Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Novel Class Survives!

A few months ago, I blogged about one of the classes I'm teaching this semester: Novel Writing Workshop. As I explained at the time, I had taught the class twice before, somewhat successfully, but decided to do it differently this semester. Rather than have my students simply plan and begin novels, workshopping the chapters as they went, I decided that this time they would all start and finish their novels. In one semester. They would be producing a draft of a novel, of course, not one immediately ready for publication, and the word count I asked for--55,000--would put their novels on the short side. But, even so, let's not kid ourselves. 55,000 words is an awful lot to ask of students in one semester. A friend of mine taught a Novella class last year. His minimum word count was 15K and apparently a few of his students struggled to produce that much. So I didn't quite know what to expect when I presented my semester plan to them. But I know what I feared: A goggled eyed response, a few choice epithets relating to my sanity, and an empty classroom the next week when the whole group sensibly dropped my course. That first week of the semester, whispers, recollections floated through my head: a presentation I'd heard years ago about a Novel Workshop taught in England for graduate students--a two semester affair in which, the presenter explained, we of course don't expect the students to actually have finished their novels at course end; a teacher of mine in graduate school gossiping about a class taught by John Gardner, a graduate level class in which he demanded that the students finish novels in one semester and at the end of which most had dropped out and more than one suffered a nervous breakdown or divorce or both; an AWP session I attended two years ago about teaching novel writing workshops and at which the general notion of the panelists seemed to be "Of course, you could never do this kind of course with undergraduates."

Did I really know what I was doing? No, but I did know that I really didn't like hearing that students in my previous novel workshops had barely taken any steps toward completing their novels once the semester was over. Most had done no further writing past chapter 4. So how much--I thought and thought and thought--did they actually learn about writing novels?

I'm happy to report, now that we've reached exam week at UCA, that of the original 15 students, 11 endured to the end of the semester. And of that 11, 10 have already given me their completed 55,000 word novels, with the 11th to be delivered to me at any moment. 11 of the 15 finished their projects. That's a hell of a good percentage. (I wrote one too, meeting the same word counts they did. I actually like my little book a lot, but that's material for some other post.) What's more, several of them went over the 55,000 goal. One enterprising guy--who never came close to having a nervous breakdown--actually produced over 75,000 words. Another student quietly reached the 55,000 goal a week before she had to and then refrained from saying so because she was afraid the class would resent her for it. (She didn't need to worry; it wasn't that kind of class.) Another student not only finished a 55,000 word novel for me but at the same time composed an Honors College research thesis about an entirely different subject altogether. (I have no idea how she survived.) I am just so proud of this group. Not a one of them blinked when I explained the set up of the class; many of them were actually excited. And they are even more excited now at having finished their books and their word count. One student announced last week with a huge smile, "I can take that Novella course and it will seem like nothing!"

Most important is they learned from doing about the process of composing a book length fiction. They struggled with juggling characters, plots, story arcs, rising action and climaxes. What to leave in, what to leave out. All the messy, and even onerous, decisions of book writing. (A couple students realized they were actually composing the first of what must be a series. One of these students asked if I was teaching the course next semester, so she could write Book 2!) Most of all they now know what a commitment it takes to stick with and finish a novel. And they've each discovered what writing habits/schedules work for them. One student, a talented but extremely intuitive writer, struggled much of the semester to keep up with the words counts but in the last few weeks hit on a schedule that worked for him: 1000 words a day. That was not too much to overburden him and it was plenty enough to keep him connected to his book. He found it not so very trying after all and told me that he wished he had been writing that way since the beginning. He hadn't, but the important point is that the class allowed him to discover that way of writing.

Yes, I am now faced with a pile of novels to read. But here's the most satisfying part: They're good novels! Some of them are actually really good. Now I haven't gotten all the way through them yet, and I won't for a while, and maybe I'll be singing a different tune come January, but let me just say that I don't think I've ever been more impressed with and proud of my students as I read these semester-long labors of love. There's no way, as an undergraduate, I would have felt ready to take on a novel--not in one semester. 11 of my undergraduate students just did. And they didn't just survive; they thrived. Kudos to you all. It was a great four months.


  1. Wow, John...congrats to you and your students for this accomplishment.

  2. Thanks, Sandy. The credit certainly goes to them.