Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Teaching/Learning to Write a Novel

I can't recall how I came across this blog post -- after a while I forget what linked to what -- but I recently came across C. J. Omololu's blog and, in particular, her blog post on the nine step plotting process she uses.

Among my fellow grad students it seems that almost everyone is trying to write a novel and, because we've been given the green light to do so, everyone is bringing pieces of these novels in to fiction workshop this semester. Here's where it gets interesting: I keep hearing the would-be-novelists saying different versions of I don't know how to write a novel or I'm trying to teach myself how to write a novel. I hear them fishing for answers or advice and I'm not hearing them get any.

Perhaps there is no advice to be had in my program because of our if you build a good sentence the rest will come philosophy that I described last week.

Perhaps the feeling is that how to write a novel is something that must be shown not described. Hopefully "shown" as in if you write it, we can fix it together and not just read the classics and trust in osmosis.

Perhaps (and god help us if this is what's going on) it's because no one believes it's important. This would be that ugly assumption that literary fiction has no plot/ should not bow to the hyper-importance of plot.

I've read too many short stories that are plotless or clockless and the end result is that they're just joyless. I've read contemporary novels that have done this as well and I'm still angry that I'll never get those hours of my life back. I hate ending a story and wondering if I could bring myself to care about anything that has just happened.

And so I turn to genre writers and YA writers and editors and literary agents to see what they have to say about constructing novels and even how to -- to use a four letter word -- plot.

I like this nine step plotting idea because it's loser than some of the other notions I've seen. Some plotting instructions are atrociously constricting (it's blatantly obvious that this is what has worked for the author in question and should it not work for you then you must be an idiot [ex: Holly Lisle]) and some are spin offs of Joseph Campbell's Hero Pattern. These nine boxes -- explained in C.J. Omololu's blog post -- loosely relate to one another, perfect for notions of foreshadowing and thinking both ahead and behind as you write, as well as nudge you in the direction of the traditional long tale.

Is this one tool the best? The be all end all of plotting? Gee, you have high expectations.

All I know is that I am madly collecting such information and trying to sort it all out in my mind as I work to write in the longer form.

I am far from the first to say so, but the weakness of the workshop based writing program is that it caters to the short story and almost completely lacks any apparatus for teaching the novel. I'm certain that someone will now post that their program has a novel-writing workshop that it offers. Please, if you've taken that workshop (that one single workshop among many that is probably offered once every other year if my guess is right) let me know how it works. How is it different from the "traditional" Iowa-style short story workshop?

Highly Recommended