What They Wrote About: This Novel-Writing Teacher Reflects

What They Wrote About: This Novel-Writing Teacher Reflects


Here are the (purposely vague) premises of all the novels my students wrote this semester. I have indicated the writer’s gender thusly: (Italics = Male writer, Regular = Female student), and I’ve grouped the descriptions to reflect the particular critique circles I formed and placed them in. Meaning students in Class 1, Group 1 read each other’s manuscripts ONLY.

Class 1, Group 1

  • Sci-fi novel about revolution on Earth colony on Titan.
  • Sci-fi novel about man and android bromance. Huck Finn in space.
  • Fantasy novel. Squirrels, snakes, owls face civil war and obliteration of their peaceful land.

Class 1, Group 2

  • Coming of age novel about two girls, childhood friends from different sides of the tracks.
  • Two college lovers reunite in their mid-20’s quite erotically. #20ShadesofGrey?
  • Mother-daughter story, mom wants to break the cycle, but the circle wants to be unbroken.

Class 1, Group 3

  • Coming out in the 70’s, still feeling the effects in the here and now
  • Coming-of-age novel set in rural Indiana in the 70’s about a teenage girl whose parents abandon her. Survival story.
  • Female detective gets caught by the killer she pursues. Gritty, harrowing stuff.
  • Femme fatale snares men in her web, until one fights back. Thriller.

 Class 1, Group 4

  • Best title: Completely Predictable Novel about Meaningless Experiences in Chicago (Actually the title is longer…)
  • House full of hipsters/recent college grads/artists/writers must face the future.
  • Epistolary novel, lifetime of letters written by a woman, a bit like Fair and Tender Ladies.

Class 2, Group 1

  • High-fantasy novel about a young man who learns he’s the true heir and the girl whose visions tell her she must help him.
  • In a small town shopping center, the lives (and fates) of a close-knit group of store employees become forever linked.
  • A half-elf/half-human boy and his other “half-breed” siblings leave on an epic journey and experience prejudice at every turn.

Class 2, Group 2

  • A teenage girl discovers her scientist parents have turned her into something unimaginable, and she and her best friend must find a cure.
  • Young demon trapped in the human world, must go to work for “Men in Black” type organization.
  • Shadowhunters try to prevent the Apocalypse.

Class 2, Group 3

  • Young love feels perfect but goes all wrong.
  • Girl travels across the country to attend Woodstock with the boy of her dreams. It’s perfect—until it all goes wrong.
  • Indiana girl takes care of everyone—her mother, her sister, her best friend—but finally learns how to take care of herself.

Class 2, Group 4

  • Three-time lottery winner dies and leaves this in his will: Whoever builds me the best tomb gets all the money
  • Seven galactic criminals survive execution and come to terms with their crimes and pasts.
  • Occupy Movement as 1984-ish satire. 1% character + 99% character join forces.

Class 2, Group 5

  • Gay man becomes politically active, loses his best female friend, hits bottom. Narrative + recipes + questionnaires
  • Elderly gay man is on his death bed. His husband gathers the family together. Told from 7 POVs as the clock ticks down.
  • High school girl struggles to survive her father’s violent nature—first all on her own, then with the help of friends.

Some Observations 

I saw an uptick in the number of manuscripts with gay themes, subject matter, and/or characters.

I saw an uptick in the number of women students writing stories from a decidedly female perspective.

I saw an uptick in the number of novels that were largely commercial in premise, genre, and/or approach.

Remember: on the first day of class, I tell my students 1.) to write the book they want to write—no genre or subject matter restrictions, and 2.) they won’t have to show this manuscript to the whole class, just to me and a small group of sympathetic readers.

This upticks + the removal of the “all-class workshop” indicates to me that my students took risks because they felt safe doing so.

Many of my female students say that they were “inspired” by the Twilight books. Only one or two meant this in a positive way. Most told me that the quality of the writing in Twilight convinced them that surely! they could write a novel as well or better.

The first time a female student told me this, I downloaded the Twilight saga to my Kindle. And realized that my student was almost right: she did write better, sentence for sentence. All she needed was a better grasp of plot and theme.

In their practice query letters, only a few of my students self-identified their novels as “literary.” Most said “commercial” or identified the specific genre in which they were writing.

In one of our weekly online discussions, my students expressed many opinions about the distinction between literary fiction and commercial fiction.

In some cases, they know the difference between literary and commercial, and they think such distinctions are bogus. But in other cases, they really don’t know the difference. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t read enough yet, haven’t been exposed to enough contemporary literary fiction that they LIKE.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana where the only place to buy a novel was the grocery store, which means that the only novels I really “saw” growing up were published, marketed, distributed as commercial fiction. Like many of my students, I didn’t know what literary fiction was until I went to college.

I worry (perhaps too much) that the only reason my students don’t all self-identify as writers of literary fiction is that:

  1. they believe they aren’t smart enough/good enough
  2. that people from places like Indiana don’t write the “great” books
  3. that to publicly declare their artistic aspirations would be to break the Cardinal Rule of the Midwest: Thou shall not think too highly of oneself.
  4. all of the above

By teaching novel writing, I have realized that it’s not my job to turn my students into perfect replicas of me.

By teaching novel writing, I have learned much about my own long-standing, mostly unconscious prejudice toward commercial fiction. And I have come a long way in getting over it.

To teach novel writing is to open the door to commercial fiction.

My students think too commercially too early. Some students came to me and said they wanted to change their premise because “my group said it was too YA” or “my group said this was too chick lit.”

  • These students were all women.
  • No male students (that I know of) were told their novels were too YA or even too sci-fi.

I purposely did not put the young women writing stories about love and relationships into the same group as the young men writing sci-fi and satire.

Many women were writing novels about young women whose primary goal was securing male love and affection. When I pointed this out to one young woman, she said, “Oh my God, my character is Bella! And I hate Bella!”

If you teach novel writing and there are young women in the class, you must be familiar with these four names: Buffy, Hermione, Bella, and Katniss.

At least now, I understand the humor of the following exchange!

Katniss: So, how was everyone’s week?

Hermione: Oh, same old. Quidditch match, Ron being a whiny, emotional middle-child, a few random assassination attempts by the Dark Lord, saving Potter from certain doom. Y’know, the usual stuff.

Buffy: I was saving the world.

Katniss: I was also saving the world!

Bella: I jumped off a cliff to get the attention of my ex-boyfriend.

The two young men in Class 1, Group 4 are writing novels about love and relationships. But I did not describe their novels to you in that way to you, did I? All I said was:

  • Best title: Completely Predictable Novel about Meaningless Experiences in Chicago (Actually the title is longer…)
  • House full of hipsters/recent college grads/artists/writers must face the future. 

Why didn’t I put these two men in the same group as the women writing novels about love and relationships? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I definitely need to think about it. 

I showed a few students (male and female) this video of “The Bechdel Test,” which asks student to consider these questions:

  1. Does your story contain at least TWO women?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something other than men?

This worked wonders.

I would separate my novel-writing students into three groups: 1.) those who are skilled at the story level but weak at the sentence level, 2.) those who are skilled at the sentence level but weak at the story level, and 3.) those who excelled at both.

My class focuses almost exclusively on the story level, but I make sure that those in Group 1 (the majority) know that they must work on their sentences if they want to be published.

The class is the hardest for those in Group 2, the kind of student who typically excels in a creative writing course, the kind who can write a great sentence but struggles with plot.

I made sure that every single student in Group 3 knows they are special and talented.

When I described my class to a friend, she said, “Man, I feel sorry for you!” Seriously: you can’t read the first 50 pages of 28 still-raw novels with resentment or disdain. You’ve gotta find a way to be excited about them, or you’ll go insane.

I teach this course, Advanced Fiction, at Ball State pretty much every semester, sometimes multiple sections (capped at 15). I don’t know if I have it in me to teach it as “novel writing” every time, forever and ever anon. It’s incredibly difficult to hold that many novels in my head during the course of a semester.

However, I’ve spent years figuring out how to teach this course, and I feel like it’s finally working.

Is there anything you’ve learned or observed? Please let me know. Thanks for reading, and have a great summer writing your Big Thing! 

Teaching Writing


  1. Tracy Martin says:

    Perhaps you could add to your list of why your students don’t self-identify as writers of literary fiction– 5. (myth) Literary fiction writers rarely become rich and famous – commerical writers do. Coming from a generation of young adults who beleive that anyone can become rich and famous if they “follow their dreams,” it makes sense that pursuing commercial endeavors simply makes more sense. I am curious why (how) we define literary ficiton in a way that separates it from its commercial potential?

  2. q says:

    its kind of depressing seeing one’s stories reduced to a sentence. did your students give you permission to post their ideas online? what if someone steals them?

    • Cathy Day says:

      Dear Anonymous “Q,”

      The students themselves reduced their stories to short sentences or “pitches,” as learning about how to publish ones work was a part of the class. And yes, of course, I had their permission to share. As I say in the post, I was purposely vague about the premises to protect their ideas. Figuring out how much to share on the internet and how much to keep under wraps is definitely an important part of learning how to be a writer in the digital age. The benefit of sharing these premises has been that many of my students have gotten reactions, such as “I love this idea. I’d read this book,” which I hope will spur them to finish the manuscripts. Thanks for chiming in. Next time, feel free to use your real name.

    • Sarshi says:

      Dear q,

      I think it’s a common misconception that what writers lack is ideas. I’ve heard it often enough – but I find that actually writing a story, creating a world, putting one word after another and chiseling it all into a real piece of published text is something much bigger than that and impossible to give away through a single sentence.

      Ideas are everywhere. I’ve even seen people offer ideas up for adoption because they didn’t want them anymore, but thought they were decent enough to be written anyhow. As Cathy Day says, what she mentioned here is vague. Yet even if we talked much more concrete things, chances are that even if somebody decided to steal them they’d come up with something very different.

  3. Ian Wilson says:

    I think you got so much commercial fiction because of the influence of the screenplay but probably even more pervasive, the influence of the teleplay. The subject of TV and screen by and large is melodrama, big incident — spectacle. The more quiet drama of the quotidian and the ordinary moves too slowly.

    What might happen in your class if you only permitted literary fiction? I’ve come around to the idea that I’m going to actually give out 5 permitted story lines in my Elements of the Short Story class. Call it the formal method. Sometimes in a poetry workshop we see great results when you require the writers to use the constraint of form. I got magnificent pieces in a microfiction class where the maximum length allowed was 250 words. I attribute this to removal of structure as a focus.

    Of course you’re asking for a lot of writing during the term and I understand from the NaNoWriMo classes, how difficult that is. It’s possible that if you spend 8 hours a day writing you can produce beautiful sentences, interesting characters, the drama of the interpersonal where things don’t necessarily explode, people don’t get shot, the world is not about to end. But they probably don’t have that kind of time — or commitment.

    • Sarshi says:


      First of all I would like to say that a part of me got upset when I read that, and another one said, “But what he says dismisses Hamlet as well, so I’m happy”. I let the side of me that really dislikes Hamlet win the argument 🙂 After all, Hamlet has a lot of explosions (figuratively speaking), and characters dying (not being shot, but poisoned and stabbed, which is just as bad) and while the world doesn’t end, Denmark is pretty much doomed. Finally, somebody dismissing this thing I’ve been subjected to as text and play and opera and film and fanfiction! Thank you. It’s about time.

      But on a more serious note: I’m not entirely certain, either, what literary fiction is. I’ve read definitions of ‘literary fiction’ and it translates into my head as ‘that thing us critics and theorists like: old books, realistic books and weird contemporary books; hold the fantasy and sci fi, unless we like you, case in which you write magical realism and speculative fiction. Also, God help you if you breathe in a manner that is too exciting, you’re off the list’.

      To me literary fiction is just another way of writing. I would say ‘another genre’, but I don’t believe in genres all that much because genres are becoming less and less defined and books become liminal. I believe that things are becoming fuzzy and vague when it comes to categories. And that’s good.

      A way of writing can combine with story elements to create something that is liminal and good. And, dare I say the word?… Exciting. I was very much in love with Susana Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” because it was so well-written and in such a perfect imitation of the Victorian style. I was also in love with Margaret Atwood who doesn’t write science fiction only because she’s a ‘proper author’ and as such could never have such a horrible genre description attached to her. And woe to all of us should anybody ever point out that “1984” is also sci fi. Good gods, just imagine the scandal! We’d have to kick it out of bibliographies for not being, you know, realistic.

      So maybe the way the stories are presented here – and their genre – doesn’t mean that much. If they have incidents, it doesn’t have to be at the price of interesting characters. If there is an explosion, it doesn’t mean the story has become superficial. If there are things happening, the style does not have to be less chiseled.

      We luckily enough don’t have to limit ourselves to a certain quantity of creativity. We don’t get flasks of writer’s juice that can be transformed either in characters, or plots, or style, but which is severely limited and will run out, so we need to decide which one of these characteristics is best. So we can choose multiple characteristics.

      I see it as a “Brave New World”. Where sci fi and that thing critics like so much can come together.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks, Ian. One thing we discovered through reading the published, literary novels at the beginning of the semester is that even those books have big incidents. For example, Dean Bakopoulos’ PLEASE DON’T COME BACK FROM THE MOON contains an exodus of a town’s male population, the discovery of priest’s affair, the death of a small child, etc. Russell Banks’ THE SWEET HEREAFTER is about a tragic bus crash and the effects on a community. I encouraged them to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN in their novels. I actually pushed them toward what might seem “melodramatic.” This really ramped up the energy of their plots. I like the idea of giving out story lines. You might try Jerome Stern’s MAKING SHAPELY FICTION, which is about story SHAPES. I would worry, though, about students feeling “constricted.” You’d have to work hard to get them on board. One of my students said that he found it impossible to write fast, quick, and dirty. He had to write slowly and make good sentences–even though the quality wasn’t what counted, only quantity. I said, “Are you prepared to make the extra time then?” and he said yes, although he didn’t turn in Weekly Words some weeks. I think it speaks highly of his future as a writer that he was willing to take a B in the class when he could have gotten an A because he cared too much about the quality of his prose. 🙂

  4. Sarshi says:

    Dear Cathy Day,

    Reading your response to q above, I feel a bit guilty regarding the way I sign myself in comments. My ‘Sarshi’ is at least as ambiguous as ‘Q’ is. The fact of the matter is that online I am always Sarshi, or theothersarshi (there’s some other people/things called Sarshi, but there’s only me being theothersarshi). It feels more honest to call myself as such, especially since Roxana Chirila is a name that won’t yield anything relevant on google.

    Anyway, as usual, thank you for the post! The comments on Twilight made me laugh.

    I am generally more interested in fantasy and mainstream, so from the list this is what I’d be interested in reading right now:

    Fantasy novel. Squirrels, snakes, owls face civil war and obliteration of their peaceful land. — This sounds like a children’s novel, but the words ‘civil war’ and ‘obliteration’ make me wonder. I’d definitely open this book to see what it’s about.

    Two college lovers reunite in their mid-20′s quite erotically. #20ShadesofGrey? — I don’t understand what “#20ShadesofGrey” is exactly. Is it a title? Anyway, I’d check to see what the plot is about in this one. (to q, if they’re reading: I’m envisioning complicated plots and much humor between the ‘quite erotic’ bits. The author may not. That’s why it’s safe to have teasers like these sentences shown online)

    Femme fatale snares men in her web, until one fights back. Thriller. — this. It sounds delightfully plotty and complicated. Even if I don’t usually read thrillers.

    Epistolary novel, lifetime of letters written by a woman, a bit like Fair and Tender Ladies. — First, I’d like to make a comment on the summary: I wouldn’t compare one’s book with another book in a situation like this one. The first issue is that the one who reads the summary may have no clue what that book you’re comparing it to is (this is the situation I’m in now.). The second issue is that it makes your book sound less original and less valuable in its own right. The third issue is that ‘a bit like’ reveals very little info about what your book is about. But. I’d at least look through it. I haven’t seen an epistolary novel in a long while – and I’d check to see what the summary isn’t telling me and who this woman is. Does she have secrets she’s carefully manipulating around a vast network of acquaintances? Or is it a novel showing her evolution as a woman? Who knows?… I would, if I could look through the book.

    A teenage girl discovers her scientist parents have turned her into something unimaginable, and she and her best friend must find a cure. — I’d definitely check this one out. I’m already trying to imagine what on earth that unimaginable thing is!

    Young demon trapped in the human world, must go to work for “Men in Black” type organization. — this one sounds fun.

    Shadowhunters try to prevent the Apocalypse. — what are shadowhunters? XD Must find out.

    Three-time lottery winner dies and leaves this in his will: Whoever builds me the best tomb gets all the money — I want to read this one. I definitely want to read this one. I’m picturing it in my head and wondering what the author did with it.

    Elderly gay man is on his death bed. His husband gathers the family together. Told from 7 POVs as the clock ticks down. — I’d read this. I’m wondering what those 7 POVs are and if this elderly man is going to become a mysterious, controversial figure by the time I’m done reading.

  5. Jodi Paloni says:

    So pleased to know that there are writing teachers such as you, Cathy, who take the craft of teaching as seriously as the craft of writing. Although I am currently taking a break from the classroom, I gain a great deal out of reading your posts as they relate to my writing. Thanks. Have a happy summer break!

  6. Nina says:

    You are obviously an excellent teacher. I found this post fascinating! How interesting to get a glimpse of what “the young folk” are writing about these days.

    Your comment here gave me pause: “All she needed was a better grasp of plot and theme.” That’s pretty BIG (I’m sure you agree.) I think a lot of people, me included, think/thought that just because we can string sentences together we can write a novel. I’ve recently decided to focus on non-fiction for a bit since I’m having trouble landing on a plot that excites me in any way whatsoever.

    • Cathy Day says:

      Nina–I don’t know if I’m an excellent teacher. My course evals are sitting in my email inbox and I’m afraid to open them. But I AM an obsessive teacher. I love to talk teaching. Hence, the blog. And yes, for a long time I thought that just because I could string sentences together, that meant I could write a novel. Hoo boy. This class focuses on sentences NOT AT ALL, which I think really freaks some people out. Because, hey, isn’t that what “good writing” is? YES! But it’s not ALL of what a good novel is. And like you, I taught myself how to write a novel-length narrative by writing nonfiction!

  7. Jon Sealy says:

    Cathy — I’ve enjoyed reading this commentary all semester, particularly since I’m out of a program, not teaching, not hanging out with other writers often.

    I wouldn’t worry about your students not self-identifying as literary writers, as they probably didn’t really know there was such a thing until they came to college (I know I didn’t). It was nice that you qualified the literary/commercial divide in an earlier post, and let them know that if they wanted to go to an MFA program, they’d need a “literary” submission piece.

    One thing I don’t remember talking about in an MFA program, regarding literary fiction, is audience. Stephen King wrote something to that effect, that “serious” fiction writers think: “Why do I want to write this kind of book?” and “pop” fiction writers think: “What would my reader get out of this kind of book?”

    From one perspective, the workshop format is all about audience–making things clear and interesting for the reader, etc. But we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about why some non-writer out in the world would want to read this. It was maybe a given that of course someone would want to read it, because it’s literature, etc.

    But who? And why? I’ve thinking about your post in conjunction with this article in The Millions, about literary journals and getting paid: http://www.themillions.com/2012/02/on-getting-paid-literary-magazines-and-remuneration.html. In the comments, Roxane Gay notes that there are 2,800 literary journals out there, and eyeballs are scarce, and the general populace isn’t subscribing.

    No easy answers, but I think there’s more deconstruction coming about this literary/commercial divide.


    • Cathy Day says:

      Thanks Jon! I’ve been thinking a lot about this divide, too. Obviously. I’m on the planning committee for a writers conference, the Midwest Writers Workshop, here in Muncie, and they always invite a mix of literary and commercial writers to be on the faculty. This has been an excellent education for me–and I think it’s made me a better teacher, too.

  8. Ian Wilson says:


    I’ve been studying the Stern book since Robert Boswell turned me on to it. I’ve been making a project of cataloguing all the shapes that Stern didn’t include. The whole idea of shape is a fascinating one. Including a list of “approved” shapes along with the approved story lines sounds like a great idea.

    [Note that after the recent LMU class, I’m no longer worred about “constriction,” at least not in an introductory course. But I was only a part time instructor so the evals aren’t as important to me as they might be to someone doing it full time.]

    In the NaNo class, I’m with you. If they get stuck I tell them, break something, hurt someone, make someone lie, and about a dozen other suggestions that escalate toward galatic destruction. Anything to make something happen. Because it’s all about the word count, as you and I know.


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