.

Each survey asks 10 questions requiring a simple True or False answer. Each survey asks the same questions. And I’ll be honest here: one of the things I’m curious about is whether there’s a disconnect between what MFA faculty believe they are doing and what students perceive.  

Should take just a minute or two. Please consider the questions carefully, answer, and then (this is important) please share this post widely via social media so that I can gather a range of responses.

I’m doing this in preparation for my AWP panel, “A Novel Problem: Moving from “Story” to “Book” in the MFA Program,” which is scheduled for Thursday, March 1 from 12:00-1:15 PM in the Lake Michigan Room at the Hilton Chicago. I’m moderating, and the panelists are, David Haynes, Patricia Henley, Sheila O’Connor, and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I will share the results of the survey at the panel in Chicago.

So: help me out here. Take the survey. Share it with your friends and colleagues. And let the discussion begin.

Description of the Panel

Short stories are often our main pedagogical tools, but the book is the primary unit of literary production. When are apprentice writers “ready” to write novels, and how do we review them in a workshop setting? How can we create courses that encourage students to move toward and complete book projects? This panel will explore the challenges of accommodating the novel or the novel-in-stories within the structure of an MFA program and in the classroom.

Statement of Merit

A recent essay on this topic by the panel’s organizer prompted a good deal of response. Some claim that MFA programs are subtly (or deliberately) “anti-novel.” That theory is disproved by the faculty panelists, who have experience mentoring in MFA program settings. They will share their best practices with the audience. 


Here’s a brief list of other articles that have come out in the last year or so related to the topic of our panel: 

Brian Joseph Davis,  “Why MFA Programs Matter.” Huffington Post.

Anelise Chen. “On Blowing My Load: Thoughts from Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme.” The Rumpus.

John Stazinski, “A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More than Stories.” Poets & Writers, the January/February 2012 issue, print only. 

Weekly Words

Weekly Words

Teaching Writing

I require my novel-writing students to turn in 2,250 words a week for 12 weeks. If they turn in the words, they get 25 points. If they don’t turn in the words (or turn in less than 2,250), they don’t get 25 points. Simple as that.  

Why 2,250 words?

Because 3 x 750 = 2,250. Which means that students can meet their Weekly Words quota by sitting down and using just three times a week. If I’m on a roll and I just write without censoring myself, I can write 750 words in about 30 minutes. Which means that all it takes to stay on schedule is about 1.5 to 2 hours of writing per week. And if they can’t manage that, well…  

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