Prologue to the Semester

MWW 1

Advice before you take this class

As I hope most of you know, I teach ENG 407 as a novel-writing class. If this isn’t what you want, then feel free to drop. But please remember that over half of the people who take this class have never attempted to write a novel before. So if that’s what’s bothering you, don’t worry.

Reading list for F13:

  • Tom Perrotta, Election (Berkeley Trade)– you can get started reading this novel!
  • Rex Pickett, Sideways (St. Martin’s Griffin)–virtually visiting Ball State in October
  • Julianna Baggott, Pure (Grand Central)
  • Evan S. Connell, Mrs. Bridge (Counterpoint)

These books are Recommended but not Required

  • Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (Writers Digest Books)
  • James Scott Bell, Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish (Writer’s Digest Books)

Some things to think about before you take this class:

Think about whether or not you want to write a novel for yourself or for others or both.

  1. If you want to write one just for yourself, that means you want to do it for fun or because you think it will be a good learning experience. You want to see what it’s like or because you enjoy the act of reading novels so much you want to have the creative experience of making up a story. You just want to express yourself. You have no real desire to ever publish this or any other novel.

  1. If you want to write one for other people, that means you want to give someone else the experience of spending 5-20 hours inside your book and finish and be satisfied. That’s your dream.

You need to understand that creative writing instruction is predicated on #2, on the assumption that you want to be read by others. It’s not predicated on the assumption that creative writing is good for the soul, that it’s supposed to be fun, therapeutic, a pure expression of your artistic desires, etc. Although, sure, yes, it often is. And most great art emerges from this impulse.

I teach this class as if you want to write a novel for others. I assume you want to be read–in the novel form or another form. What I’ve discovered over the years is that the students who have the most difficulty in CW classes are those who are only writing for themselves, or because they think creative writing is only about self-expression. There’s nothing wrong with that belief! However, it’s hard to grade.

It’s important that writing bring you pleasure, but it’s also important that you want to bring OTHERS pleasure. Of all the forms that creative writing can take, the novel asks the most of readers in terms of TIME, and if you don’t care about whether or not you’re wasting a reader’s time, then we’re in trouble from the get go.

Come to the class with an idea

Spend some time thinking about what story you want to work on. Maybe you’ve always had this idea but never had the time to write it. You don’t need to know what’s going to happen in this story. You don’t need to write a word of it this summer. In fact, I really don’t want you to. The class isn’t a workshop. It’s about generating the start of a novel, and the weekly units are designed to work in tandem with your weekly writing sessions. If you walk in with a full draft you’re already happy with, or even with 50-75 pages you’re happy with and have no desire to revisit, then the class isn’t for you.

My advice is to return to a story you started but never finished, a character you can’t stop thinking about, to anything you’re obsessed about, because you have to be obsessed to write a novel.

Practice Novels

Some students have approached this class by taking some of the pressure off and writing a “Practice Novel.” Often they begin with a world/setting or a character they already know. For example, I’ve got this idea for a novel that’s a prequel to the movie Hoosiers that focuses on the month or so before Norman Dale (the coach) arrives in Hickory. It explores the relationship between Myra Fleenor (the teacher) and Jimmy Chitwood (the star basketball player). Now, I have no idea if I could actually publish this novel because those characters belong to David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo, who wrote the screenplay to Hoosiers. What I’m really talking about is a kind of fan fiction, and the advantage of writing this kind of book is that you’ve got a ready-made setting and cast of characters.

The term fan fiction is usually applied pejoratively, but doesn’t have to be. Consider how Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys is a prequel to Jane Eyre. Consider Robinson Alone, a novel in poems by Kathleen Rooney, who will be visiting Ball State this fall. Consider what narratives, what worlds you know well already, what writers you’re a fan of and decide if this is an approach that will work for you.

If you don’t like this idea, that’s totally fine.

You are the boss

Here’s a realization from one of my novel-writing students: “I write the novel, not the novel writes the novel. I have control over it.” This reminds me of what my former student Pat Maley (who is now a college professor himself) writes on the board on the first day of all his classes: “You are the Boss of Your Paper!” And what Alicia Erian said when she visited Ball State last year: “You’re the boss of your writing process. Be the boss!”

Blogging and Literary Citizenship  

I strongly encourage you to create a blog if you don’t already have one. Blogger and Tumblr are easier, but I recommend WordPress (trust me on this) and I’d be happy to help you. However, if you’d like to get started before classes start, feel free.

I encourage you blog about this class and share what you learn with others. What you say is totally up to you. But will be requiring one blog post (which will be graded) from each of you that will be posted on this blog (which gets a good bit of traffic during the school year.) You can cross post it on your own blog and this one, and you should be sure to include a hyperlink to your blog/website so that people can track you back to your own online home.

How do you want to connect with me and the course?

To communicate with you and distribute information, I’ll be using this WordPress blog I created for the class https://iamnoveling.wordpress.com/ and Google Docs. No Blackboard.

Re: Google Docs: I have multiple gmail addresses I use for different part of my life, so give some thought to how you’d like to set this up. Please decide what email address you’d like to use to access our Google Docs folder and to receive messages from me. Email me at cathydayteacher (at) gmail from that email address, and I’ll add you.

 

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One Comment on “Prologue to the Semester”

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