1. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    Workshopping Novels

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Cecil, Apr 11, 2010.

    In the creative writing class I'm taking, we were given the choice to divide the class between poetry and short stories (or do all of one) OR to work on a novel. Thinking to myself "well, I ultimately want to write novels, so this could be a good opportunity" I chose to go the novel route, along with most of the class.

    Basically, the format is that we submit chapters (or reasonably sized sections or whatever) one at a time, and the class critiques them. This seemed like a good enough idea at first, but shortly into the semester, I found myself wishing I had chosen to do short stories.

    It feels like the novel is just not suited to chapter by chapter critique, at least not according to my own style of novel writing. All of the novelists except one are clearly losing steam.
    The problems we run into include more minor ones like classmates losing track of characters and plot elements (since they have seven other stories to read, and each chapter is read a week or more apart), or not being able to critique the story properly because they can't know whether or not a random detail will be important later.

    There are also much more serious problems, the most notable being that you get tons of feedback about how chapter one could be better, but chapter two is due tomorrow.
    Do you write chapter two based on the revised chapter one and leave everybody confused about small but important detail changes (or rely on an awkward author's note to describe the changes in improper context)?
    Or do you submit a chapter two that is consistent with chapter one, but is no longer the story you want to write (rendering the whole class useless)?
    Or do you revise chapter one and submit it again, mostly unchanged (the professor illegalized this option shortly after everybody started doing it)?

    But the worst for me (and others who use a similar style) is that I feel like I have to start writing before I know what I want the story to be about, then I write a properly focused second draft. This is fine for workshopping short stories, I just write the whole thing twice, and submit the second draft so it can get feedback that is actually useful. But in my novel, I'm 100 or so pages in, and now that I understand my characters, I realize I need to re-do the whole thing from the beginning in order to incorporate the new knowledge.

    Is my creative writing teacher just doing a bad job of it, or are novels just plain un-workshopable?
    Has anyone had any successful experiences with novel workshops?
    Any advice on how I can still benefit from the class?

    I feel like it could be beneficial to just workshop the first chapter, and use the class to get critiques on several openings for different novels and then really refine those openings so they serve as a solid foundation when you do write the novel. But after this class, I feel like workshopping whole novels just doesn't work.

    Sorry it's so long. In summary: Can novels be workshopped? And if so, how could one go about it effectively?
     
  2. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I think novels are a bad idea to workshop. They take a long time to think out and write. And often times, as is evident from your experience, there are new plot elements that require heavy revision of earlier chapters. It's also bad because readers are left in the dark when these new elements are introduced. But that's just something you (and the readers) are going to have to work with. Even if a reader is confused about changes to the plot, there are still other aspects of writing that can be focused on (grammar, flow, pacing, etc.).

    Here's my advice. I'm not sure how many chapters/sections you have to submit over the course of the semester, but I think it's better to focus on the first few chapters (i.e. take a look at the feedback given for the first few chapters). Chances are that the same mistakes you make in the first chapters are there in some, if not all, the remaining chapters. But just remember that in the end you have to make sure your novel fits together and that there are no loose ends, stuff like that.

    Anyways, just to give you an idea, some of the creative classes at my college usually workshop 3-5 short stories per semester. That's nothing compared to the length of a novel. I don't know how many chapters/sections you are required to complete for the semester, but it may also be that your instructor is at fault for expecting a large amount of writing due in a short period of time.

    By the way, how many words and/or chapters are you required to write for the semester? And how much time do you get to critique other students' work?
     
  3. Gingerbiscuit
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    Gingerbiscuit Senior Member

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    As painful as it may seem, once you've finished your novel, you are going to end up rewriting most of it. During the course of writing your novel your mood will change from day to day, your chosen reading matter will change and this all influences the way you write.

    Whenever I'm writing something that size I am always aware of things that are wrong. I make changes to a character without even realising it and then you realise that there is a continuity error that would have formed three or four chapters back. I just make a note of it so that when I'm doing my final edit I can make it all make sense.

    My advice would be to take on board the notes from your teacher and adapt the following chapter to accomodate the changes and then once the novel is finished go back in time and write the changes into the earlier chapters.

    Otherwise you get demoralised by making change after change and it gets to the stage where it would be easier and more fun to start something new.
     
  4. Peerie Pict
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    Peerie Pict Contributing Member Contributor

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    I can't even begin to comprehend what a nightmare it would be to workshop my novel. It sounds like a bit of a pointless exercise but then I don't know your tutor's motives for the teaching format. It would be so difficult to critique a bunch of rushed chapters where the writer himself/herself doesn't even know where the novel is going.. because he/she hasn't had time to think it through.

    Your idea about workshopping the first chapter on it's own seems like a great solution. It would serve as a useful exercise in tone setting, character introduction etc but without the complexities of plot development. Perhaps you and your classmates could do a quick presentation on how you would like the novel to develop then get a critique.

    You've posed an interesting question. I don't think I'm qualified to answer it in all honesty! Teaching creative writing must be difficult.
     
  5. Cecil
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    Thirdwind, no clear quantity was required, but by the looks of things, those of us who chose to do novels will end up turning in eight chapters (or sections) that average at about ten pages each. However, since I turned in revisions for my first two chapters (before she made rules against them because everyone was doing it), I (and most others) will end up with 50-70 pages worth of story by the end of the semester.
    With one inch margins, font size 12, and double spaced, that comes to what? Like, 15000-21000 words or something like that?
    Oh, and we tend to critique the chapters in sets of two or three in a class, with 2 days (on average) to read and mark all over them. That's one chapter each, from two or three students, not two or three chapters from one student, just to be clear.

    Anyway, thanks for your responses everybody, though it looks like you've confirmed my fears that I'll just have muscle through the class for my grade, and try to extract as much good from the process as I can.

    And yeah, Peerie Pict, rushed chapters are a problem.
     
  6. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    Cecil,
    Novels can be workshopped, but it's the classroom environment that would make it a nightmare for me. I belong to a Novel Incubator. It's a stable group of novelists, who have made the commitment. We start at the beginning of everyone's work and work through a little at a time. Now most of us already have finished first drafts. My first instinct would be to draft, then workshop.
     
  7. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    Oh yeah, it would definitely be way more helpful if we were workshopping second drafts. I wish I could have finished the whole thing before the first chapter was due, and then start using second drafts for each chapter submission.

    Unfortunately, it's too late for this class. Still, I'll definitely keep that in mind for future workshop opportunities.
     
  8. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    Workshopping a first draft is infinitely easier. You already have the basic idea of where the story is going. When you workshop while you're drafting, you run the risk of having the . . . perceptions of others directing your story, which can be distracting, at best, or destructive, at worst. Workshopping a piece before you have a clear understanding of where it's going can destroy a potentially good idea. Tough this out, get your grade, and consider it a lesson learned. No writing is wasted, you learn something from even the worst of scenarios. Luck and all that.
     

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