You’re Not Ready to Write a Novel: by Rebecca Rasmussen
If you would like to write a guest post for “The Big Thing,” by all means, let me know. Maybe we could trade? That’s what debut novelist Rebecca Rasmussen and I did. My essay on “Literary Citizenship” appeared on her blog, The Bird Sisters. I’m really looking forward to her book, which will burst into flight on April 12.
You’re Not Ready to Write a Novel
By Rebecca Rasmussen
You’re not ready to write a novel. If you can’t write a proper short story, what makes you think you can handle the scope of a novel? Why would you want to write a novel, when short stories are the far superior art form? Stick with what you know. Haven’t you heard of Poe’s unity of effect?
It seems unbelievable to me now that anyone was ever not in support of me writing a novel, but after attending two MFA programs, I have to say that the above statements are generally what a student of fiction can expect to hear over the course of their time in a writing program. The question now that I have written a novel that’s being published in April is why?
My general feeling is that a lot of professors who teach in MFA programs write short stories (often because that’s what they were taught to write) and therefore teach short stories. Some love novels, others don’t. I think it’s safe to say that in a lot of programs novels get a bad rap because people are so busy defending the merits and the superiority (artistically) of the short story. Not that they don’t love novels; they just don’t love them in a workshop.
First, the basics. I think the committees that decide which classes will be taught often don’t know how to approach a class on novel writing in terms of workload and description. Will the students be writing a chapter? A whole manuscript? Either option doesn’t seem to win many over, including the professors that will be teaching the courses for two reasons: 1.) A single opening chapter doesn’t aptly teach students how to write a novel, and 2.) A whole manuscript from twelve or so students is a workload that is too large and would send said professors very far away from their own writing projects that semester, which I sympathize with completely.
In my first MFA program, no one said, “Don’t write a novel,” but no one said, “Give a novel a try” either. Experiment. Probably my writing was so unkempt at that time that reading the shorter version of it was grueling enough, so I am thankful that such care was taken with my work back then by my hardworking professors. And it didn’t seem a completely obvious thing to do (to write a novel) when most of what I was reading was short stories. A novel? What was that? You mean like Dostoevsky? I think I studied that guy in college.
When I was in my second MFA program at UMASS-Amherst, the faculty there managed to reach an interesting and workable balance. (Also, I was older and more mature by then.) One of my professors, Sabina Murray, taught a novel writing class, where we were expected to produce or come into the class with 150 pages of a novel. Each week, we workshopped one student’s novel-in-progress. The class was capped at ten students. I learned a great deal about novel writing by reading the first halves of other novels and by writing my own (and making my own mistakes-many, many mistakes). I learned that I was trying to stuff my novel full of plot because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I learned that my first chapter confused people and even made some angry. Yikes! Not my intention.
What I value about that experience even though I didn’t end up finishing that novel is that I was no longer afraid to deal with a never-ending manuscript and that I actually enjoyed the mess of a first draft much more than the constraints I put on myself as a short story writer (including that obnoxious little self-imposed epiphany to round out the arc of the story). I have published a handful of short stories in wonderful literary journals, but this isn’t the form that is most natural to my storytelling.
I love thinking about plot and character on a larger more layered scale than what I am personally capable of achieving in a short story, but don’t get me wrong: some of my very favorite writers are short story writers. Alice Munro, Alan Heathcock, and Siobhan Fallon. I admire these folks very much, and maybe one day I will be in the right frame of mind to write short stories again. For now, though, I am sticking with the novel even though it goes against 90+% of my training. And at some point, I would love to teach a novel workshop because I think it’s simply not accurate to say that a writer isn’t ready to write a novel if he or she can’t write a short story. Who can really say such a thing? Who has the right? Leap, is what I say.
Though many people disagreed with her, Sabina also said three very practical things in her novel workshop that stuck with me:
1.) You need a book, often with a major press, to get a job in an MFA program these days.
2.) Major New York presses generally veer away from short stories.
3.) How much do you like teaching freshman composition?
I’m not going to tell you that I started writing a novel for purely practical reasons because I didn’t. (I fell in love with the form after writing 150 bad pages, if you can believe it!) But at the time I had just given birth to my daughter and our dismal financial situation was on my mind. I may have fallen into the trap of saying these dangerously potent words: “If only I can sell a novel.”
It turns out that being broke is excellent motivation for writing and finishing a novel, for continuing when the going is rough and it looks like no one wants it, and for knocking on doors until someone says yes. For revising and revising and revising. The way I figure, writing a first novel is a lot like writing a first short story: there is a lot of muddling through to be done, a lot of failing, and maybe, if a writer is really lucky, a little success to be had.
Rebecca Rasmussen is the author of the novel The Bird Sisters, forthcoming from Crown Publishers on April 12th, 2011. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter and loves to bake pies. Visit Rebecca at http://www.thebirdsisters.com for more information.Writing
I agree with the pros and cons of short story writing versus novel writing. I also agree with your reasoning, which was well thought out, articulated, and accessible. Novels to require layers, subplots, and dimensions which one does not always have time for in a short story–THIS is precisely why I LOVE novels. I enjoy reading them, enjoy writing them, and when it comes down to it, I would never feel fulfilled as a writer if I did not complete a novel, thereby giving my characters the full attention they deserve! I applaud your perseverance during the entire process–being a starving artist, knocking on doors until someone said “yes,” when sometimes the waiting to hear back from publishers feels like it will kill you. Good post!
Thank you Cathy for having me here to your lovely blog. And thank you Christina for your insightful comments. I still feel a little like a starving artist, but I still believe it’s worth it, too 🙂 Novels are pure pleasure for me and let me stretch my imagination differently than my short stories…
Rebecca! It was so wonderful learning more about your story and path! Well done! 🙂
Know thyself. Be open. That’s what I got out of your post. There is always a story waiting to land on your windowsill, it may be short, fleeting and powerful, or it may be a long dance, with twirls and dips, that finishes with a flourish.
I was lucky enough to win a Goodreads giveaway of your book, “The Bird Sisters” and I felt your writing in this story was sweetly sung.
You write what you write. Some of us write short stories. Some of us novels. Some of us write science fiction. Some of us write romance. Must admit – your post makes me thankful I never attended an MFA program. Somehow, I’ve managed to publish five novels. You made me think there might be a connection between those two facts!
Blythe, I agree with you in that I think that most writers are–congenitally–who they are, both in terms of form and genre. But I don’t think MFA programs necessarily prevent novels from getting written, although I think this blog certainly talks a lot about the ways in which they often make it more difficult. I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately, and apparently I’m not alone. It’s funny: we can’t seem to decide whether to blame MFA programs for creating TOO MANY writers, or blame them for creating TOO FEW!
Rebecca and Cathy,
Thanks for sharing your experience, Rebecca. And, thanks for sharing your space, Cathy. I see this as an example of creative literary citizenship. : )
I entered the VCFA program with a novel and am coming out with a collection. I learned so much about tense and POV and fell in love with all of my new characters, and I re-discovered the short story as a form I loved in high school and college. I do have to say, though, my true love is the novel form. And, I can’t wait to get back to it after graduation. That sounds backwards, doesn’t it? Oh, well.
One thing that I did to ease my novel heart-ache was to write a linked collection and a graduating lecture that focuses on linkage. The story cycle form allowed me to have a novel-like experience AND learn short story form.
Anyone following this thread can read Cathy’s post on linked collections on The Big Thing, her notes from an AWP panel discussion.
Rebecca, your novel sounds extremely interesting. I worked for a time at a bird rescue station in Delaware. I have pre-ordered your book.
All the best in all that you do,
Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments, and to Jodi for pre-ordering my book — how kind. It’s hard for me because I am a product of MFA programs in a sense and yet I didn’t really starting writing better sentences, etc, until I turned away from my last program and started writing what I wanted to write. I think for too long I care too much what the members of my workshops thought and that stopped me from writing about, say, a pair of elderly sisters who rescue birds. XO
I have a different reason to discourage my students from writing novels. I think that the main purpose of our writing early on in a writing career should be about writing practice, not about producing a product; a novel will be much harder to let go as a product than a number of short stories. A corollary that I often use: when we’re learning to play the piano, the goal isn’t to perfect and (and record on an incredible, chart-topping record) Mary Had a Little Lamb or The Spooky Woods (always at Halloween) or even Fur Elise. Those things are all means to an end. We learn them partly for the joy of learning a new song and partlyâ€”mainly?â€”to learn how to play piano. To improve through practice. The song isn’t the thing. The practice is the thing.
So with writing. Let’s face it: our first writings are 20% great and 80% bad. Great that we’re putting stuff on the page and expressing ourselves. Bad inasmuch as the writing kinda sucks. It’s hard to write well!
We have to write and write and write and get past the bad stuff. And of course there will be always be bad stuff, but I’m pretty sure my bad stuff now is better than my undergraduate bad stuff and my MFA bad stuff and my PhD bad stuff.
A writer in her or his early apprenticeship spends 1000 hours (50 weeks x 20 hours a week) writing a novel which has the fatal flaw of being as recognizably amateur as is my pounding around on Fur Elise (not because I’m a bad person, or will never be a great musician, but because I’m early along in my career). Great. That’s 1000 hours spent writing: learning how to create “plot and character on a larger more layered scale,” as Rebecca writes. If we could easily distance ourselves from that product and throw it away, saying I’m glad I wrote it, time to move on to the next thing … great! But in my experience it’s 10, 100, 1000 times harder to move on and abandon a novel than a sequence of short stories. I spent my undergraduate and my Masters writing stories that were awful (in retrospect), but I learned something from each of them and moved on. I know so many people who hold on to their first novel, obsessed with making it work, when really what they need to do is move on. If people could detach themselves from one major work as well as they can detach themselves from 10 shorter works, I wouldn’t care!
That’s why I privilege short stories and writing experiments early on. Not because we shouldn’t teach novels, but because the things we write early on should be less about the thing and more about what we learn. Frankly, I think this phase of apprenticeship should include MFA programs.
If I had my way and could create my perfect MFA program, we would all write like crazy for two years and at the end of that time burn everything we wrote. Don’t worry at all about product: just write.
But that’s the point in this conversation that people usually start looking at me like I’m crazy. Burn our writing? Heaven’s forfend. 🙂
Thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I hope I’ll see you more often here at this blog. You raise a lot of good arguments against focusing on “the big thing.” You might be right that it’s harder to let go of a failed novel than a failed short story. And actually, your dream creative writing program where you “just write” is (maybe?) not that far from what I’m advocating, what RR is advocating. That we should write what comes naturally, and the more I hear from people, the more I’m wondering if some people aren’t simply “natural” novelists…
Anyway, please check out previous posts on this and other related subjects. And come back and play devil’s advocate!
I’m in the “find your rhythm” camp.
Dorthea Brande (in Becoming a Writer) was the first place I saw the concept of morning pages. It was she that pointed out the clues you could glean from those pages to suggest which form is more natural to your writing rhythm.
Thought it was cool.
There are people who are congenitally novelists rather than short story writers — I know because I am one. If this is the “find your rhythm” argument, I’ll sign on to it. A novel is not a more advanced version of a short story, so pedagogically it doesn’t make sense to say “How can you write a novel if you can’t write a good short story?” Short stories and novels conceive of human experience in different ways. The single decisive turning point characteristic of a short story — the moment when, in Frank O’Connor’s words, “after that anything that happened me was never the same again” — would in a novel be just one of many significant moments. As O’Connor also said, Time is the true protagonist of every novel, and that is just not how short stories work. So the two forms involve a different kind of thinking, over and above the fact that writers have fundamentally different predilections for how long they need to spend sinking into a scene, a place, a psyche, a relationship . . .
I will also say in response to Jeff Chapman that I don’t think the argument about difficulty in letting go of a novel applies to everyone. Or to put it another way, if you can’t let go, you won’t learn to write one. (And that’s okay; every time I go into a bookstore I’m uncomfortably aware that the world already has enough novelists without me.) There are a surprising number of people who have writing talent in the sense that they can write pages that make you say “This person can really write,” but who lack the thing inside that makes someone feel they have to keep writing. It’s a feeling of being on a journey that never ends and needing to keep moving, being unable to bear stopping for too long. The only way to keep moving is to write. If you see that what you’ve been writing is going nowhere, then you also see that it can’t satisfy your need to keep moving, and your only choice is to write something else.
On my website On the Way to Writing [http://lpei4.wordpress.com] I’ve posted an entry called “No Writing Is Ever Wasted” which is about my own experience with learning to write novels by writing things that didn’t work. It’s under the category “Emerging Thoughts” if you want to look it up.
Thank you, Cathy, for yet another thought-provoking post. I feel as though I should go write something longer about the things I’ve begun to think while trying to articulate this comment.
Lowry, thank you for taking so much time to add your thoughts. I do agree with you 100 % and I am heading over to your blog right now 🙂