5 Things I’ve Learned from Teaching Novel-Writing Classes

  • By Mary Kay Zuravleff
  • September 15, 2016

Tips and tricks for helping fellow authors

5 Things I’ve Learned from Teaching Novel-Writing Classes

Writing a novel has not gotten easier for me, but helping other people with their novels has. For the last three years, I’ve been leading groups of novelists in week-long and year-long sessions. These classes have been a teaching laboratory, and it has been a joy to watch so many writers finish and shape their books. Here are the top five things I’ve learned along the way.

  1. Class is an apology-free zone. My opening question in class — “What is your novel about?” — always meets with nervous laughter. We are each of us excited and mortified by what we’re doing, and speaking aloud our crazy, imaginative idea is universally embarrassing. Everyone hems and haws, and I have to enforce this rule like no other. My class is an apology-free zone, whether you’re writing about childhood, flying monkeys, or the Civil War.

  2. Feedback can be generative. The highest compliment students give me is, “I couldn’t wait to get back to my draft after we discussed it.” We’ve all been in the workshop where critics put on their pointy-toed boots and walked all over the author. Of course, the goal is to walk next to the writer, maybe show her a dance step or two, as you offer feedback she can hear. A good critique should be a brainstorming session that includes a plan for the revision. Recently, the writer John Mauk wrote me a note calling me a “co-inventor,” which I treasured. He wrote, “Your notes and questions made my manuscript come alive again — not a completed thing to pick at or mull over but a living creature to keep feeding.”

  3. A novel is an inquiry, not an inquest. Many people start a book with an agenda. That leaves the reader out, because the author has already made all the decisions for the characters and their outcome. This rule applies to pre-judged characters and preachy plots.

  4. Team projects can actually be useful. I cringed when my kids were assigned team projects. And then a novelist who’d overplayed her knack with characterization said, “You’re going to vote some of my people off the island, aren’t you?” We readers didn’t know whose story to follow, and so I split the class into teams, and each had to make a story arc starring their assigned character, using the draft we’d been given. The next time we met, we were on the edge of our seats, eager to hear whom she’d cast as her lead. Now I use team projects for dialogue exercises, to generate ideas for endings, to help people tuck exposition into little cracks in the road. People worry that a class might water their work down — that a group will write by committee — but this is like crowd-sourcing. And the results have been universally welcomed by the authors.

  5. Your book is your book. I’m not out to make it mine, and I don’t let anyone else. We start with a careful reading of what we’ve been given, because drafts can be something of a scavenger hunt. It’s one thing to ask the author, “Are you trying to tell us the character’s brother died?” and another to say, “You should kill Celeste and change the setting to 17th-century Africa.” My teaching goal is to help you discover the beating heart of your book and then make that magnificent, vulnerable muscle beat on every page.

Mary Kay Zuravleff’s most recent novel, Man Alive!, was a Washington Post Notable Book for 2013. She is the cofounder of NoveltyDC, which she started to help authors write the book they imagine. She serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is also the cofounder of DC Women Writers. Her next wave of novel classes starts September 25th; more information is at NoveltyDC.com.

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