Monday, March 25, 2013

Novel class update #2


 It continues to be a nourishing semester in my Novel Writing Workshop at UCA.  We've been on Spring Break this past week, but I can tell from various Facebook posts my students have put up--early on, they established a Facebook page for the class--that many of them have been keeping their noses to the grindstone.  (They have to.  Two weeks worth of word count are due when next we meet.)  Some of them are still encountering plot and character breakthroughs; one student just realized her novel will have to be a trilogy (she seems excited rather than depressed); another student, Taylor Neal, warmed my heart with some philosophical musings the other day: a list of ten truths about novel writing which, for me, only reinforced why offering this class is so important.  (Are you listening, creative writing professors and curriculum committees?)  Of course, many of Taylor's "truths" deal with how hard novel writing can be--and who says it isn't?--but at the same time I was glad to see comments like this one: As frustrating as the lows are, the highs are 100 times more sweet. There's an exhilaration from writing a good scene, even a good sentence. It's like a peace that settles over you. It keeps you going, and reminds you that this can be done.  And this one: When you're writing, there are a million other things you would rather be doing. When you can't write, there's nothing you would rather be doing than writing.  And this one: Nothing is impossible (cheesy, but true. There were times when I was convinced I would never write a book, and look at me now, almost 40,000 words in)

Perhaps her most important comment, given that the framework for Taylor's novel writing this semester has been our class, and a crucial component of the class is small peer review groups, is the following: Writing a novel is truly a group effort. There's a reason it never really worked out when I was going at it alone. Critique partners are indispensable when it comes to feedback, encouragement, and ranting about your novel.  You have no idea how good that made me feel to read.  Because it means the class is working precisely as, and why, it should.  I would never deny that writing a novel--or any book--is fundamentally a tussle with your own soul, your own knowledge, your own wisdom, your own discipline (or lack thereof), but it's an age-old truth that writers have always needed to share their work and receive feedback on that work.  In my very first semester of graduate school, the then-MFA director, Peter Klappert, who was also my poetry professor, preached this gospel non-stop, probably because of an anti-MFA sentiment that was already breeding in some writing circles and still abides today.  Workshop or no workshop, writers have always shared their work with someone; they've needed to; they've sought it out.  Pulitizer Prize winners have their beta readers, for heaven's sakes.  Some of them belong to writing groups.  (Just ask Jennifer Egan.) The image of the lonely writer in the candlelit garret really should be gone by now, and especially should be gone from the minds of young, budding novelists--that is, if they ever hope to accomplish anything.  What a novel writing class can provide for student authors is a place and a process.  It provides a classroom to bring questions to as well as new discoveries and bitchy, self-loathing complaints.  It provides regular fixed deadlines.  And, perhaps best of all, it provides (or should provide) intelligent, sympathetic, practiced readers.  (By sympathetic, I don't mean they are going to approve of everything that you do, but that they understand what it is you are attempting.  They are informed novel readers, at least more so than your boyfriend or the manager at your bank job.)  At least this was my hope when I established the outlines for Novel Writing Workshop, and, for some of the students at least, it appears to be working exactly as planned.  And I can only hope that the lessons my students learn about novel-writing from having to draft an entire book this semester will carry over to the next time they want to write a novel, but won't have a Novel Writing Workshop to join.  Hopefully, they'll be able to find their own workable substitute.

Last time I wrote about this class, I joked that, given how well many of them were doing, maybe I was being too easy on them this semester.  Maybe I should up the work count next time.  (55,000 words, after all, does make for a fairly short novel.)  When I mentioned this in class, several said No, No, No, this is about as much work as we can handle.  But the truth is, except for one student, everyone has kept up with word count and several are ahead.  A couple students informed me that they intended to finish their drafts over spring break and then edit for the rest of the semester.  I'm astonished and delighted at this continuing state of affairs.  So, why not encourage future classes to get closer to the 80-100K average for a published novel in this country?  (Closer, I'm saying, you realize.  I would never ask undergraduates to write 80K.)  Alternatively, I am considering assigning another model novel or two for them to read.  (Short novels.)  I find it very instructive to read a novel while thinking about how the writer handles the various elements of craft in the span of the book that you yourself are working through.  In other words, while developing the first third of your book, to look at what the author of the model novel establishes in the first third of hers.  And so on.  I've tried to do some of that with the two novels I've assigned this semester, but I would need to assign at least one more to create a perfect bridge for the arc of the students' drafts. 

In short, it's been a fun, productive semester in Novel Writing.  And it almost always works out that way.  (Note to self: There's probably a paper to be written on why that's true.)  My semester novel?  I kind of sort of finished my draft two days ago, although not surprisingly there are several serious matters that need to be tended to before I can really regard it as a done first draft.  My own word count is at 73,700.  (Even I'm writing more than I did last time I taught the class!)         

Sunday, March 10, 2013

AWP 2013: Day Three


Fantastic finish to the conference.  Can't say I attended the big, last night, blow-out dance party; can't say I met a Nobel Prize winner in the elevator; can't say a panel discussion changed my life--but it was a good day.  I actually attended three panels yesterday, each quite different from the other.  In the morning, the staff at the NEA's literature division explained the procedures for applying for a literature grant if you are an arts organization--the day before they'd presented on how to attain an individual fellowship--and also described common mistakes made by past organizations who failed to procure a grant.  This session would have been mightily helpful if I'd been able to attend it prior to applying for a NEA for Toad Suck Review last year.   Even with the help of the Sponsored Programs division at my university, there were some fundamental matters that we didn't understand and that could have changed the outcome.  Oh, well.  We'll be better prepared for next year, which is when we'll try again.

In the afternoon I attended a session featuring Richard Russo and Jennifer Haigh on setting in fiction.  Fortunately, AWP scheduled this session for a very large room because not surprisingly, given the participants, it was a very popular talk.  I didn't go figuring to hear anything new.  I know how Rick Russo feels about location in fiction, but I so much love hearing him speak about what he does that I couldn't stay away.  He's probably our best novelist--yes, I'm serious about that--and he is unfailingly honest, energetic, and self-deprecating in his commentary.  As I've told many folk, he came to UCA as a visiting writer once, and I still remember it as one of our all-time best visits.  He didn't fail to entertain yesterday either.

The last session I attended was my own, about teaching novel writing workshops.  I was honored to find that one of the other panel members was Mako Yoshikawa, author of One Hundred and One Ways.  She delivered an eloquent paper that described her own coming of age as a novelist and how she helps teach those lessons to her graduate students at Emerson College.  Given how late in the conference it was, and a couple of the other sessions we were up against, I was happy our panel attracted the audience it did.  Everyone listened attentively, no one left early, and several insightful questions came to us when we were through speaking.  Not surprisingly, the few in the audience who teach novel writing to undergraduates were quite curious about how I structure my class and asked me to email them my syllabus.  Of course, I'm happy to.  One misperception out there that I hadn't realized until I was through speaking and answering questions was that anyone undergraduate can wander into my class.  Thus, the panelists and the audience didn't understand how I could trust the students to work so well together in peer groups and on their own novels.  I quickly explained: We have a very ambitious undergraduate creative writing degree; none of our students take Novel Writing until they have already taken Introduction to Creative Writing, Forms of Fiction, and Fiction Workshop.  By the time they get to Novel Writing, I know them pretty well.  And when I put them into peer groups, I know who is likely to work well together and who isn't.  (I also have them write up an explanation of their novel plan in the first week of the semester, and this helps guide my choices as well.  Often times I will put students in the same peer group who are working on the same kinds of novels.)

A colleague of mine, Robin Becker, who was kind enough to attend the session, paid it the highest compliment possible afterwards: "It wasn't boring like most AWP panels are."  Before I leave this topic I should say that Grub Street in Boston, a non-profit that offers continuing education for writers, runs a really intriguing, year long novel writing program in which participants enter with a first draft already completed.  The draft is read by two Grub Street instructors and feedback is given.  The participants then workshop parts of the novel for the year and revise it entirely.  At the end of the year, the entirety of the (now revised) novel is again read by the two instructors and more feedback is provided.  Lisa Borders, the panel moderator and one of the Grub Street instructors, said that she and the other instructor were quite relieved to discover, in the pilot year of the program, that indeed all of the participants' novels had gotten much better by the end of the year.

The Book Fair rooms, meanwhile, were as busy as ever as publishers all slashed their prices in hope of getting rid of stock and the public was invited in free of charge.  At the Toad Suck Review table we certainly moved our merch, and, even better, we visited with a lot of interesting writers who wandered by.  Unfortunately, I missed Erika Dreifus, a great person who maintains the great blog The Practicing Writer.  Sorry, Erika!  Will you be in Seattle next year?

The end of a  perfectly pleasant day--made especially so by the sunny weather--was capped off by dinner at Lucca with my sister, her husband, and their younger son Peter.  Peter, a high school junior, is hardly so young anymore.  He's taller than I am and built like a mountain.  It was great to see him again and to compare notes on his college search with my own son's college search.  Even better, for the first time in my life, I ate wild boar!  (In the sauce with the gnocchi.)  Fantastic.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

AWP 2013, Day Two


Weather continues to be the story here in Boston.  Well, weather and illness.  Yesterday, the snow, which was supposed to taper off and be gone by mid-morning, raged throughout most of the day, and the streets in the city were all but impassable.  It was so bad that Bostonians were furious that the Boston Public Schools had remained open.  If snow is enough that Bostonians want to stay home, you know it has to be bad.  (Apparently, the Boston Public Schools always makes their open/closed decisions the night before.  Given how conditions--no matter what the city--often change, either for the better or for the worse, this seems like a pretty dumb policy.)  In any case, the weather finally affected our grad students, who were snowed in two hours away.  I can only hope they manage to get in today for the last round of this year's AWP.  Sickness is taking a toll as well.  We were supposed to meet our friends from graduate school for dinner last night but they had to remain holed up in their hotel room.  My wife was supposed to meet a colleague for breakfast today but the woman canceled: sick; so sick she felt obliged to leave the house of a friend, where she'd been staying, and take a hotel room.  As I write this, Boston is peaceful, and the sky is wonderfully crisp and clear.  It's supposed to remain that way.

Despite the sordid winter weather yesterday, the conference picked up.  The Book Fair halls were jammed, and many conference sessions proved hard to get into, even sessions book for large-sized rooms.  Writers are congregating!  I visited with many small presses in the Book Fair yesterday, a number of which I'd never heard of before, and I gathered many useful impressions, bits of information, and contact numbers.  At the Toad Suck Review table, a few of our recent contributors came by, which is always satisfying.  Conversations with contributors always reminds you how vitally important a literary magazine is, no matter how broad or narrow its readership, no matter how slick or ugly its design.  (For the record, we have a very good design.)  What matters is getting good writing out into the world, and in the case of TSR it often is good writing that goes unappreciated at other periodicals with more limited tastes than we have.  We truly are in service of literature.  Of course, we had to explain the origin of our title to nearly every passerby.  In short, it's a name of a place not far from where our university resides.  For issue 3, we actually reprinted an article by a local reporter on the origin of the Toad Suck name.  If you want a truly exhaustive explanation, check out our issue!

Went to a few panels yesterday.  As is typical of AWP, the first one of the day was the best.  This was a session on historical fiction and included the eloquent Peter Ho Davies.  For a while the session seemed more like chit chat, and I was afraid I would have to suffer through another example of a uniquely AWP phenomenon: a session in which the topics addressed have little or nothing to do with the topics outlined in the session abstract.  False advertising.  But this session righted itself nicely and became rather interesting.  I think I will withhold more details for now and discuss those details in a later, separate post.  In the afternoon, I tried to attend a session on the "Post-Memoir Memoir," that is, memoir in which the first person point of view is deemphasized or broken.  Seemed like an interesting subject and of possible application to my creative nonfiction courses.  I arrived late but heard enough to want to leave.  The essays that the panelists read from and then commented on struck me as neither memoir nor devoid of the first person point of view.  The second speaker's essay was riddled with first person and was not terribly interesting to boot.  Late in the day, I attended a session on using social media in the creative writing classroom.  As a classic "late adapter" I'm always concerned with finding out what uses of technology everyone else has figured out but I've been dragging on.  The first two speakers had a few good ideas--using quick memes as a way to teach line breaks in poetry, and using Facebook profiles as a way to flesh out the characters one is writing about--but the moderator, "in the spirit of being contrarian" then turned the session over to an older fellow who proceeded to bitch and whine about how wrong these ideas were.  If you feel like you have to do this stuff, then okay, went his message, but don't expect me to do it.  It's not who I am.  All right, fine, I thought.  No one is making you do anything, and besides all your moaning is wasting my time.  If anyone attends a session about Using Social Media in the Creative Writing Classroom they expect to hear good ideas about how to do just that; they don't expect or want or need to hear a panelist bemoan the very idea of using social media in the creative writing classroom.  I saw no good reason, except to fill out time (and that's not a good reason), for having that man speak.  So I, and a colleague who had gone with me, left.  I tried to catch some of a session on using ghosts in literary fiction, but perhaps not surprisingly the room was overflowing.  Forget about it.  As I have drafted a literary novel that includes not one but two (sort of) ghosts in its cast of characters, I am actually concerned about doing that and having it accepted as literary realism--which in my opinion, it is.  Because it is. (My novel, I mean.)

Speaking of late adapting of technology, I signed on to Twitter yesterday.  Can't promise I'll be tweeting much in the near future, but my handle is JohnvanderJohn.  (This suggested by Twitter when the one I wanted was already taken.)  Sounds like a Dutch rapper's handle.  Why did I sign up--finally--for Twitter?  A number of reasons.  For one, I got tired of telling publishers I was active in social media when I'm really kind of just a little active.   For another, what the heck, it's AWP; get into the spirit of adventure.  (I hear longtime Twitter users snickering.)

I'll visit a few panels for certain today.  One is about applying for an organization grant from the NEA.  This is something Toad Suck Review has done in the past, but without success.  We're looking for some better ideas about how to go about it.  The other panel is the one I'm speaking on: teaching novel writing to different student populations.  As a nice twist, some of the students who are currently taking Novel Writing Workshop with me will be in the audience!  I can only expect excellent questions and comments from them.  Later, we have dinner with my sister and her husband, two southerners who have long since migrated to Boston and live in a historic home in Belmont.  It's been a while since I've seen them.  We're long overdue.  I often tell people that AWP is essentially a social phenomenon--I do not mean that in any pejorative sense--and sometimes the socializing extends far beyond the walls of the conference.  Far from detracting from the conference, it makes for its greatest value.

Friday, March 8, 2013

AWP 2013, Day One


Well, as I feared, the winter weather is upon us.  It arrived late Wednesday and continues as I type this early Friday morning.  While the conference seems perfectly crowded, I have to suspect that many conference goers suffered delays or cancellations of their travel plans.  After all, it's not just Boston that got hit but the whole northeast portion of the United States.  UCA's own inaugural class of MFA students is here, and they are staying two hours away.  Yet so far they have been able to fight through the snow to reach the city and enjoy themselves.  "Enjoy" has included visiting Charles Bukowski's favorite old hang out--not that far from the Convention Center, it turns out--and getting brand new Boston-based tattoos.  They've also been extremely helpful with manning the Toad Suck Review book table in the Book Fair hall.  Thanks, guys.  I must say part of my suspicion about cancelled or delayed travel plans is that the Book Fair itself seems less jammed than usual.  Now, TSR is in the second floor Book Fair hall, whereas about 65% of the other tables are on the ground floor hall, and this might have something to do with the light traffic we were getting on Day One.  But even the ground floor Book Fair hall seemed hardly so no-elbow-room-busy as in years past.  We'll see today.  This state of affairs could change overnight.

Some highlights from Day One: I went to two sessions yesterday, both reasonably interesting.  The first session was one of those classic AWP overly-crowded-into-a-tiny-room affairs, with scores of listeners spilling out into the hallway.  Hey, AWP, somebody wasn't thinking right when they scheduled the room for that session.  The subject?  Fairy tales in adult fiction.  Maybe that seems esoteric, but plenty of writers were eager to hear about it. The panel included, among others, Jane Yolin, Kelly Link, and Kate Bernheimer, a rather star-studded group, to be sure.  I was especially happy to see Kelly Link, a writer whose work I've long admired but who I've never met in person.  In my opinion she was the rock star of the panel, although her manner is anything but.  In fact, she tended to defer to the other panelists, more than I think she should have.  It was a well run session, with lots of time left for audience questions, and there were some smart ones.  One interesting issue, for which no real answer was given, was what to do when you are employing a non-western fairy tale but writing for a western audience.  How can the audience pick up on the multiple levels of meaning and of story that you are embedding by consciously employing such a tale?  The short answer is that they can't, but I don't think that's the kind of fully thought out response that the asker was looking for.  An interesting bit of information that popped out: up until just last year, the National Book Foundation, which awards the prestigious National Book Award every year in various categories had forbidden books based on myths, legends, or fairy tales from being considered for its fiction prize.  What?  I know, a head scratcher.  Apparently, many National Book Award judges were unaware of this prohibition as they had indeed considered and honored various fairy tale/myth based books in the past.  But even so the rule is clearly in violation of the spirit of creative freedom (to say nothing of aesthetic wisdom); yet it was only removed last year and only because of a conscious petitioning effort spearheaded by Kate Bernheimer.

The second panel, cutely named "All the Young Dudes," featured three youngish male writers who had recently published short story collections with small presses.  It was sort of a combination reading/how to session, as in "How did you guys get your short story collections published?"  I must say that the questions that followed their reading were fairly amateurish and even stupid ("What do you do if your girlfriend gets mad at you for writing so much instead of spending time with her?").  And this from MFA grads, no less.  (The obvious answer to the above question, delivered by one of the panelists: "Get a new girlfriend.")  I shouldn't be surprised at my disappointment with the questions.  It's been my experience at AWP that any session that professes to deliver the "secrets" of how to publish tends to be attended by desperate sounding and desperate seeming people.  They tend to be among the more unseemly aspects of any otherwise interesting convention.  The readings were okay--just okay--with one reader and one story clearly shining: a dramatic monologue written by Jared Yates Sexton of Georgia Southern University and included in his new volume An End To All Things (Atticus Press).  It was a smart story and well-performed.   We chatted afterwards.  His department, an independent writing department, is trying to found a MFA program.   Since we just did so, I figured I might be able to offer some information and perspective.

Some more Day 1 highlights: 1) The journal Unstuck, which promotes "surreal, futuristic, and fantastic literature," was running an interesting writing conference-specific writing contest.  On the back of the instruction sheet for the contest one was supposed to write a short story--and only on the back; it could be no longer--and then return the sheet no later than the close of the day today (Friday).  In other words,  you couldn't send them anything you've already written.  You have to do it here.  What's more, the sheet included a list of characters, a list of settings, and a list of items.  One element from each list had to appear in the finished story.  I picked alien invasion, funeral urn, and saloon.  (Believe it or not, it's a serious story.)  I composed it while I sat at our not-terribly-busy TSR book fair table, with some guidance from the folks at the next table on what drinks to choose for my particular protagonist.  It was fun and fairly quick and I hope they like it.  To "win" the contest is simply to have your story selected for inclusion in a special issue of Unstuck.  2)  I visited with the kind folks at the journal Versal.  This is an American-staffed magazine that is housed in Amsterdam.  Created ten years ago by expatriates for the local expatriate community in Amsterdam, it's now an international journal that comes every year to AWP and even sometimes sponsors readings and panels at the conference.  They will be publishing a chapter from my Van Gogh novel in the next issue, and the invited all contributors  to stop by their table for a taste of good Dutch gin.   I'm not a big gin drinker, but I have to admit it was strong and smooth.  3) I ran into Louise Harper, the wife of Graeme Harper, an Australian writer who directs the Great Writing Conference in the UK.  It was good to catch up with her.  She and Graeme kindly hosted us for dinner back in 2006 when Great Writing was in Portsmouth, then Graeme's home university.  I remember fondly taking the hovercraft over to the Isle of Wight and enjoying a beautiful supper and great conversation in their home.  Our kids were with us on the trip, and Louise kindly kept them the next couple days while we attended the conference.  Fantastic to see her again.  As I always tell people, AWP is all about seeing your life as a creative writer flash before your eyes over the course of three days.  It's started happening already.

Monday, March 4, 2013

On to AWP


Two days from now, I'll board a plane to Boston for this year's installment of the annual craziness called AWP.  According to the organization, it will be the biggest conference yet, which is a little scary, considering how big past conferences have been.  The conference has thoroughly outgrown even the space provided by mega-hotels; so for the 2013 edition AWP will be held in the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston.  One request, dear reader: please pray for no snow.   Winter weather has caused enough traveling snafus in that part of the country already; the last thing thousands of AWP conference goers need is to have their air and train schedules slaughtered by delays and cancellations.  I'm already worried about the "Sequester" and how cuts in the air traffic system might affect scheduled flights.  Thanks, U.S. government, for being so comedically dysfunctional!   (I realize any problems that the sequester causes for my travel plans is nothing compared to the trouble that will be caused to those people who will endure furloughs and severe cuts in pay.)

I am looking forward to the conference for several reasons.  First, I'm excited about the panel I'm on, which will discuss the phenomenon of single semester novel writing workshops.  As I reported in a previous post, this relatively new but fast growing type of course has seen a variety of iterations among its instructors.  Unlike the typical Fiction Workshop, there isn't a standard pedagogy yet, and that makes the class--and my panel--very exciting.  I expect to learn about the drastically different ways different instructors skin this particular cat.   And I'm eager to report on what my students are doing in their Novel Writing Workshop this semester.  Too, I will be at the conference to represent Toad Suck Review magazine.  We will introduce to a national audience our groundbreaking Toad Suck Review 3-D issue.  It really is a great issue, and I know our head editor, Mark Spitzer, and I are looking forward to showing it to folks.  We may even find ourselves soliciting for new material for issue #4!  We will also have along some of our grad students, who did editorial work on issue TSR 3-D.  It will be their first time at AWP--an important milestone for any young writer.

I will be blogging most days from the conference.  So if you're interested in how the conference "feels," at least to one conference goer, check this space, starting Thursday.

                                                               *  *  * 

Publication notice: An odd little short story I wrote called "Homeroom," which adopts the form of a high school homeroom announcements sheet, will be published soon in theNewerYork Press's Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (EEEL).  I'm excited for it to land there.  Experimental, it is.

News Item:  Jennifer Egan, novelist extraordinaire and author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Look at Me, and several other titles, came to the UCA campus this week.  She gave a great reading, followed by an extensive question and answer session.  She then followed this up the next day with a small group meeting with Department of Writing students in which she covered a wide range of subjects, from drafting and revising strategies to the phenomenon of audio books to her side job as a journalist.  She was not only encouraging to the students but offered several morsels of really sharp, shrewd advice.  She earned her money, put it that way.  And the students spoke glowingly of her for days after.  Sometimes visiting writers don't live up to their billing; Egan exceeded hers.

Followup note: I wrote a couple weeks ago about Bobbie Ann Mason's historical novel The Girl in the Blue Beret.   If the novel, or Mason, sounds interesting to you, you should check out an interview with the author published in The Pinch magazine last fall.  In the interview, Mason discusses the kinds of research she carried out for the sake of the novel.  (No link to the interview, I'm afraid.  You'll have to get ahold of the journal itself.)

Followup #2:  The novel I'm writing this semester while my Novel Workshop students write theirs is at 54,000 words.  That's only 1000 words from the mandated total word count I gave them at the beginning of the semester.  Problem is, I'm about 5/6 of the way through my plot.  So it will just need to go longer!