At the beginning of this semester, fifteen students--ten undergraduates and five graduate students--gathered in Thompson Hall on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas with one goal in mind: to finish a complete draft of a novel in less than four months and even while taking other courses. To say nothing of all the other life matters they needed to tend to. Indeed, several of the undergraduates were on the staff of our student-run campus literary magazine, which features both print and online editions, and necessitated not only the reading of submissions but regular late night, sometimes contentious, meetings. Many of the students had other on-campus responsibilities and off-campus hobbies. Some of them had spouses. Three of the graduate students worked full-time jobs on top of taking a full graduate student load. One had a child. In spite of all that they knew was in front of them, and some that they couldn't anticipate, every student gathered that cold January night for Novel Writing Workshop professed to be ready to take on the challenge: 55,000 words of original fiction writing in one semester. And not just any old fiction writing, but writing that developed a plot and characters over a single book-length work and that eventually found its way to a denoument. 55,000 words. For those who don't understand what a challenge that is, I'll say that while on the short side for a novel, 55,000 words is roughly 10 times the amount of original writing typically asked for in a creative writing course. 10 times.
Well, last Wednesday we held our final class meeting of the semester (not counting our "exam" period), and so I figure it's time to release a semester report. How did they do? First, I'm happy to report that of the original fifteen students thirteen stuck with the class until the finish. And of the two students who dropped, one was dropped by me; not because she was not able to keep up with her novel and not because she did not want to continue with the course, but because she almost never came to class, a violation that gets you dropped in my book. Only one student--a single one--dropped herself because she found the assignment of composing a draft of a novel in one semester too imposing. And it's a fact of life that no matter what the college class, students drop. There's nary a course offered at any college any semester in which someone, or several ones, don't choose to drop. (For example, in one of my other creative writing courses this semster, three students dropped.) In other words, the droppage rate for Novel Writing Workshop was at worst typical, and maybe even less than typical, for a university class. Astounding. As I told the group week after week, when I was an undergraduate I would never have dreamed of trying to write a novel in one semester--or even before I graduated! None of the other creative writing students I knew would have dreamed of it either. And yet this group--not without some occasional, and not very surprising, bouts of despair--took up the challenge and soldiered on, as if it were the most normal enterprise in the world.
Okay, okay, I hear you saying, give us the results--numerical results! Here they are:
The winner among the graduate students is Lynne Landis, a first year MFA student who, while working a full time job as a nurse and taking two other classes, wrote 79,841 words. 79,000! Said another way, that's almost 300 pages of original work. In one semester!
The winner among the undergraduates is Chelsea Callantine, who wrote 57, 830 words.
Every other student in class, every single one, met the 55,000 word count requirement. Most went over by several dozen or several hundred words. These students are:
Stacey Margaret Jones
John Mitchel, I must note, earned the unique distinction of hitting 55,000 words exactly. This isn't so surprising, though, because John had a habit of writing exactly up to the word count requirement most weeks: not a single word more. That's fine, John. You got it done, after all.
And what I find most admirable is that these folks didn't merely pump out words, although I know it felt like that to them at times, but they wrote complete drafts. Not one of them simply stopped at the word count goal. They stopped when they had finished their stories. Congratulations to all. You have earned yourselves a week off.