Novel Class, Week 5:
Quantity vs. Quality

So the inevitable question arose these last two weeks as, a few sentences and a few pages at a time, we typed and scribbled our way to 40,000 words by Dec. 15– Is this quantity over quality?

Well, sure. Probably. Maybe even absolutely.

I want to assure you that this is okay, that this is positively the kind of discipline one needs to write a novel, that you can’t hesitate, you must keep rolling ahead.

But the truth is I don’t know that. In Winchester, Michelle worries about abandoning her usual writing process. Sometimes she just needs to think, she told our class, and she’s so worried about the word count that she can’t do that.

So am I putting her at risk of writing 40,000 crappy words instead of 5,000 good ones?

The truth is, I don’t know.

Plowing ahead may not always be the best way. Where’s the time for playing with words and images? Can a character grow on the page if those pages come out in one sitting?

And as a colleague of my partner said the other week with a friendly smile: I guess you don’t practice what you preach.

But for now, I’m making her – and all of you -- do it anyway. This is an experiment, a challenge, a jump off a cliff.

We are not alone in this endeavor, by the way. Mary Kay Zuravleff, to whom I owe the idea for this class, did a similar thing at George Mason University last year. You can read about her class at her Web site,

And if you think 12 weeks is a short time, Chris Baty, author of No Plot, No Problem, runs a natonal novel-writing month from San Francisco, in which people write 50,000-word novel in one grey month: November. Check out his Web site,

Egging us on, one of my undergrad students, Harriet, wrote: As committed Nanowrimo-ists we feel compelled to shout down to the 40,000 words-in-a-semester brigade (wimps). "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!"

Back in our MA class, a bit of irony. We all saw some of Michelle’s novel-in-progress this week. She is writing scenes here and there, we can’t tell quite yet exactly what her story will be, but there are three characters coming alive on the page, along with a world Michelle is making real for us.

Who’s complaining now?

You can’t think out the problems in a novel, my MFA advisor at Columbia, Stephen Koch, ( Web site: once told me. You have to write them out.

And so, off we go to our desks. Write it all out -- 16,000 words by next week.

1 comment:

TJS101 said...

Astonishing. As one of those writers who tend to throw themselves at the page like a paint smeared kinetecist I am also finding that the quantity/quality debate is hotting up. How much "blah" versus a pinch of "oooh"? The ratios are all a bit off at the minute, the signal is there but the noise keeps smothering it out. "The doorman's smile appeared like someone hacking at a pumpkin with an axe." A good simile? I don't know yet. "The sound of the dormitory caused by no boys at all." Is this any better? Troubling times here behind the propelling pencil. Back to the coffee machine for another grim assult on the summit... Now where's that flag?