We're about a month into Novel Writing Workshop at UCA, and so far I'm impressed and also a little amused. It's the most unusual class I teach, in that it's structured so differently than the rest of my courses: no full class workshops, a much heavier production goal, and less of an emphasis on reading (even though they are reading three books for me). Unlike the last time I taught the course, everyone who registered for it knew the deal going in: we weren't just going to talk about novel writing; we were all going to write complete novels. So I've gotten no pushback about that--and no one has dropped the course. And they've almost all met the word count goal every week. What has surprised me is how quickly some of them ran into the mid-book blues, or, as writer Chris Baty defines it, "the second week doldrums." Baty is the founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and his very entertaining book No Plot? No Problem! serves as kind of a primer and motivational message for those attempting to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. My students are writing 55,000 word novels in one semester, so we are reading Baty intermittently, applying his First Week-Second Week-Third Week-Fourth Week lessons over broader time spans. The chapter we discussed last week was all about how and why to defeat the doubts, boredom, and malaise that inevitably infects a novelist after the initial heady, giddy, optimistic starting period of her book has passed. Well, wouldn't you know it, in the days leading up to last week's class, I starting seeing Facebook messages from my students--they've created a Facebook page for the group--saying how they were utterly stalled or utterly bored or utterly out of ideas or convinced they'd made the wrong choice of novel to work on. A couple were certain they should start new novels.
I tried to respond to my students' worries and ennui with words of encouragement and a few kicks in the butt. Some of them, I could tell, needed to expand/complicate their plots and points of view; others needed to think harder about the characters they had already invented and the settings they had already established. They needed to decide on back story, character identities, and physical appearances. And some of that thinking needed to find its way into their novels as what I call "fill-in work." Not only would this increase your word count, I told them, but more importantly it would give you a clearer sense of who and what you're writing about, which will allow you to proceed into future chapters with more confidence. I echoed Baty's sentiments that despite being tempted to, they should not just dump their books: because then they'd just find themselves, a few weeks down the road, wanting to dump the new one. Self-loathing is part of the novel writing game; there's no magical escape. I told them about Heather Sellers's concept of the Sexy New Book and exactly how dangerous that Sexy New Book can be. I told them about Sellers's strategy for dealing with the Sexy New Book. First, she insists that the Sexy New Book is almost always a siren's call that will only take you away from what you really should be working on; that is, your current book. Her answer: At all costs, ignore the call of the Sexy New Book. On the other hand, she admits that sometimes the call of the Sexy New Book is simply too powerful to resist; also sometimes the Sexy New Book idea can actually be a good one. So solution number two, as Sellers explains it in her book Chapter After Chapter, is to take the Sexy New Book out on a date. That is, for one day allow yourself to think about it, plan it, do research for it, maybe even start drafting it. That is, give yourself one full day to find out if this new book really is worth pursuing. Most of the time, she says, you will realize that it is not. Occasionally, you might decide that it is. And then--but only then--you go ahead and give in to the siren call. (This has worked out for her in practice. She admits that her bestselling memoir on face blindness, You Don't Look Like Anyone I know, started as a Sexy New Book idea.) In the case of one student this semester (because I knew I could trust her), I permitted her to follow a Sexy New Book idea, but I insisted she had to be fully up to the week's required work count by the time class time came. (Amazingly, she pulled it off.)
I could be wrong, but it seems to me this "I-hate-my-novel" reaction came a lot of quicker and a lot harder to this group than to the group I taught last time. Perhaps this is a function of their earlier, anticipatory, much more hyped-up optimism? In any case, they are bravely soldiering on, finding ways to make the word count. And I should clarify that more than a few of them are perfectly happy with the current states of their novels. This seems especially true of my graduate students. I guess that's not so surprising. Their extra years worth of writing experience should give them more pluck and confidence and determination. Yes, as I mentioned in an earlier post, it's one of the curious aspects of this semester's course that I'm teaching it to both graduate and undergraduate students. I can't deny there's something of a "grad contingent" and an "undergrad contigent" feeling to the classroom, but for the most part the groups get along; the main difference is how more sanguine the graduate students are with their budding books. Amazingly, this holds true for three out of the five who do not define themselves as fiction writers and who have never tried to write novels!
Despite their "second week doldurms," I really am impressed by my students' output this semester. Thinking back to my own experiences in creative writing classrooms--both undergraduate and graduate--I can swear to you that no one ever asked anything of me like a 55,000 word draft in one semester. Not even close. And yet my students have more or less happily accepted my word count goals as a matter of course. I think this represents a sea change in the landscape of creative writing instruction. Without doubt, NaNoWriMo--which several UCA undergraduates do every year, in addition to their course work--has made longer projects seem like not the impossible dreams they once were. This is a real and powerful contribution. And of course it doesn't hurt that more and more creative writing programs, grad and undergrad, are offering novel writing courses. That is, my students are not isolated lab rats suffering through an experiment of my own design. They know they are part of a nationwide phenomenon, and they are reveling in it, even when they are stuck in the doldrums. I was inspired to teach the course this way after attending an AWP session several years ago on the subject of "allowing novels in fiction workshops." Of the three people who spoke, only one actually taught a specific Novel Writing Workshop, and her students were all graduate students. I asked a question to the panel about teaching such a course to undergraduates. I remember the ascerbic look one of the panelists gave me when he said, "What do think your undergrads would say when you tell them they have to write a novel in one semester?" Well, so far, both times I've taught the course, they've been more grateful than anything else. And now, given that they all keep meeting it, I'm thinking that 55,000 might be too tepid a word count goal. While there are several examples of good, successful, and even famous short novels--we're reading a couple this semester--the average length for a novel published in this country is 80,000-100,000 words. It's what agents, and the marketplace, seem to expect. I'm wondering if I should have them aiming for something closer to that goal. So, maybe 75,000 words next time?
Don't worry, students! Just kidding! Or am I?
(FYI, I'm writing along with my students, and my budding novel is at 32,000 words. I'm certainly ahead of schedule, but that's good, given all the looms for me later in the semester.)