Sunday, September 19, 2010

A novel experiment

I've mentioned several times on this blog that I teach creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. My students are great, talented and up for anything. They have to be this semester, as I'm trying out a brand new experiment in my Novel Writing workshop, a 4000 level class that I've taught before but am teaching quite differently this fall. When I've run the class in the past, all I've asked is that my students start novels, the first 3-4 chapters, which we workshopped over the course of the semester. And too they read books about novel writing and gave reports on those books. It worked, sort of. They all planned out and did start novels, and they did learn a few things about the artistry of novel writing. But they never really confronted the other and perhaps more important fact of novel writing--that it's an endurance test. It's that fact and not a lack of artistry that keeps most would-be novelists from being actual ones.

So this semester, having seen too many promising novels simply stop at semester's end, and inspired by a provocative session I attended at the AWP conference a couple years ago, I'm asking a lot more. Both from them and myself. This semester my students aren't just starting novels but completing them. That's right, they'll each be writing a full novel (albeit a short one) over the course of one semester. And I'll be right there in the trenches with them. This semester I'm going to write a novel of my own, start to finish (or a draft, at least). To do so I'm going to have abandon my usual longhand first style of composing and go straight to the keyboard. (In fact, I already have, because we've already started.) I'm also going to have to shove a few other favored activities aside. And I know I'm going to have to be fiercely efficient when it comes to knocking off my other teaching and university responsibilities. But I've got to do this. Because I can't ask my students, who are plenty busy with their other classes and their own projects, to take on the challege of writing a whole novel in a semester if I'm not willing to join them at it. Plus, what an opportunity for me. Having recently completed my Van Gogh novel Yellow, a six+ year project, I get to start and finish another one in a relative blink of an eye. What a refreshing concept!

Will it be a great novel? Will theirs? I don't know, but that's not really the point. The point of the class is to learn about novel writing, and there's no better way to learn than to actually write one. So that is what I have to ask of them and what I am asking of them. To feel it and fight through it every step of the way, start to finish. When the semester is all over, not only will they have finished a draft of a novel, but they'll really know and appreciate all that someone must rise to, deal with, and overcome to complete a major creative project like a novel. Of course, plenty of revision will be ahead for them once the semester is over--for me too--if they want to truly complete their novels, but at least they will have the experience and satisfaction of getting through a whole draft. That's a significant accomplishment, especially considering that completing the first draft seems to be the biggest obstacle against novel writing for most of my students. Many of them start and stop one. Then start and stop another. Then a third. And so on. (They've told me this themselves.) But this semester they'll have no choice but to finish. And I think the prospect really excites them.

I've adopted the National Novel Writing Month plan, with some alterations. NaNoWriMo partcipants must write a 50,000 word novel in a month; my students will write a 55,000 word novel in a semester. Why 55K? Well, last spring the Writing Department ran a novella writing course. Because 50K is considered the upper limit for a novella I felt I had to ask my novel writing students to go beyond that. Thus I tagged on another 5K. I've broken down the whole semester for them, with 4600 words due every week (except the last week when I merely ask for 4400). We will also be reading a couple of short novels and will talk about how the authors of those books make their novels do such good work in 50-60K words. And while workshopping has to be less of a concern--production has to be the emphasis--my students will form small peer groups this semester and will periodically share their developing novels with members of their groups. So far so good. I've had remarkably few complaints and seen a lot of energized, committed faces. They're ready for the adventure, and a couple weeks into it I'm already seeing sizeable (and growing) word counts. I'm proud of them. And I'm sure it's going to be quite a ride before we're done.


Post a Comment