Thursday, October 27, 2011

NaNoWriMo in the Classroom

Before I was the Advanced Fiction TA, I was an Advanced Fiction student.  I walked into my first class with Cathy Day last fall and was as stunned as this year’s students when I was told one of the requirements would be completing a 50,000 word novel over the course of the semester.  On the first day, that knowledge isn’t just overwhelming, it’s insane.  50,000 words for one class—and that’s just the novel; there were other assignments—on top of the workload for all the other subjects?

I whined in the privacy of my dorm room.  I complained.  I rolled my eyes and flopped on my bed and wailed that there was no way any of us, let alone me, could complete this assignment.  And then the initial few weeks of class passed and, in a process similar to what I imagine this year’s students went through, I sucked it up, started planning, and by the end of the semester, had my first completed novel preserved in a Word document on my laptop.  Granted, it’s one of those “first novels” that authors lock up in a drawer somewhere and never expose to the light of day, but it’s an achievement nonetheless.

There is one difference, however, between my writing process and the one that this year’s students are using.  The 2011 Advanced Fiction class has been writing 3333 words a week since the semester began.  My class participated in National Writing Month of November, pounding out 1667 words a day and wiping out the total required word count in 30 days.

As thirty days slip by, so do the writers' minds.

 Some of us, anyway.  Cathy acknowledged that her students may have schedules that conflicted with writing a novel in a month, so the class was given the option of starting in October or November.  Because I’m a stickler for the rules, a former NaNoWriMo participant—won once, and my other attempts are not up for discussion—and the sort who works best with a deadline looming over my head like the Sword of Damocles, I opted to begin in November.  I succeeded, along with all of the October participants and some of the November starters.  But not all of the students who followed the official NaNoWriMo schedule completed their novels, and they didn’t feel it was fair that their classmates weren’t held to the same schedule.  So this year, Cathy dropped NaNoWriMo in the classroom and replaced it with 3333 words a week.

I can’t say the one method is objectively better than the other.  Certainly, a weekly word count through the semester allows students more time to think about the progression of their plots and help them decide what they want to happen next.  It gives them more freedom to explore their characters and settings as they write, and if they find that the novel they had in mind turns out to be as interesting to them as watching road tar set, then they have more time to come up with another storyline.

But I can’t help but miss the frantic energy of the NaNoWriMo class.  I’d sit down in the classroom, throw on my headphones, turn on the Inception soundtrack—there is no song in the world that makes me write faster than “Mombasa”—and hammer on my keyboard for an hour and fifteen minutes.  Any pause in my typing or music would alert me to the sound of a dozen others around me writing as feverishly as I was, and that, combined with my fiercely competitive nature, gave me the inspiration I needed to go on.  The highlight of my days that November was logging onto the NaNoWriMo site and plugging in my word count, watching my progress bar inch closer and closer to 50,000.

This year’s writing sessions don’t have that intensity.  It’s not that the students are lacking in creativity and drive.  And it isn’t that they’re failing to reach their required goals.  But the word count is so spread out in comparison to last year that of course the classroom writings won’t have the same sense of urgency.  It’s not a bad thing.  It’s just not the flavor I’m accustomed to.

And as for me, it turns out the more time I have to think and plan beyond the initial character and plotting sessions, the more time I have to become bored with my ideas.  In a sort of college horror story that only the English majors would find frightening, at the end of September I realized I no longer had any interest in the original novel and had to start from scratch. But even with a new storyline and characters planned out, I’m still stuck in neutral.  I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo again this year, once more banging out my novel over the course of a month.

Every year at the end of October, the debates about NaNoWriMo start.  Is it a good thing?  Is it a bad thing?  Does it provide badly needed structure or does it give participants unrealistic expectations?  After going through NaNoWriMo with last year’s class and experiencing the entirely different structure of this year’s, I don’t think these questions are so black and white.  I can’t work without a countdown hovering behind me, smacking me in the head with a calendar.  But if some other students had to follow my schedule, they’d crash and burn before Thanksgiving Break.

That, I believe, is the real lesson I’ve learned from experiencing NaNoWriMo in the classroom.  No two writers run on the same internal clock, or have the exact same amount of time to set aside.  It’s not a question of whether a method is good or bad, just how well it works for the participants.  Some people can write a novel in a month; others require a full semester.  As long it produces a story, what does it matter how the story was created?

Though in an entirely subjective sense, I must admit I prefer the NaNo method.  We get progress bars, after all.  How cool is that?

-Lauren Burch

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Word Count: Where We Are

This week marks the midterm of the semester, and as such, the halfway point of the class.  Today, the Advanced Fiction students tallied up two word counts:  One for the total number of words typed this semester for the 50,000 word goal, be it planning for their novel project, part of the novel itself, or unrelated writing.  The 50,000 word goal includes work on one or more novel projects (the students are allowed to change their novel at any point in the process) as well as planning for a project or unrelated writing, such a journal of the week's events.  The purpose of the 50,000 goal is to ensure that students keep writing from week to week.  The second word count consisted of the number of words written specifically for the novel.

Casey Alexander:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  33,216
  •          Novel Word Count:  7231
Alec Brenneman 
  •          Total Weekly Word Count: 26,165
  •        Novel Word Count: Novel One: 4554  Novel Two: 2929
Lauren Burch:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  16,887
  •          Novel Word Count: 0 
Clay Carter:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  25,000
  •          Novel Word Count:  20,000
Cathy Day:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  13,332
  •          Novel Word Count:  10,332
Ashley Ford:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  24,668
  •          Novel Word Count:  3682
Christine Gyselinck:
  •         Total Weekly Word Count:  19,998
  •          Novel Word Count:  7600
Anne Haben:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  21,979
  •          Novel Word Count:  5523
Spencer McNelly:
  •         Total Weekly Word Count:  3000 
  •          Novel Word Count: 0
Jennifer Perov:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  21,143
  •          Novel Word Count:  3530
Maye Ralston:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  23,937
  •          Novel Word Count:  38, 417
Rachel Rump:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  19,456
  •          Novel Word Count:  Novel One: 8557  Novel Two: 7562
Meredith Sims:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  26,062
  •          Novel Word Count:  428
Mo Smith:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  25,803
  •          Novel Word Count:  17,437
Aaron Wittwer:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  23.400
  •          Novel Word Count:  15,000
Miranda Wuestefeld:
  •          Total Weekly Word Count:  23,500
  •          Novel Word Count:  17,000
- Lauren Burch

Thursday, October 6, 2011 for Novelists

The Advanced Fiction students wrapped up their book presentations last Thursday, moving into the second phase of the class: writing their novels.  October and November will be spent writing, in class and out, until the story ideas the students began developing at the start of the semester are laid out on the page.  December will be spent revising 15 to 20 pages of the finished novels and discussing and critiquing them in small writing groups.

This week’s Noveling blog post dealt in part with deciding what would benefit each student most from a writing group.  Cathy Day asked the class to “Write an ad for yourself as a reader and writer, for the kind of writing group you'd like to be in.”  The students were to include the details of their own novel projects, such as genre and style, as well as what type of stories they’d be interested in reading and what they are looking for from other readers.  She then included a sample ad she had made:

“I'm working on a historical novel where plot is a given--based on someone's biography. It's realism (nothing surreal or irreal going on) and I'm using a lot of faux artifacts, such as newspaper clippings to help tell the story.  I just need someone to respond to how the book reads generally and what plot holes I need to fill. I'm particularly interested in working with others who are working on books that are "nonfictional" somehow, where you're trying to work with too much plot and with a lot of REAL things, trying to decide what to include and what not to, trying to decide what makes a good story and what's just superfluous facts interesting only to me. I'm also interested in people who are writing a novel about a character who may not be all that likeable, or whom the writer doesn't really know or is very unlike them. I've found this to be a huge challenge for me and I'd love to talk to others facing that same challenge.”
The students’ own ads covered a variety of genres, from fantasy to young adult to historical fiction.  Some writers included warnings for potential controversial subject matter they would be covering, such as homosexuality and suicide.  The students also discussed the POV they would use.  Above all, the ads were clear in articulating what the writer was looking for in a reader:

The piece is also heavy on plot and character, so I'm looking for someone who can help me pay close attention to my protagonist and make sure his story is told. I don't care about anything else right now besides knowing my main character and telling his story the way it should be told.” – Spencer McNelly

I’m not looking for something overly critical I just want to know if the story makes sense and captivates you to read more and if not what do I need to make that happen.  Also I’m still not entirely certain what point of view works best for this story yet so if you’re someone who can help me figure that out great.” – Anne Haben 

“I'd like readers that will look at my work with seeing it in mind, friendly readers are better, but I'm not looking for people who will just read it and say "It's good." I want people that will point out plot holes, question things that aren't clear, and make sure I'm tying up all my loose ends in my story. (There are quite a few of them.)” – Christopher Smith

When looking for feedback, the type of reader who examines one’s work is crucial.  A group of writers may all have stories in the first person, or may all be working on mystery novels, but if your readers cannot provide the feedback you need to improve, the group will not help your growth as a writer.  When looking for critiques or suggestions, it’s important to know what you need before looking for a reader.  And if you want to join a writing group, it’s also good to know what sort of a reader you will be.

Hat tip to Spencer McNelly for the post title!

- Lauren Burch