Some thoughts on writing novels

Part 1 in what will probably be an infinite series.

I’m taking a novel writing class at NYU this year. It’s not the first time I’ve taken a novel-writing class–I did one at Gotham Writers Workshop, and it’s always interesting to see people’s processes, to see people figure out their processes, and it always shows me how hard it is to do novel-writing in a class. Many published writers say that your first novel teaches you how to write a novel, but also, that each novel demands its own process.

I think if I taught a novel writing class, and could do anything I wanted, I would try to meet each individual writer and project where they were, rather than trying to impose any kind of process on them–not that this class imposes much of a process, but it does have three workshop submissions of 25 pages each, and that is not up for negotiation.

For the first submission, I’d have people bring in the first 20-25 pages, and as much of a synopsis/plan as they can possibly share, as well as their own assessment of where they are with the novel and what they need help with. I do a mix of planning and just writing and seeing what happens–no plan survives contact with the enemy, e.g. the blank page–but it’s still important to have a plan. I would definitely encourage students to figure out where they think their novel is going, what the end will be. I know it’s not true for everyone, but for most people, it’s almost impossible for writing to go anywhere if you don’t have some idea where it’s going. That end point will certainly change as the novel goes on.

Then some people might never submit again during the semester, or they would only submit the pages and information they wanted feedback on. Maybe they’d submit an entire manuscript up to the point where they got stuck. Maybe they would only submit ideas that they wanted to discuss. Maybe they would talk about what they had trouble with and then I, the fantasy professor, would ask them to bring in certain things to share and discuss, character studies, a particular scene, an outline.

Or the writers might just need some hand-holding and encouragement to help them feel like they aren’t alone with the struggles of writing a novel, in order to help them through the process of creating a rough draft.

In the class I’m taking now, the 25 page submissions are not provoking the sort of discussion that might be helpful for me, if there is such a discussion. I wish right now that I could write the whole novel and do a round of edits on it before workshopping more of it.

Some of that is self-protective. I know it will be better later, and I know I can get it there, so I’d rather not expose half-formed things. I want to impress people–don’t we all? Some of that is because I have completed a novel, and am preparing, with help, to try shopping it to traditional publishers, so I’ve traveled this road before, for longer, while most of my fellow students haven’t.

And part if it is also that I don’t even know enough about this novel right now to have questions or things I want addressed by my fellow students. I have some very certain ideas, which I do not want feedback on, because I’m not going to change them based on other people’s suggestions. I will have to write into any change to them. And I have some vast uncertainties, big questions like “How do I do this?” which no one can answer.

I’m looking forward to this semester being over because I want to have time and space to bang out a rough draft of this novel, and have the raw material to shape into something I actually want to show other people.


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  1. Is there such a thing as a writing consultant (or is that what an agent is)?
    But it seems to me that you’ve articulated a need that probably is widespread. And a beginning writer is probably not going to have access to an agent.

    1. It makes me want to run a writing group that operates like this. I mean, there are writing coaches, so that might be the role you’re thinking of. It might work better in a one-on-one ad hoc way, but it’s also positive to have feedback from multiple people.

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