Write the Book You Want to Read
Here’s the course description for my course: Advanced Fiction: Novel Writing
According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them. I figure you’re here today because you’re one of those people. Good for you. Please understand, however, that you’re not going to “write a novel” this semester, meaning you’re not going to finish one, but you will start one. You will also learn what it will take to finish one and maybe even publish it.
I want you to start writing the book you want to read, not the book you think I want to read or you think your other teachers want to read, or anybody else for that matter, but rather the book that YOU want to read. I want you to start working on the book you’ve always wanted to write but you think you don’t have time for, the one you think you’re not ready for. This is an excellent opportunity to begin work on a manuscript to submit to MFA programs or to continue to work on after you graduate. At the very least, you will have gotten your “drawer novel” out of the way. For those of you who aren’t necessarily planning on writing as a career or even a hobby, that’s fine. You will leave the course a better and more appreciative novel reader—because you will have learned how hard it is to produce a novel, or what Henry James referred to as a “loose, baggy monster.”
A novel is a big thing that’s made up of lots of little things. You will write 3,333+ original words each week, which will result in a 50,000+ word draft. Remember, though, that 50,000 words doesn’t even qualify as a novel; The Great Gatsby and Silas Marner are about 80,000 words long, and the typical novel is over 100,000. Of the words you produce, only 25-50 pages will be revised and polished and turned in as your final. Our focus this term is on quantity, not quality; process, not product. Yes, I just said that. This course will be very different from what you’re accustomed to.
The form of your big thing can be a novel (the whole thing roughly sketched, or just a part of it more polished), a novella, or a novel in stories, but it cannot be a collection of unrelated stories. Preferably, your big thing should be fiction, but I will also allow nonfiction, since all long-form prose writers are concerned with similar questions about sustaining a longer narrative arc, about moving from stand-alone stories and essays to book manuscripts.
Note: There will be no all-group workshop. Yes, I just said that. You will not read everyone’s work, and they will not all read yours. You will get feedback as the semester progresses, but not from every member of the class, only your small writing group. You will not always get feedback from me, as it would be humanly impossible (and counter productive) for me to read and respond to all the unvarnished words that will come out of your head this semester. Also, we will not be directly participating with National Novel Writing Month, although you are welcome and encouraged to do so on your own.
[More to come. I suppose I’d better talk about why I decided not to connect the course with NaNoWriMo this time.]Teaching
I love the choice to focus on small group workshopping. This coming week, I’m going to be planning my fall fiction workshop and I’m seriously considering only small group workshopping. I just don’t feel like writers are going to get as much out of 18 critiques from intro fiction writers as they might get from being part of a group of 5. Interesting stuff! I look forward to hearing how this goes.
I never really liked small-group workshops b/c I thought they were ineffective. But then I realized that 1.) you can give students a lot of prompts to increase their effectiveness, and 2.) that it’s wrong to think that a conversation isn’t effective just because I’m not participating in it.
While I’m not a student, this post definitely has spurred me on to finish my novel that is “just for fun”. I’m not aiming to publish…it’s just for me. The process. I have about 20,000 words and am working to 50k. So often I get caught up in “What would so-and-so think about…” I need to shake that off and write what I want to read. Thanks for reminding me of that.
I read a lot of author interviews, and one thing that stands out to me is how many writers say that their “breakthrough” came when they finally realized that the only way to work up the momentum necessary to write and finish a book is to figure out how to have fun doing it–or at least, how to make it THEIRS. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.
This makes me think of Annie Dillard’s dictum and one that I include in my syllabus: “Read books you’d like to write.”
That’s a good quote. I’m working on a post about my course reading list, which actually leans a bit toward genre. I have a theory: even a literary novelist needs to understand plot, and perhaps we need to absorb some plot-driven books in order to learn how to write a novel. I know I did.
Love it. I’m going to start saying, “YES, I SAID THAT,” after all my pronouncements.
Cathy, it sounds like a great course. I started using small sub-workshops in a fiction class last semester–although there were some difficulties, they make so much more possible. And full, serious workshops are of little use in the kind of fast writing you’re asking students to do. Why go through torment over something you know is just a first draft?
I just discovered that Robert McKee has an abridged audio version of his masterpiece, “Story,” and so am falling in love with plot techniques again.