40,000 Words in Twelve Weeks
Are We Crazy?

Sept. 29, 2008 -- Yes.

The best way to learn how to write is by writing. Any poet, fiction writer, or memoirist will say the same, but for a novelist, this is especially true. To reach a bare minimum of 40,000 words, you must put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, again and again and again.

And this is what we are about to do at a novel writing class at the University of Winchester MA Programme in Creative and Critical Writing. Write.

There are just four students signed up for this class in the south of England. By next week, they'll be bringing into class 3,000 words. I'm in the middle of a novel, so I've promised to edit as many words as they write afresh.

We will not expect beautiful prose, though some beautiful prose will, I suspect, emerge. We will not expect a perfect structure, although structure, once we have a whole, will slowly (or precipitously) take shape. Characters will begin as pale shadows in dark corners, then walk out confidently into the sunshine by word 12, 587 (I predict) and make themselves known. Grand ideas they start with may go by the wayside but be replaced by more subtle, apt themes that they recognize on page 111 and realize that, once they’re done, they will have to imbue into p. 1. The beginning may stick, or it may go. They may know the end and keep to it, or the end may be uncertain until they write it – then change again. And the middle will not likely be the natural progression that they aim for, at least not yet.

But they will not know any of this until they write this lowly, sloppy, feeling-in-the-dark first draft. It will be a wonderful mess.

At the end, students will be marked on a short bit of the novel, which they will polish in January. How sharp their vision may be then! And we will read, read, read to analyze how in the world other novelists do it.

But mostly, we will write. In the words of Roethke,

I learn by going where I have to go.


Carole Burns said...

Hello all novel writers, soon-to-be novel writers and just lookers-on,

This is where I'll hope you'll leave your comments. Give it a whirl!

richrowe said...

May I take this opportunity to quote a passage from 'The Ghost' by Robert Harris which I read recently and popped to mind when I heard of this project:

"Of all human activities, writing is the one for which it is easiest to find excuses not to begin - the desk's too big, the desk's too small, there's too much noise, there's too much quiet, it's too hot, too cold, too early, too late. I had learned over the years to ignore them all, and simply to start."

Good luck!


TJS101 said...

I must confess I was more than daunted when I knew what Carole had in mind but, with the rest of the MA challenging us with new and inventive windows into the craft the correct response was to say "OK, to hell with it." and put pencil to paper. I now have the chance to exorcise a two year old demon, a 450 page monster that has been shouting "Scared of me, aren't you!?" as I ping off another short story at the kitchen table. I may only get to the halfway point at approximately 60,000 words but half a monster will definately be a dead monster.

19,120 and counting...

Tim Stevenson.

TJS101 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Violet said...

Good post.