I’m having a real crisis.
I’m starting to wonder if teaching a novel-writing class with 15 students can really be done.
Let me explain.
This semester, I taught Advanced Fiction, a 400-level course at Ball State which I teach as a novel writing class. The course is capped at 15, and so, because I was assigned two sections, I had 30 students writing novels for me this semester.
Let’s do the math.
- Each student wrote 2,250 words a week (about 9 pages of any quality) for 12 weeks.
Multiply that by 30 students, which means my students produced:
- 67,500 words (270 pages) a week
- 810,000 words (3,240 pages) over 12 weeks
They turned in their Weekly Words via email. I created a special gmail account to receive these messagess so that they would not get lost amid the 50-100 other emails I get every day.
- 30 emails a week over 12 weeks = 360 emails to open, digest, file away.
To make this process easier on me, I asked them to include the following information every single week:
- their logline (a one-sentence description of the plot)
- the context of the words (“finishing chapter 2 this week,” or “This week, I banged out a lot of plot points,” or “random scenes,” or “I journaled some questions and concerns for awhile, then moved into some scenes from what I think will be the prologue.”)
- Then they attached the document that contained their Weekly Words.
I’ve already written about how I “read” these email attachments, which is to say that I look them over but don’t respond.
- Logging in their Weekly Words takes about 2 hours a week.
- Meanwhile, I read and grade other things they write. Their quizzes (I give really long in-class reading quizzes), their reverse storyboard projects (where they take a book apart and write about what they learned), short response papers, etc.
This will not surprise you: it’s really hard (but not impossible) to absorb this many stories coming at you at once. But within a few weeks, I do get to a point where I remember what each of them is writing about.
For twelve weeks, they send me the fragile stirrings of their novels. It’s weird feeling to receive those 30 emails every week, something strangely intimate and kind of a privilege. I treat their words very carefully. I acknowledge the receipt of their Weekly Words by sending a brief reply. I don’t say much other than “Thank you,” or “Keep going!” or maybe “I liked the scene at the party.”
It’s way too early to say anything critical.
And pedagogically speaking, it is relatively easy to read through words and pages I don’t need to respond to critically. Yet.
Still, it’s a lot of words coming at me. Even if I’m not commenting, I’m still making room in my head for all those words and stories. There are definitely consequences.
- I watched a lot of TV and movies this semester.
- When friends and former students asked me to read drafts of their novels and memoirs (this happened about once or twice a month), I had to say “No. I don’t have any more room in my head.”
- I worked on my own book project until about Week 8, and then I had to stop. This happens most semesters, though, even when I’m not teaching novel writing.
- Eventually, I *do* have to read and respond to them all. (More on this later.)
Now, if this were a different class, a “normal” fiction workshop, I wouldn’t be quickly reading 270 pages a week. I’d be carefully reading maybe 50-150 pages of fiction due to be “up” in my workshop that week.
And so would all 30 of my students.
See, the students in my classes aren’t looking at 270 pages a week. Only me. There is no all-group workshop in my class. They’re expected to spend a lot more time writing their own stuff than they spend reading the work of their peers.
In fact, for many weeks, they really have no idea what anyone else is even writing about.
The Climax of the Semester, or Shit Gets Real
Then, in week 14, they have to turn in a partial, which I define as the first 25-50 pages of the book.
By this point, I’ve put them in small groups—the ones writing realism, the ones writing fantasy, etc.—and they read only those partials. I don’t even call these discussions “workhop.” I call it “beta reading.”
But—and you saw this coming, right?—I have to read them all. This is when things get really, really hard.
25-50 pages times 30 students = 750-1500 pages.
This is how I do it
- I’ve been an MFA thesis advisor. This is nothing at all like that. No way. Thesis advising involves reading at both the micro and macro levels. This is macro only.
- To keep myself from doing line edits, I send the documents to my Kindle. This keeps me from marking all over them. I try to “just read.” I make a few notes to myself.
- I don’t type a critique. Each student makes a 30-minute appointment, so I give my feedback orally. They walk out with a rubric where I’ve marked the things they need to work on for the revision (due at the time of the final).
- I spread these appointments out over 2 and 1/2 weeks, doing about four a day. Which means I read just four a day. That’s all I can hold in my head.
So Tuesday, for example, I had four appointments scheduled, plus a meeting and a class to teach. I read one partial Monday night before I went to bed, then got up about 6:30 to read the other three. Got dressed. Went to school. Taught. Conferenced. Came home. Had dinner.
As I write this now, I have five appointments scheduled for Wednesday which means five partials or about 200+ pages to read, and I’ve only read one of them. And my morning reading time is gone because I’m teaching from 9-12 in the morning.
So every word I’m writing here is cutting into the time it’s going to take me to read those 200 pages.
But I needed to do the math.
- There’s a good reason why very few people teach novel-writing classes comprised of 15-20 students. BECAUSE IT’S REALLY REALLY HARD.
- Even spread out over 2 and 1/2 weeks, I couldn’t handle that many pages coming at me and that many conferences in an otherwise already full life. My physical therapist and my yoga teacher/masseuse and my husband tell me all the time, “If you don’t have time to take care of yourself, something’s wrong.”
- The traditional workshop structure guarantees that you read works-in-progress at a reasonable rate, one at a time, a few a week. Not 30 at a time in dribs and drabs for 12 weeks and then boom, 30 manuscripts fall in your lap (or into your Kindle).
- There must be a way to make this work. I think I’ve ALMOST got it figured out.
- I can’t ever teach two sections of this class again. Luckily next semester, I have just one section.
- Rather than schedule individual conferences, I’ll be a part of the beta reading groups.
- But how can I do that when they’re all discussing at the same time in small groups? Aha. I’ll put them in groups 3 groups of five. The week I spend discussing the mss. of Group 1, Groups 2 and 3 will get in-class writing “studio” time (which they already do anyway). So: I only have to read five partials a week for three weeks, and I don’t have to schedule conferences because they will have gotten my feedback in class.
- I’m also considering reducing the partial to 10-25 pages, which is actually more in line with the industry standard anyway.
I started writing this post because I was convinced I couldn’t teach this class anymore. You can only do what you have the resources to do. But of course by the end, I think I’ve figured out a way to make it work better.
These are the numbers that count.
Most Words Drafted Contest (top 7)
- Kayla Weiss 85,007
- Scott Bugher 65,878
- Andy House 62, 353
- Sarah Hollowell 52, 025
- Amy Dobbs 38, 365
- Jackson Eflin 32, 971
- Samantha Zarhn 27, 393
Each of these students wrote more than the required 2,250 words a week.
I’m convinced that the real test of teaching is figuring out a way to make your students feel like they’re working and learning WHILE ALSO making sure you yourself are staying productive as a writer. Because how can I expect them to write if I’m not? I think I’ve almost got this class to a point where we’re all writing and nobody’s buried.
I’ll report back next semester and let you know.