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.

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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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Kim Barnes: Learn the Craft, Trust the Process

CW Programs Teaching Writing

Recently, a former student emailed to say he’d been accepted into a few MFA programs, but ultimately, he’d decided on the University of Idaho. When I asked him what made the difference, he cited the beauty of the location, the full funding. “And,” he said, “Kim Barnes has created a multi-semester novel workshop, and I think it sounds fantastic.”

I knew this was one person I definitely needed to talk to. So I emailed her out of the blue and asked her if she would mind sharing this experience with the readers of my blog. She was kind enough to say yes. Continue reading

“Workshop” to “Writing Group”


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.