How to Write a Novel – Or Not

September 4, 2013

I recently finished a semester-long course on how to write a novel.  It may have been the most useless course I have ever taken.  There are two reasons for that, and this post talks about one of them.

The reason that this post does not explore has to do with professorial incompetence.  You might think that – especially at the graduate level – a course on writing novels would be taught by someone who believes that it is possible to teach students how to write a novel, and moreover that the person with this belief would actually have some ability to teach something like that.  In this case, you would be completely mistaken.  This is a professor who regularly announces that she cannot teach students how to write a novel.  Her belief – what she has experienced – is that you just do it.  And that does make sense, considering that the university hired her for the position because she, herself, is a successful writer.  The problem is just that it is not clear that this expertise, such as it is, has anything to do with a university education.

(Lest these remarks seem overly blunt, please be assured that this is approximately the level of sensitivity that this professor uses when speaking to her students about disfavored colleagues.  Note also that this post does not discuss the professor’s flakiness – assigning one text, then switching to another; spending whole class sessions watching movie versions of novels, where both the novel and the movie version were already assigned as homework.)

Let me not understate what it means to be a professor who considers it impossible to teach students how to do what the course in which they have enrolled is supposedly going to teach them.  In this course, I sat through a semester in which we spent our class sessions largely reading extensive chunks of text, and then rhapsodizing about how fantastic the writer is.  We sometimes spent a half-hour at a stretch, and sometimes approaching an hour and a half altogether – in a supposedly three-hour class that never actually ran for more than two hours – just reading, out loud, what we had already read (because it was assigned).  And this passes for graduate education – indeed, for PhD-level education, in the case of those students who were taking it for doctoral credit.

There are two problems with rhapsodizing about how perfectly Faulkner or whoever has done whatever it is that he (in this course, all of the assigned authors were male) has done.  The first problem, first encountered years ago with an acquaintance who was an editor at Simon & Schuster, is that sitting around and reading authors who write so well can be very intimidating for young writers.  The editor acquaintance, herself, had not written anything, and she said this was the reason.  When you see that you can’t compete, you don’t try.  And for many of us, that would be sage advice:  stick with what you can do well.  But push the point too far, and you get a lot of frightened people who, in fact, could have done it pretty well, albeit not in the way that Faulkner or whoever did it.

The other problem with rhapsodizing is that it is not analysis.  It is not critical thought.  This was the aspect of the course I found most irritating.  When we would be sitting there in silence for some moments, waiting for the professor to emerge from her reverie and say something, I would sometimes venture an analytical thought.  Once, for instance, I transgressed the rhapsodic ethic by wondering audibly whether Faulker or whoever had used an outline.  This was apparently such a lucid thought that the professor seized upon it as a theme, repeatedly revisited in subsequent class sessions:  she seemed determined to make clear to my classmates that my proposal (as she recast it) for using an outline was simply nonsensical, and that I would have known this if I (a non-English major) had properly belonged in her course.  My mild question, my attempt to help to break down the craft of fiction into something bite-sized that would not simply overwhelm my classmates and me, was transmogrified into an occasion for attack.

Which was bizarre, because just now, perusing websites on how to write a novel (i.e., how to learn something that my course did not teach), I see multiple people who say that, indeed, it is perfectly fine to use an outline.  Some (e.g., Maya Rodale) will go further, insisting that an outline is “totally worth your time” because “the muse is a trickster and may lead you down a dead end path.”  And I also see that some who do not speak of outlines seem rather mystified by the writing process, possibly because they perceive the novel as some perceive the dissertation:  as a lens into the soul, indulged over a period of years, rather than as a disciplined project capable of being completed, with the aid of an outline, in as little as 30 days.

The course did introduce a quasi-obligation to read a handful of books by prizewinning novelists, if you don’t count the weeks when multiple students (out of a total enrollment of eight) would be absent and therefore self-excused from reading (of whom our own prizewinner was a student whom the professor virtually promised to give an A if he would just come to class, which he did only once in the first half of the semester) – and if you also don’t count the weeks when students’ self-excuse would be that they just didn’t find the assigned reading personally interesting, and therefore decided not to do it.  (Note:  in this course, there were no quizzes, exams, assigned papers, or other graded work.  None.)  For me and for some others, the course did supposedly assign us to read good books, many of which my English-department classmates had apparently already read but I had not, and I personally found the reading worthwhile.

To sum up this picture, here is a verbatim report of the classroom setting that I noted at one point during class on April 25, 2013:

Ellen is just reading on.  Jane and Lizzie are out for some reason.  Both Jordanian women claim to be deathly ill.  It’s the second week in a row of absence for Isra.  Josh just went out to the bathroom.  Hank is just listening to her read.  I was, but I began writing this.  Megan is the only one actually reading along with Ellen.

So this has been my way of not exploring the topic of professorial incompetence.  I would have had a great deal more to say about the subject in general, and about this particular course, if that had been the focus of this post.  (By the way, I am not using an outline.)  I am not dwelling upon professorial incompetence because the course was useless in another way that I find more important for my own present purposes.  More of a threshold question, you might say.  This is the question of what, exactly, the novel is intended to accomplish.

“Novel” is one of those shorthand words that stands for a great many different things.  It can stand for a therapy project whose purpose (whether intended or tangential to the original mission) is to stimulate self-reflection and growth.  Or it can stand for a businesslike assembly of words into a marketable story for the purpose of making a sale and earning an income from a preferred form of work.  But that’s not all.  Some apparently write novels for the challenge of the project, or to explore extreme roles within oneself or from a God’s-eye perspective.  Others list many additional purposes – to impress others, to create, to convey messages, to entertain.  A novel is sort of like a marriage:  it can be a great success or a colossal failure, a major step forward in life or an endless time and money sink, or anything in between.

Seeing such possible outcomes, the question is, why would someone do something like this?  For purposes of achieving great positive outcomes, the probabilities in the case of a novel are much worse than those in favor of a marriage.  A search leads to numerous websites indicating that the chances of getting published by a traditional publishing house (i.e., one that will promote your book to bookstores, seek reviewers, and so forth, without charging you for the privilege) are very slight.  Even those who do get published face daunting odds against the possibility of achieving fame or fortune.

So again, when someone tells you that your project is very unlikely to be something that people will appreciate (much less be profitable), why would you do it?  There is a certain potential depression in that question and in its implicit answer:  you would do it because you are not a very worthwhile person – because you do not have anything better to do with your time.  You are going to spend months, possibly years of your life writing something that virtually no one is going to read.  You just feel driven to do it.  It is perhaps a kind of addiction, like those brain parasites that drive ants to climb blades of grass so that birds will eat them – like watching TV deep into the wee hours, long after the better shows have gone to bed, when you weren’t even sure that you should have started watching the tube in the first place.

In a parsimonious approach to life, a person might begin by trimming out nonessentials – starting with the potentially frustrating project of writing a novel.  Among the sites emerging from a related search, Jeffrey Ellinger provides what may be the most comprehensive set of reasons why you should not do it.  (Sample excerpt:  “Because no one reads.”)  Let it not be denied:  the reasons not to write a novel are definitely there to be found, if one is willing to look.

Should my recent course have taught that sort of thing?  I think it should, if the alternative was for the professor to encourage young students to stick with it, not for self-therapy or challenge or any of the other reasons listed on the sites cited above, but as an actual way to make a living.  Her blithe optimism on that point seemed irresponsible.  Maybe she made a living at it; maybe they wanted to hear that they probably could too.  But I think she should have presented novel-writing, not as a device leading to a station in life in which we would all enjoy her income, but rather, more humbly, as something that a person might find worthwhile for various (predominantly nonpecuniary) reasons.

I would recommend that sort of coverage, in a course on novel-writing, because there are websites talking about the various ways in which people fail to complete their novels (e.g., “wait for inspiration,” “do not plan a thing”).  Indeed, there is a book on 200 classic mistakes.  If you want students to persevere past their first disappointment or unrealistic self-expectation, it does stand to reason that you would help them to confront directly their fears and limits as well as their most unrealistic possibilities – not to deter them from writing, but rather to make it something in which they will set achievable objectives and will actually achieve them.  These matters, I think, are surely as important as the random hints and tips that I encountered when I first searched for simple advice on how to write a novel.

My conclusion, after browsing a number of websites, is that it can be misguided to search for advice on how to write a novel.  As long as one’s novel remains a surrogate for a great many disparate objectives (e.g., self-therapy, writing practice, fame and fortune), it seems the core question may be, how can I achieve that?  The way to write a novel, I suspect, is to figure out what you actually want to accomplish, first, and then to decide how a novel might help you to accomplish it.  Those of us who have only time to spend, not money, might ponder a time-oriented, novel-centric version of the stock trader’s adage:  If you don’t know who you are, Wall Street is an expensive place to find out.  For example, if you are indecisive, you may waste a lot of money – or, in the present context, time and effort – making false starts that ultimately waste whatever you put into them.  As one may ask of someone who buys a certain corporate stock, will you insist that your novel is everything you claim, when everyone else has stopped listening?  Did you do your homework before you started down this road?

This unstructured post is not intended as a formal explanation of why I would have done a better job of teaching a course on writing a novel.  I would have, even though I myself was only a beginner in actually doing so.  I have sought, here, simply to convey some thoughts that may be of interest to people who have questions like those I had when I enrolled in this course.  The placement of this post in a blog on higher education is intended to suggest that education need not be – that, in some ways, it is better conceived as not being – a cut-and-dried matter of experts talking down to the ignorant.  In the task of writing a novel, especially, it seems that an alternate concept of higher education might be more appropriate:  not to have all the answers, but to facilitate a somewhat therapeutic approach, treating the student as a client with unique individual needs (educational and otherwise), rather than as a member of a flock whose actual learning is assumed to follow naturally when a supposed expert enters the room.  While this post may seem negative, the larger context is strongly positive:  I believe in higher education; I believe it can make a great difference in people’s lives, and can teach them much; but to achieve such ends, one must clear away the deadwood.

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