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.

Novel Class, Week 3:
The Great Gatsby, Indeed

There was just one disappointment this week: We’ve already finished The Great Gatsby.

If we read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic every week, we would probably learn something new each time about novel writing, fiction writing, and the human spirit.

But in our one session dedicated to Gatsby, our small cohort of novelists-in-progress examined, among many aspects of fiction, the tight-as-a-drum plot, the most reliable narrator ever, and the combination of plain and poetic language which both creates the romance of Daisy and Gatsby’s world, then undercuts it.

Another fictional technique in his toolbag: Fitzgerald introduces images, ideas, minor characters at the beginning, then returns to them in the end, building upon the resonances he’s created for the reader. Daisy’s voice, for chapters her most beguiling trait, is described by Gatsby: “Her voice is full of money.” The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg on a billboard that Nick Carraway sees on the train into Manhattan, a quirky detail to start, are transformed at the end into the eyes of god.

Everything in Gatsby seems accidental; for the author, nothing is. The mysterious muse may prompt a writer to describe an odd billboard in the early drafts of a book, but invention and close attention is what will get the writer to use that image to enhance the story. That’s writing.

Meantime, on our 40,000-word novels, which some within and a few outside Winchester are aiming to finish by Week 12, we are trudging away. Two members of the class were about 300 words short, but we are positive that they will make it up by next week. In our online participants, I’ve been given the right word counts by two people, one in England, one in America. Congrats!!!

First Hurdle Crossed:
Is This the Beginning?

I am thrilled to report that all four of the MA students in our Novel-in-One-Semester class have met the word count of 3,000 words set for Week 1. Two of them have surpassed that goal. If they were motivated not by pure inspiration but by the hope of getting ahead so they don't fall short in the future, that's okay by me. 

Because there's nothing like a deadline. 

As I can attest myself. It's this past Saturday, noon-ish: I've cooked American pancakes with Canadian maple syrup for my English household. I'm feeling lazy and sleepy, but I have made a pledge to revise 3,000 words.  I'm the tutor.  I cannot walk into class not having met my side of the bargain. 

And so, I worked that day and Sunday evening to finish revising about 4,200 words.  I've made real changes, had probitive thoughts about the novel in the big picture. 

Now, in addition to having completed the next draft of this chapter, I also feel virtuous. 

And you? Our online community has grown to include English and Creative Writing BA students at Winchester, one of whom has already sent me an email, and a former student from Washington, D.C.  I've encouraged them, and you, to share your thoughts about novel writing on this blog.  A person I do not know has already posted wise words -- who is Rich Rowe? 

I do know this.  In Winchester, Sharon wrote 6,000 words; Tim came in with 17,000 but fessed up to having 13,500 done before the module started; Ian penned 2,600 for  Chapter 1 and another 600 in notes; Michelle did her 3,000 or thereabouts.  They've all written what might be a beginning. 

In class, we looked at beginnings.  Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (look at the simple, effective structure, each character introduced in Chapter 1 before they all come together in Chapter 2); Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient (so different, with his careful pace and language some found too beautiful, and yet, look, he is also establishing characters who will come together as the book progresses); John Casey's Spartina (his blunt sentences a welcome change, and how succinctly he tells us how much trouble his protagonist Dick Pierce is in when Casey writes, as an aside: "That was when Dick still had his phone.") 

What is established in these beginnings?  A world.  We are submerged in a world. 

Perhaps that is what we must do at the beginning of a novel.  Create a world. 

Even if we aren't really writing the beginning, yet. 


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.

Zuravleff Asks, 'What If?'

Jan. 10, 2008 -- The journalist in me can’t do it. The memoirist can’t do it. Even the fiction writer in me cannot recreate the conversation.

Why didn’t we tape the damned thing?

Because the star of the Off the Page launch party at Poets & Busboys in Washington, D.C., was the conversation with writers Mary Kay Zuravleff and Carolyn Parkhurst, as they responded to my questions about quotes in the book, without much idea of what was coming next, and me (I found out later) putting them on the spot: So, Carolyn, how do you see place in your fiction?

There’s a chance to see them both again at Politics and Prose on Friday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m. along with writers Alice McDermott and Marie Arana.

In the meantime, the ever-energetic Mary Kay has answered a few questions. Zuravleff (who also has her own Web site) is author of two novels, The Bowl Is Already Broken and The Frequency of Souls and the winner of many awards including the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Her frank, down-to-earth and intelligent answers had many of my friends saying afterward—I want to read her book!

I’m going to start with one of my favorite questions to ask other writers—and, when I can bear it, myself.

Carole: Why do you write?
Mary Kay: All my favorite sentences start with “What if?” and my writing is an attempt to follow these hypothetical questions to some satisfying conclusion. For some reason, "what if" is like a fuse that I must chase to see where it leads. I’m still surprised when the fuse leads into a maze or back to the starting point. In other words, the questions that matter provoke novels, lives, families—complex and rather disorderly systems, all.

Carole: The quote from Marie Howe’s poem, “The Meadow,” which you included in your Off the Page bio, is very beautiful. Why do you think it's so important to you? What exactly do you get out of it? The quote is:

"your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words
that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled
among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life."

Mary Kay: One of the major paradoxes as a writer is working through years and drafts to get at what you’ve always known. Or, quoting another part of Howe’s poem, “As we walk into words that have waited for us to enter them.” How can that be so challenging? For me, make-believe stories about invented characters and imaginary situations scratch an itch that real life can’t reach. I need the pyrotechnics of expression—absurdity, language, structure—to clarify what I can’t quite access.

Carole: Can you talk about your current project?
Mary Kay: Lately, I’ve been writing short stories, and it has been a joy to be confined in the small, tight world of a story. After the unruly orchestral maneuvers of composing a novel, I feel as if I were singing in the shower. One clear voice can echo like crazy, and even the off-key song, lathered up and delivered with bluster, has its charm.