Our graduate class at St. Edward's University is at the midpoint in writing a 40,000-word novella in a semester. The inspiration for teaching this course was hearing Mary Kay Zuravleff talking at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs about teaching just such a course. Here I am culling some of the notes she posted about that class so my class can see them. They may be interesting to other writers as well:
Notes from Mary Kay Zuravleff
We are halfway through our NOVELLAS (or very close)!
Now is not the time to ask if these words will become the book we each hope to write. Right now, process is nearly all. This much writing can only be good for us, and we’re feeling old muscles and new synapses afire.
But it may be time to ask, halfway through what? Writer Scott Berg talks about the novel as a series of small explosions on their way to a bigger explosion. My own image is of story as arrow, a short story being one arrow aimed at a bull’s-eye, and the novel a quiver of arrows that ultimately cluster around the target’s center. Halfway through, how many arrows have you got off? Has anything exploded?
Turn It Upside Down
In response to our thoughts on the creative process, we can look at visual artists. One described his artistic method as archaeology; after layering on colors and encaustic, he has to discover the painting within. This welcome notion reminded me of advice to writers to go deeper rather than wider.
I posed the question “Where is the painting before it’s a painting?” to Olivia Petrides, who wrote, “It has been my despair that I make it up as I go along, because I want CONTROL! The answers seem to lie within the paint, how it moves or how I accidentally move it—the stuff is so slippery and my mind is so wracked with its own anxious workings that it's a wonder I get any work done at all.”
Seems we're always surprised anew when confusion becomes a force for creativity. As for inspiration, Olivia offered these tips: “I turned the painting upside down this morning and got an idea for a slight restructuring of the image, and I remembered an element of a famous painting that I can rip off. Now I'm started again with some excitement. Can you turn anything upside down?”
We certainly can. We can also dig for buried treasure among the plot and characters fashioned thus far. And we can take a page from famous writers, trying on literary accessories that have long intrigued us. You never know what point of view goes with what purse until you try.
Spinning webs of connection
If the conspiracy theory of novel-writing holds, there is a giant web of connections that you will eventually expose or discover or build through your characters.
Every time you glimpse a connection, you go back and shore up the web, even if you just write a few words in brackets to prompt yourself later. You know how you tell a joke when you only remember the punch line? A guy walks into a bar and—oh, I forgot, he’s a fireman—he walks into the bar—oh, the bar is on top of the Empire State Building—anyway, he orders a drink—did I mention he’s really short? he is—etc. In this way, you are moving forward but also clarifying your earlier hunches. And you’ll always be able to find that gin and tonic recipe.
Picking a fight
We’re looking for a fight. How could that character’s worst habit or secret be brought to light? Would her husband still love her? Would he lose his job? Oh, there’s a knock at another character’s office door—mind if I come in? I’ll only rob you blind. Or I’ll offer you exactly what you want, with some tangled strings attached. Just as we’re fast-forwarding process in this class, novels themselves fast-forward insight and action. Why tell the story of this particular day or life?
Your challenge this week is to make your characters squirm. Think of how boring the first few moves of a chess game are, then prepare to move your pawns one or two steps away from safety.
A novel can go in through the navel or groin, like a laparoscopic procedure, to explore the blood and guts within. So divorce or stay married, perhaps switching husband-wife roles. Start cutting up carrots and then slice everything in the kitchen. Or train for the marathon despite injuries and doubt. Car chases and trials aren’t necessary as long as you captivate us.
Building a novella
We are walking along a rickety bridge; in fact, we’re actually constructing the bridge as we take each precarious step. Recycled planks, rubbery beams the width of a straw and composed of untested materials, mirrored funky buttresses that may or may not hold weight—now is not the time to invite the inspectors over for a look-see.
And so, we continued our exhilarating, ridiculous bridge-building.
My Aim Is True
In yoga, the way to stay upright in balance poses is to focus on a spot in the distance and imagine a tether from that spot to you, holding you vertical. Of course, the challenge for those of us writing out on a limb is: can we see that spot in the distance?
With that in mind, revisit books you admire—bring the most instructive one to class next time. See how all the authorial decisions contribute toward the story. We don’t know if the authors had the footprint and span of their story when they began, or if choices they made determined the architecture of their tale. So why not indulge your first impulses. No chapter breaks? Present tense? First person who is reliable as long as she stays away from the scotch? Main character reports for Voice of America and can only use words from the approved list of Basic English? Nail that story down.
If the novel we build dictates structural changes, then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.