Thursday, December 23, 2010

Publishing success for Yellow


It's only a step, but a very gratifying one: A chapter from Yellow was just accepted for publication by The New Delta Review, a fine journal published out of LSU. The excerpt will appear in the spring, just as the magazine is switching to an online format. That's good news for anyone in the blogosphere who would like to get a little taste of my Van Gogh novel. I will certainly post about it when the issue is up and running. The chapter will run under the title "The Evangelist."

I'm quite happy at the news of this acceptance. Publishing novel chapters is always a tricky business. Some journals simply won't take them; others, understandably, only want to see novel chapters that work as stand alone stories. Culling one's novel for chapters that function that way is intriguing and delicate work, often requiring significant cutting and recombining. Fortunately, in Yellow, a somewhat episodic novel, I found several such chapters. ("The Evangelist" is the first to be accepted for publication.) Interestingly, more than a couple of these were chapters that featured a different point-of-view character than Vincent. I'm guessing the reason that these stood out is that they are literally stand alone in the novel itself, the only chapters which feature those particular point-of-view characters.

The chapter accepted by The New Delta Review, like all the novel's chapters, is told from the 3rd person limited point of view with the point of view character being one P. C. Gorlitz, a man who rooms with Van Gogh in Dordrecht. Gorlitz is an actual historical figure, one of those minor names who come up when you start to research Van Gogh's biography and read his letters. Very little is known about him now, except that he was a young schoolmaster when he shared a room in a boardinghouse with Vincent. In 1914 an article about Van Gogh, written by one M.J. Brusse, appeared in a Rotterdam newspaper. The article quotes from a letter Brusse received from Gorlitz in which Gorlitz recalls his months rooming with Van Gogh. I used a few of the details from Gorlitz's recollection to build my chapter, but the personality of the man himself and the core facts of his life, such as his attitude toward the teaching life, were utterly imagined. This, of course, is one of the great joys of historical fiction: taking an actual person and giving him a new life through the exercise of one's creative faculties. After writing the chapter I felt, of course, that the real Gorlitz must have been exactly like my Gorlitz. Well, maybe he was and maybe he wasn't; but in any case, my Gorlitz feels as real to me as anyone--living, dead, or imaginary. Is there a difference?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Once more to the novel class


I know I already bragged up my novel writing students in my last post, but after looking over their Final Folders I just have to go one more time to this subject. Their Final Folders contained a few different items, one of which was a reflective paper about the whole semester and the act of composing a novel in such a short period of time. In reading the folders, I'm amazed by, and proud of, them all over again, especially at the extent to which they get it. What the semester was about, what I was hoping to accomplish, and how by necessity that accomplishment happened. No kidding, I was almost moved to tears a couple of times. (Or maybe that was just relief that I hadn't caused them to lose their minds.)

Perhaps my favorite reflective statement came from a student who is not even a Writing major, but who understood the class and its utility as well as any one. This is a student who on top of taking classes in his major and on top of taking my novel writing class, spent the semester working on an iPhone application called "Video Game Trivia," for which he had to compose 1000 questions, an endeavor that forced him to write another 78,000 words on top of the 55,000 he wrote for his novel (and however many he wrote for his other classes). He didn't tell me this until our very last meeting, after all the novels had been turned in. My jaw literally dropped. Talk about a semester to remember. I quote from his reflective paper: "Going into this class, I had certainly never written anything of this magnitude or scale before. Designing and crafting a story that would span 55,000+ words just didn't seem like something I was cabable of. Maybe in ten years but certainly not as a junior in college. It's removing that roadblock that I believe was the most important accomplishment forward in writing and for my life in general. I know I'm capable of creating another novel if I need or choose to. If my boss tells me he needs a fifty page report on howGoogle uses their public relations (my major), then I'll nod and begin thinking how it pales in comparison to the task that I accomplished when I was 20 years old."

That really choked me up. This student was in my peer review group (I broke the class into groups of twos and threes for semi-regular peer review sessions; that way, they knew at least someone was going to read and keep tabs on their progress), and I know how hard he worked on his book. I think I was even more relieved and grateful by what he said next: "I believe I may have learned more from this class than in nearly any other class in my college tenure. In a weird way, I think it may be partially because we, being the students, kind of act as the teachers in this class." Yes. They certainly were. I took a huge step back this semester and essentially turned the class over to them. Either they were going to leap into the challenge, take it up, and assist each other in the taking up, or they were going to flounder, divide, and turn sour. Remarkably, almost no one reacted in the latter fashion. Unable to workshop in the traditional sense, the learning had to come essentially from the doing and from regular meetings with their peer groups. They had to be almost completely responsible for their own education. All I did was check word counts each week and collect response papers to the chapters we read in our textbook, No Plot No Problem by Chris Baty. (And of course compose a novel of my own right along with them.)

The success of the whole enterprise really did depend on them. Not only did this group rise to the occasion, but I think they found the process of doing so--of just pushing and pushing and pushing ahead on their books--incredibly liberating. As my student wrote: "We create the material we will be discussing by writing our novels, and we don't have to worry about memorizing every ligament in the kneecaps. All we have to worry about is when our cabin is going to be overtaken by zombies and who is going to survive. The work can still be a burden, don't get me wrong, but never once did I feel like it was a waste of time." I guess that what happens when you're engaged in a project you feel passionate about. And so many of them were. How many times can I say it? They were amazing.

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.