Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"Our Story Begins...": On First Chapters and Partials

by Cathy Day

Dear Students: 

For most of the semester, I've been pushing you to KEEP MOVING FORWARD, no matter what. Horizontal writing, not vertical. No revision. Keep sketching. Keep going. But yesterday, I had to remind you that--for the final--you also have to turn in a solid first chapter or two or three for me to assess.

Final Project 

  • The partial. A polished, ready-to-go-to-an-editor excerpt, 25-50 pages. This is vertical writing, polished, edited, as perfect as you can make it. It will probably change by the time you finish your novel, but for now, it's good to have something you can actually show people.
  • Final draft of your storyboard or outline/synopsis Please also include a short explanation of how far into the book you are, how far you still need to go, etc.
  •  The rough draft you have drafted this term. This is horizontal writing, one document that contains the 2,250+ words you produced each week + anything you produced over and above that amount. The person with the most number of words/pages wins a prize! 

This comes from Darcy Pattison's blog "Fiction Notes" but it reiterates a lot of the concepts we discussed early in the semester when we read our four novels. 

Grabs your reader’s attention

Grounds the reader in the setting. 

Intrigues the reader with a character

Here’s a quick test of character. Read the first five pages of your manuscript, then stop. Turn over page five and on the back, write everything you know about your character, JUST FROM THOSE FIVE PAGES.

Gives the reader a puzzle to solve, a question they want to see answered. 

The plot, the events of the novel, should give the reader an immediate puzzle to solve, something to worry about, something to read on to find out what happens next. It must start on page one! Not page 3 and certainly not page 25.

Best Practices for a Novel’s Opening Chapter

·        Start with a scene.
·        Put us inside the character/s we’re supposed to be “with” 
·        Make something happen.
·        Hold off on backstory. 
·        Start with a strong hook, end with a “cliffhanger.”
·        Teach us how to read the book, what to expect.

Things that make people stop reading when they start a novel

·        Nothing happens.
·        Logical Inconsistencies.
·        Voice is flat
·        The point-of-view isn’t clear or disorienting.

But Cathy, why polish a partial when you aren't done with the whole book yet?

So when people ask you, "What's your book about?" you have something to show them. These might be friends and family, or, in my case, it's an employer or someone willing to give you money so you can keep writing. I've been working on my novel for a few years, and I don't yet have a complete first draft that's ready for human eyes, but based on a polished partial, I've gotten an agent, a fellowship, and a job. It's deeply comforting to know that, even though you're deep in the murk of a work in progress, that there's something "done." I wrote more about this here.

How do I begin?

Here's a blog post that illustrates thirteen different types of novel openings.

Why 50 pages? 

You need to pretend that I am not your teacher, I am an agent. You've queried me, and I have written back and asked for 1.) a synopsis of the whole book, and 2.) a partial, which might mean:
  • the first 50 pages
  • the first 1, 2, or 3 chapters
  • a combination of the two.
My chapters are very short, like 5 pages a piece. Do I send only 15 pages then?

No, they expect something around 50 pages. That's what's expected.

My chapter 3 goes to page 55. Do I just stop at p. 50?

Absolutely not. You want your partial to stop at a chapter break. So go to p. 55.

My chapter 3 goes to page 61. Do you send 61 pages instead of 50?

No. Go back in and trim a few pages until you get it down to about 55 pages.

I can't.

Oh, yes you most certainly can.

Why are you giving us the option to turn in 25 pages if the standard is 50?

Two reasons: Because I know that none of you are actually done yet (and in real life, you would never begin this process until you had a complete manuscript ready to go), and because I want you to still be writing, moving forward, getting the whole first draft DONE.

Okay. [Sigh.] 

Good luck! Can't wait to read your partials!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Why We Read Simple Books in This Class

by Cathy Day

My favorite novel of all time is Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! but I didn't teach it in my novel writing seminar this semester. I taught books that are much less ambitious, less innovative, less formally interesting. They are not "bad" books, per se, but they aren't necessarily "great" books either, if by great we mean "likely to win a book prize" or "be lauded by critics and writers and remembered for all time."

The novels I taught:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Now, you can make fun of my reading list if you want, but I stand behind it wholeheartedly. Why choose "simple" books in a novel writing class?

Because it increases the likelihood that students will consciously or unconsciously model their novel after one of these books. Which I think increases the likelihood that they will actually finish a draft in the course of the semester. Which is the only outcome I'm "grading" them on. 

I was pleased to see this interview in which a novelist says something similar:

"From a practical point of view, if a book has a linear narrative, is written in a single voice, these things improve the odds of completion: You are unlikely to run into structural problems, so if you return to the book after a long gap the only challenge is resuming the well-established voice. If it involves no research the odds are even better: It is not burdened with a mass of notes, once fresh to the mind, which must be gone over again before work can be resumed. The practical is not, of course, the only point of view. This kind of book can offer a kind of formal satisfaction: The reader learns the rules of the game. Constraints can give it intensity, momentum, energy."
Next semester, I'm not going to give students all linear novels written in a single voice. I'm going to give them four different forms:

1. loosely linked collection of stories--Caitlin Horrocks' This is Not Your City
2. novel-in-stories--Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad
3. novel in vignettes/flash--Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge
4. linear novel, single voice--still deciding, maybe Hunger Games again

Will fewer students finish? Or will they do better because they'll be given a wider variety of forms to emulate? 

I'll let you know what happens.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Tools You Use to Write a Novel

It's your choice!

This week, we're compiling a resources page for the class blog.  Whereas the posts up until this point have been about the class's methods and assignments, we'd like to create a list of links to various resources to help our readers on their own noveling journeys.

What has been helpful to you when you try to write?  A book on the subject?  A website?  An essay, like Anne Lamott's Shitty First Drafts?  Whatever first comes to mind, let us know what you'd like to see!

- Lauren Burch

Monday, November 14, 2011

Twenty Things I Want to Tell You about the Novel I Started Ten Years Ago

Dear Class:

1. I get the idea for this novel in 2002. I spend over six months reading and researching. Another six writing a book proposal/synopsis. And then my agent sends me an email: Variety has announced that they are making a movie about Cole Porter called De-Lovely. The plot of the movie is basically the plot of my book. "Stop working on it," the agent says. "I'll never be able to sell it right now. Go back to the circus book and finish that."

2. When I submit The Circus in Winter to an editor, I also send her the proposal/synopsis for the Cole Porter book, to see if she is interested. As my agent predicted, she isn't interested.

3. I gather up all my Cole Porter stuff, put everything in a box, and don't look at it again for seven years.

4. So much changes in seven years. I have become an entirely different person. I live in a different state (#6), have a different job (#3), and I have just gotten married (#1). I've written Book #2 and needed to get cracking on Book #3. I go back to the Cole Porter box and open it up, re-read the synopsis.

5. I realize I am no longer interested in writing a book about Cole Porter. Instead, I want to write a book about his wife, Linda. This feels right. And who is to say that this is not the book I was supposed to write in the first place?

6. To keep job #3, I need to apply for a research grant and demonstrate that I am working on a book, so I write the grant and remind myself that I always find the focus of a book project while in the act of researching it.

7. I get the grant and go to the archive to do the research, and boom, I find the focus of the book project while in the act of researching it.

8. I write the first 40 pages of the novel. It is now 2010.

9. I apply for and am offered the job at Ball State. Now, the way I typically make life decisions is to ask myself: What will be better for my writing life and the book I'm trying to write? The answer--in the short term--will be to stay in Pittsburgh and keep writing with no major life disruptions. But the answer for my long-term happiness is to suck up the major life disruption and switch jobs, even if it means that it will take longer to finish the book. Sigh.

10. Around this time, someone important hears that I am working on a book about Mrs. Cole Porter and will I let her see it? I tell her no. I want to write the whole book first. I don't want anyone to think they are buying a different book than the book I intend to write. Plus I'm getting ready to move and I don't have time to give it to her. I wonder if I am making a huge mistake taking this new job, because, honestly, if I hadn't taken the job, I would have said yes, here is my book, what do you think? I begin to wonder if I've made the right decision.

11. I quit my job. Sell my house. Buy another house. Move my shit across the country. My cat dies. My whole life changes. I don't write a word of my novel for five months.

12. October 2010, I'm teaching ENG 407 and I tell myself I am going to write 50,000 words of this damn novel. I am going to take the 40 pages I started with, which are in 3rd person, and I'm going to rewrite the whole thing in first person. Yes! I begin. About 20,000 words in, I realize that the novel probably won't work in first person, so I switch to third. I don't go back and change anything. I just keep going.

13. Nov. 30, 2010, I have a 50,000 word draft. It's just a rough sketch of what's going to happen. No actual usable pages. But I know what's going to happen now and I know what's going on in my character's head. This feels like progress, even though if you asked me to show you my novel, you wouldn't be able to make sense of it.

14. Dec. 2010. I apply for another grant for Book #4. Which is pretty stupid thing to do when you aren't done with Book #3 yet.

15. Jan 2011-June 2011, I am not noveling anymore, #amediting. I take the sketched chapters I banged out during Oct and Nov of 2010 and polish them smooth. I get about 175 good pages done. It's back in third person.

16. Somehow, I actually get the grant I applied in for in #14, which means I have to go out of state for a month and work on Book #4. I only write one chapter of Book #3 that month. Instead, I start getting excited about Book #4.

17. August 2011: I'm getting ready for my classes. My shoulder gets impinged and I have to get a cortisone injection. My grandparents have to be moved to assisted living. Book #1 is being made into a musical. I have to start thinking about applying for promotion. Still, I try to find time to edit Book #3,

18. September 2011, I try to come up with 3,333 edited words each week, just like you. Most weeks, I manage to accomplish this.

19. I realize my novel needs a frame. I start writing the outer frame. The 15 page introduction that I wrote in #8 above is now somewhere before Part III. Will this work? Anyway, I have another 10,000 words for my novel. I'm past p. 200.

20. Yesterday, I found some time to work on my novel while I was sitting in my mom's hospital room. My whole family was in the room, plus a nurse, and there was a football game on the TV. It was nuts. Everyone kept talking, asking me questions about Mom's test results and what did I want for Christmas? What are you doing? they asked. I said, I'm working on my novel. They said, When will you finally be done with that book? And I said, I'm shooting for Sept. 1, 2012, ten years since I got the idea, and many hundreds of pages and hours later. Good, they say. Hurry up. What's taking you so long? 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Put Down the Red Pen and Pick Up the Pace

“Don’t get it right, get it written.”  James Thurber’s words are sage advice to any novelist struggling through a first draft, stopping every sentence or two to tweak what they’ve just typed.  Yet like a life lesson from a parent that the child doesn’t follow until they’ve already made a mistake, it’s difficult advice for many beginning writers, particularly students, to follow.  We write self-consciously, fighting the urge to revise each letter that we press down on the keyboard, as though an editor is reading over our shoulders, squawking mistakes into our ears like a parrot asking for crackers.

I'll tell you what I'm not doing with my life: Making progress.

Why the sluggish pace toward the finish line?  For some, revise as you write is simply the method that works best for them, a process they have adapted to over the years and one that they can use while still making good progress.  But the rest of us, staring at the computer, averaging about seven words a day, often have no trouble pounding out a term paper in the course of one long, caffeine-fueled night.  We may regret every moment of the process, cursing ourselves for our procrastination and cursing the entire family lineage of the professor who gave the assignment, but nonetheless, we get it done.  What makes a novel such a different beast?

The first draft of a novel is unlike any other work a student will be assigned.  Most creative writing classes don’t focus on reading novels, or teach how to plow through writing them.  As Cathy Day discusses in her article “The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis,” students are taught to write short, standalone texts:

“Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both. For the writer who teaches a full load of courses and is always mindful of balancing “prep” time with writing time, it’s easier to teach short stories than novels, and it’s easier to annotate and critique a work-in-progress that is 10 pages long as opposed to a story that is 300 pages long. It’s advantageous for students, too. Within the limited time frame of a semester, they gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with writing, submitting for discussion, revising, and perhaps even finishing (or publishing!) a short story.”
The classroom setting not only often avoids teaching novels, but can also discourage writing them through the workshop set-up:

“But I am saying that I think a lot of what comes out of creative writing programs are stories that could be or want to be novels, but the academic fiction workshop is not fertile ground for those story seeds. The seeds don’t grow. They are (sometimes) actively and (more likely) passively discouraged from growing. The rhythm of school, the quarter or semester, is conducive to the writing of small things, not big things, and I don’t think we (“we” meaning the thousands of writers currently employed to teach fiction writing in this country) try hard enough to think beyond that rhythm because, for many of us, it’s the only rhythm we know. We need to teach students how to move from “story” to “book,” because the book is (for now, at least) the primary unit of intellectual production.”
For this reason, Cathy Day structured her Advanced Fiction class around the production of the first draft of a novel, assigning novels to the reading list to give her students an idea of how to structure their own, and setting a requirement of 3,333 new words each week.  For some, the words have flown freely from the keyboard.  But others, accustomed to the write, revise, write, revise method employed in most creative writing classes, have found their wheels spinning in the mud, their novels inching forward.

How do we keep ourselves from revising?  No first draft is perfect, and how can we stand to stare at our work, with all its mistakes, and convince ourselves to keep going rather than to work backward?

Don’t reread your work, for a start.  Looking at your first draft, beyond a cursory skim to see where you last left off, is asking to have each little flaw on the pages highlighted in your mind.  For this reason, it’s important to have a detailed storyboard of your work, so that you know where you have been without rereading.  This is also helpful to the process of moving forward because you’ll know where you are going next.  If your writing program features a spell check, turn it off for the time being.  Listen to fast-paced or inspirational music as you write.  If a scene is so unbearably bad that you can’t stand to look at it without revising, start a new one.  If a scene is too boring, either move ahead or force something to happen within the scene, even if you aren’t yet sure how this new, unexpected event will fit into the plot.  And if you show your early work to others, make it clear that you aren’t asking what you should change or what you’ve done wrong.  You simply want to know if they can tell what drives your characters or where the plot is headed.

Of course, avoiding all revision, however minor, is impossible.  We authors are our own worst critics, and we will always feel compelled to fiddle with the words we’ve written.  Revision isn’t a bad thing, even at the start of the writing process, provided it does not become so extensive as to overwhelm any progress in the writing.  It’s fine to alter a word choice here or there, but don’t do it with each sentence of your first draft.  And save the major revisions—reordering scenes, altering settings, introducing or removing characters from a chapter—until your first draft is completed.  It may not be a work of art, but it’s much easier to sculpt a whole block of wood into a thing of beauty than it is to try the same process on a few twigs.

-Lauren Burch

Thursday, November 3, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Breaking Through Writer's Block

A blank page: The writer's greatest opportunity and greatest fear.

Christ Baty’s 2006 book No Plot? No Problem! details the inception of NaNoWriMo, as well as tips for planning a novel and making it through a thirty day writing spree.  I read the book in my sophomore year of high school, in preparation for attempting NaNoWriMo for the first time.  While I found No Plot? No Problem! to be full of helpful information, there is one major difference between my noveling experiences and those Baty described:

The part of NaNoWriMo which causes me the most strife is the first seven days.

In Baty’s experience, writers rush through their first week of NaNoWriMo, fueled by their excitement for their projects and the anticipation of the great novel they will produce.  In the latter weeks, the prospective novelists begin to struggle, hampered by worries that the work they’ve produced is poorly written or plotted.  Certainly, once the initial inspiration has faded and reality has sunk in about just how much work a novel entails, it’s easy to become discouraged and distracted, especially considering that the end of November contains both Thanksgiving and the Christmas shopping sales.  Still, the last three weeks of NaNoWriMo are never what I struggle with.

My problem is getting to those last few weeks.

The opening pages of a novel, as any author knows, are the most important.  It’s the beginning that either succeeds or fails in holding the reader’s attention.  The beginning determines whether or not an editor will continue reading your manuscript or set it aside.  The opening pages, when it comes to publishing or establishing a readership, are everything.

Of course, in the actual process of writing a novel, the first few pages, as with everything else, are something that ought to be hammered out in a rough draft, and revised and worried over later.  Intellectually, I know this.  Emotionally, it’s a different story, and it’s a story that gets me stuck in the mud, wheels spinning, in the first week of every NaNoWriMo.  My failed attempts at writing a novel in a month were all projects abandoned in the first week.

Every year I’ll wake up on the first of November intending to go through a process like this:

1.  Write as if possessed by Calliope, hammering out two or three days’ worth of work in one sitting.
2.  Stay ahead of the required daily word count all month, finishing before Thanksgiving.
3.  ???
4.  Profit!

Instead, Day One tends to go something like this:

1.  Write one paragraph, stare blankly at page for half an hour.
2.  Check email.
3.   Revise paragraph, add another.
4.  Collapse on floor, loudly sobbing to anyone in earshot that I have failed and will never be a successful writer.
5.  Watch My Little Pony; claim I need to do something calming and happy before I resume the strenuous writing process.
6.  Finally complete 1667 words; regret every one of them.

This is how every day of week one tends to go, though with less melodramatics each day as the week goes by.  By the second week, I hit my stride.  That is, if I reach the second week.

Luckily, after five years of novel projects, I’ve finally managed a method that allows me to break through the writer’s slump.  And best of all, it works for any week of NaNoWriMo!  The downside is that it’s not easy.

The method?  Force yourself to write.

Don’t accept any excuses from yourself, or, if your will is weak, instruct your roommates/family members/coworkers not to accept excuses from you.  Strap yourself into that chair, Clockwork Orange style.  Snap a rubber band against your wrist every time you find yourself browsing Facebook.  Better yet, delete the shortcuts to the Internet from your desktop while you write.  Hire a friend to smack you with a flyswatter whenever you idle too long.*  Whatever it takes.  Just get it done.

*#amnoveling does not endorse flyswatters as a writing method.  While any measure within reason is acceptable to motivate oneself to write, please use common sense when selecting a method and do not choose one that is potentially harmful to yourself or to others.

“Some help this is,” you may be thinking.  “If I could just sit down and write, I wouldn’t be looking for advice in the first place.”  Yes, this method may be stating the obvious, and yes, it’s work, and it isn’t easy.  But after you force yourself to write page after page, you’ll find the process becomes simpler.  Runners call it breaking through the wall: a point after the pain and fatigue of the exercise ceases to affect them.  I call it breaking through the writer’s block, and it will happen, though you might need to spice up your plot to hold your interest if you’re still lagging after forcing yourself to write.  Can’t possibly write another word of this scene?  Start a new one, even if the old one ends midsentence.  Kill off a character!  Demolish a building!  Who cares if it doesn’t make sense?  NaNoWriMo isn’t for revising, it’s for getting the words out on the page.  There’s plenty of time to go back and connect the dots after the month is over.

But whatever changes occur in your story, the important thing is to get the story down.  Writing a novel isn’t easy, but if you can make yourself continue, it’s never impossible.

See you at the finish line!

-Lauren Burch