My Students: Writing as Fast as They Can


I want to introduce the two students who won the Total Word Count Challenge in my novel-writing classes: Sarah Chaney and Kayla Weiss. Each of these young women wrote over 42,000 words this semester, or about 3,500 words a week for 12 weeks. What’s significant about this is that they were only required to turn in 2,250 words per week—an assignment called “Weekly Words” which I talk about in detail here—but they both exceeded that amount…and then some.


I’d say that half of the students who took my class this semester walked in the door with a definite idea for a novel they very much wanted to write, and Sarah and Kayla were certainly in that group.

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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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David Haynes: “My goal is to produce novelists, not novels.”

David Haynes: “My goal is to produce novelists, not novels.”

CW Programs Teaching The Biggest Things

This is important: no matter what Chad Harbach and John Stazinski say, my little informal survey did NOT indicate that MFA programs concentrate solely on short stories. They are not “anti-novel.” At least not on purpose anyway. The perception that they are “against novels” (discussed here) is a product of the fact that they try to fit novels into a workshop pedagogy that’s built to accommodate shorter forms.

A lot of people showed up for the panel “A Novel Problem” at AWP 2012. David Haynes told the packed room at the Chicago Hilton that it’s not just a question of whether or not individual instructors “allow” novel chapters to be brought to workshop. It’s this: Do the primary pedagogies of workshop serve novel writing?


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“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.

My Blogroll, My Students


Just so you know: I’ve been thinking about this idea–THE BIG THING–for ten years now. Ask my students.

How many have worked with me on a Big Thing?

Oh my.


This is the statement that goes in the syllabus of a Big Thing Workshop.

Your goal is to produce what I call a “big thing,” fifty pages of polished work. This can be the beginning of a novel, a novella, a series of interrelated stories, a collection of non-related short stories, fifty one-page stories, or a combination of things. I want you to aspire with this project. I want you to aim high. I want you to start writing the book you’ve always wanted to write, but never seem to have the time for. I want you to care deeply about whatever it is that you’re writing about. Much of the work you have to do will take place outside of class, in solitude. But when we are together, we will work collectively to help each other achieve our individual goals. In other words, you must expect much from yourself and give even more to each other. If you aren’t ready for something like this, then please bow out gracefully now.

But they never drop.

Most people think they have at least one book inside them. Sometimes all you need to do is tell them that it’s time to try and write it.

Sometimes that big thing is published. Usually it’s not, but does that have to be the point? Sometimes the big thing becomes part of an application to a writing program or a fellowship program, an opportunity that leads the writer to another place, another subject, another big thing. Sometimes I recognize bits and pieces in their blogs. Sometimes those 50 pages become a single poem. Sometimes the humbling experience of having attempted a big thing leads to a life-long appreciation of books. Sometimes they never write another word of fiction, but they write other things instead. They teach. They read. They write. They blog. They review. They edit. They participate. There are about a million ways to be a writer, and you don’t have to publish a book with Random House or get a job teaching creative writing. You just need to write.

So, I decided to use my blogroll to show off the different ways my former students are making literary lives for themselves. Today I reached out to a young woman who graduated last year and is going through what Ted Solotaroff called “writing in the cold.” And she responded right away: “I’m so excited for this now. I’ve been trying to read as many writing blogs as I can because it helps the feeling of isolation when you’re working on a project for hours and hours all by your lonesome. I’m so excited to get back to work on my Big Thing but also TERRIFIED. Time to conquer that fear and keep on learning!”

My blogroll, then, is a kind of family tree. It’s a link to my students’ blogs and websites (some personal, some professional, most a little of both), and I hope it gives you (and them) a sense of how many different ways there are to lead a literary life. Each link, each person is different, but what connects them is the shared experience of having written a Big Thing.

If you were a student of mine in a senior seminar or graduate workshop, please send me a link to your blog or website. If you’re reading this and you’re friends with someone who was in one of my classes, please pass it on. Thank you.

Writer’s Center of Indiana @ Marian University


I’ll be in Indianapolis tomorrow, Saturday, October 23, to talk more about making big things at the Gathering of Writers. If you’re in Indy or there bouts, please drop by.

If the technology gods are shining down on me, I’ll be presenting my thoughts in the form of a Powerpoint, a form which I like to call The Illustrated Essay.

I don’t use bullets. I use metaphors. I use my own experiences. I have been known to use the word “I.”