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Workshops on the Novel: Rules for Teachers, Guidelines for Students Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

After prolonged in-depth analysis, it is clear that in contemporary fiction workshops that teach novel writing, the teaching of novel often competes unsuccessfully with short story, memoir, and creative nonfiction and teachers almost always fail to provide students with skills, attitudes, and direction to mount their best efforts to write a successful literary novel.  To improve the value of fiction novel workshops, teachers need to improve, and students' expectations and willingness to learn difficult and complex ideas needs to be upgraded.

PART ONE: RULES FOR IMPROVING TEACHING OF A WORKSHOP ON WRITING A NOVEL

1. Teachers should not teach novel writing if they haven't written a successful literary novel. 

2.  Never teach literary novel writing in cross-discipline workshops.  Novel writing is it's own challenge, requiring special skills.  It is unfair to suggest to students that they will receive what they need in workshops teaching other disciplines such as memoir, short story, journalism, or genre simultaneously with the novel.

3.   Teachers should critique only entire novels in any stage, or sections of novels where novel has been at least completely conceptualized.  It is no value to other students to hear teachers flounder around a student's beginning efforts.

4.  Do not use unsupervised and unrestricted verbal or written student critiques for teaching fellow students.  Student critiques are often based on value judgments not related to creation of a novel, and often the remedies suggested by students are wrong for the individual writer who may not be at the skill level to sort out or effectively use students’ dictums, edicts, and ultimatums.  As a teacher, remain in control of the workshop teaching.  Instruct students on the techniques and skills needed to write a novel.

5. Do not simply direct student discussions on what they feel, or like or dislike, as if the workshop is a book club in the suburbs.  Use students for assessing clarity of the prose, logic of plot progression, credibility of character traits, and assessment of writer achieving goals.  Allow students to be constructive with alternatives but not negative by pointing out perceived mistakes.  Only the teacher should present specific ways to improve writing and storytelling prioritized for the student's talent and progress in fiction writing.

6.   Teach how to structure a novel.   The concept of a writer not knowing where he or she is going in a novel is harmful to almost any writer.  Many academic teachers take pride in this concept, and, it is true, that in teaching short-story fiction writing, it may be useful to discover a story structure as the writing progresses . . . but not the novel.  Structure generates dramatization, consistent characterization, and writing with purpose to discover meaning in story.  Thinking and teaching structure is essential.

7.  Provide, in every workshop, didactic lectures on how to develop character and plot, to create momentum in a prose story, to instill conflict, motive, and desire in prose fiction, and to organize the writing process to be effective.  Lectures are preferably by the workshop leader independent of plenary lectures.

8.  Teach elements of fiction in every class: structure, narration, word choice, metaphor, humor, morality, syntax, punctuation, pacing, attribution, antecedents, logic, credibility, suspension of disbelief, titles, name choices, effective prose, and others.

9.  Teach about how to effectively chose, emphasize, and balance, modes of fiction for the story being effectively written: diction, plot, characterization, imagery, theme, POV and voice.

10.  Provide in every workshop a discussion of one or two classic novels, read before class as assigned, that demonstrate the skills of novel writing, and novel writing specifically, that you want to teach.

11.  Teach only those concepts to students that will bring out the unique and individual talent of the writer.  Do not teach how to change a student's writing and thinking to create what you feel is the great novel, the way you write, or what you've been taught is good.  Teach what will bring a writer to good story telling and effective prose with well thought out ideas and vibrant prose.

12.  Provide a detailed teacher's assessment of submitted work.

13.  Do not critique student's first chapter or segments of novel as you would teach a short story.  (A short story is a complete work of art, not a fragment.)

14.  Do not teach memoir writing disguised as fiction.  The wonders that fiction can produce for the receptive reader cannot be achieved by memoir or creative nonfiction.

15.  Provide individual conferences with students.

16.  Do not allow student opinion of other students' writing.  Keep discussions objective and not opinionated.    As a teacher, control every aspect of the teaching experience and keep that experience focused on craft and storytelling improvement for the writer, not on the student critquer's abilities or needs for attention.

19.  Teach to identify purpose for everything written.  Every element of writing and every idea expressed should have a considered, well thought out story-related purpose.

PART TWO: ADVICE TO STUDENTS ABOUT CHOOSING WORKSHOPS

Don't depend on academic credentials as a judge of teacher competency.  Being an English major or having an MFA rarely if ever provides what's needed to teach the complexities of writing–or the process of teaching–a successful literary novel, which must have the often arduous, pleasing, informative–and sometimes painful–experience of creating a successful literary novel.  Find teachers who are good writers, storytellers, and teachers.  There are very few active great teachers who are also accomplished novelists.  But if you're a serious novelist, find them.  (And they'll rarely be in academic settings.)

Attend novel-writing workshops to improve your writing and storytelling, not just to correct a fragment of a novel or other manuscript you've completed and submitted.  To present 5000 or less words of a novel you're working on does not provide even an experienced teacher enough to provide you with specific valuable learning of the skills of great novel writing.

Do not attend a workshop "in novel"  that teaches memoir, genre, journalism, creative nonfiction, essay, and/or short fiction.  Best learning is in workshops that teach fiction novel writing.  Workshops dedicated to the novel are becoming rare, primarily for teachers' needs to fill workshops for income.

Go only to workshops where the instructor provides: 1) didactic lectures on quality prose writing and craft of fiction with handouts, 2) individual student conferences on writing, at least one thirty minute conference, a conference that must be scheduled before arrival and not as catch can, and must focus on improving your writing, not publishing, nor on agent-getting.  3) avoid workshops that depend on student critiques that erode teaching of fiction novel writing..

Require teachers to teach prose skills, characterization, plot, and story.  That is their responsibility, not just to oversee and direct student discussion.

Do not go to workshops where socialization, publication success, and networking goals are placed above novel creation.  Evaluate, usually best by word of mouth, the goals that exist for teachers and students.  Many teachers are at workshops as a break in their daily lives.  Teachers may party in the evening, be proud of alcohol (and occasional drug) consumption, play poker or basketball to the wee hours, take side trips to tourist locations.  All when preparation for the next day's quality teaching session is, although time consuming, essential for good student learning.  Novel writing is hard to learn and takes time, and if you're serious, don't dilute the value of the time you spend in frivolous pursuits, even if enjoyable, or by studying with unenthusiastic, distracted teachers.

 

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One Response to “Workshops on the Novel: Rules for Teachers, Guidelines for Students”

  1. gabriel1025 Says:

    I disagree about NOT attending a nonfiction workshop. Writing true nonfiction requires someone to be brutally honest and once someone understands that is where the real story is at can truly depict any story in fiction. These details we do not want to admit is what makes a character come to life and become real fiction or not. The little flaws and our inner demons are things a fiction writer knows how to tap into, and their characters seem real. Good fiction has some sense of believably in it.

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