Are you ready to get serious about leading a Big Thing writing class? I know I am. Here’s my plan for my Advanced Fiction Writing course during Fall 2011.
In this class, all students will be required to produce at least 50,000 original words, the first draft of a new work. This will not be done only during November’s “National Novel Writing Month,” but rather over the course of the entire semester. The course will be characterized by: intense focus on the writing process and on developing a writing regimen; weekly word count check ins; “studio” in-class writing time; practice in creating an outline or storyboard of a book; small peer groups for feedback; and analysis of a few contemporary novels that will serve as models.
This semester, you will teach yourself how to write a novel. The manuscript you produce may be the first draft of a novel you will someday publish. Or it may be what many writers refer to as their “apprenticeship” novel, their “drawer novel.”
In “The Habit of Writing,” Andre Dubus describes two types of writing: horizontal and vertical. For example, a short story might be composed horizontally (draft after draft)over the course of a month, or it might be composed vertically (one perfect sentence at a time) over the course of a month. Many of us write vertically because we’ve mostly composed stories and papers on short deadlines, and word processing allows us to edit as we write.
Principle #1: We will operate on the assumption that novels, as opposed to short stories, might need to be composed horizontally, that the fictional skill set we have acquired thus far is insufficient to meet the demands of novel writing.
Writing horizontally often means that what’s on the page is messy, incomplete, not the kind of writing we’d submit to an instructor to be graded, to a workshop for peer critique, and certainly not to an editor to be published. But that’s okay because:
Principle #2: We are not writing a novel so much as we are drafting a novel, which means that we are not overly concerned with the quality of the writing, but rather with the quantity.
Of his “failed” novel Fountain City, Michael Chabon has said, “Often when I sat down to work, I would feel a cold hand take hold of something inside my belly and refuse to let go. It was the Hand of Dread. I ought to have heeded its grasp.” So: how do we learn to distinguish the difference between “The Hand of Dread” (which would indicate that our project indeed should be abandoned) and “Normal Dread” (the fear and anxiety we’re confronted with every time we sit down to write)? When do we ignore the dread, and when do we listen to it?
Principle #3: You do not have to finish the novel you start writing this semester, but before putting it aside, you must think seriously about whether the problem is that the project is flawed or that you have reached the end of your ability to meet its challenges.
If that principle terrifies you, good. Writing a novel is a daunting task, but I also want to maximize your chances of success. In order to do this, I have drastically revised the way I teach fiction writing. This course will not provide you with a customary experience, and if you’re aren’t okay with that, please don’t take the class.
Principle #4: We will operate on the assumption that no one is here reluctantly. You’re here of your own volition. You want to learn. Perhaps because you love to read novels and want to better appreciate their composition and execution. Perhaps because you’ve “always wanted to write a novel.” Or because you have tried unsuccessfully to do so in private.
Methods of Evaluating Student Performance
Note: We have approximately 15 weeks. 50,000 words/ 15 weeks = 3,333 words a week or about 476 words a day. (To give you some perspective, the above section, “Course Rationale,” is 481 words.)
300 points or 30%: Weekly Word Counts. Every time you make your weekly quota, you get 20 points. If you fail to meet your quota, you donâ€™t get 20 points. 15 x 20 points = 300 points
200 points or 20%: Book Report Project. You will choose a book from which you need to learn something, devise a method to learn that something, and write an analysis that demonstrates what you learned. You will turn in not just the paper, but also physical evidence of your grappling.
200 points or 20%: Your Storyboard. You will be required to create a blueprint for the book you want to write. It can be as complete or incomplete as you need it to be.
200 points or 20%: Participation. There will be no Big Group Workshop. Instead, you will work in Small Groups, which will meet in class and online. For the first few weeks, we’ll rotate around so that everyone can see what each other is working on, and then you’ll select your Small Group for the remainder of the semester.
100 points or 10%: Final. At the end of the semester, you will polish a 10-40 page writing sample and learn how to write a “pitch letter” summarizing your work in progress.
Inspiration Book: Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird
Practical Book: Writer’s Digest Books, The Complete Handbook Of Novel Writing: Everything You Need to Know About Creating & Selling Your Work
Realism/coming-of-age books: Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Suspense/”I couldn’t put it down” books: Emma Donoghue’s Room or Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs
Genre/Sci-fi/dystopic books: Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead or Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games or Justin Cronin’s The Passage
Plot as a given books: Paula McClain’s The Paris Wife (based on the life of Hadley and Ernest Hemingway) or Irina Reyn’s What Happened to Anna K (modern retelling of Anna Karenina).
These books will serve as our models. I’ve organized them in this way, labeling their “type,” not because I’m encouraging you to embrace marketing categories, but rather because experience has taught me this: you stand the best chance of finishing a novel if 1.) you consciously choose to write the kind of book you yourself enjoy reading, and 2.) you do not set yourself up to fail by choosing as your model something akin to Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! (which happens to be one of my favorite books). I’m not discouraging you from having literary or intellectual ambitions, but rather (again), I’m trying to maximize your chances of meeting the goal of drafting a novel, in this case by encouraging you to create reasonable expectations for yourself. Also, you will receive a long list of books on the CRAFT of novels upon completing the course.
In this class, everybody wins
There is no such thing as a “failed” novel, as long as we keep writing. Next week, we’ll hear from writer-teacher Lowry Pei, who will address that very subject in a guest blog post: “No Writing is Ever Wasted.”