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sunandshadow

Novel Workshop #1

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ABOUT THIS WORKSHOP: This first workshop will assume that students want to begin writing a novel, are willing to do some reading, research, and writing, but aren't sure exactly what they want to write or how to get started. This is not for writers who think that analyzing art or the creative process kills it, we are going to be analyzing the heck out of novels in general, the specific novels we are trying to write, our motives and reactions, etc. All genres of novel are welcome including erotica, although material posted here will be limited to an R rating. People with a partial manuscript which is stalled by some problem should also be able to use this first series of workshops to help themselves get unstuck. If someone has a completed manuscript I would suggest you start a new project if you want to participate, or come back in a few months when (if) we get to manuscript revision. Anyone may participate. I will not have a problem with people doing assignments in some variant way, but if at least 3 people do not complete any given assignment there will be no more of these workshops. Anyone may comment on my lectures, others' questions, and others' assignment responses, just try to be helpful and polite. The copyright to these lectures is held by Mare Kuntz and I intend to publish them, so please do not redistribute them. No I am not a published novelist, I am a scholar of literary theory and I have a good deal of workshopping and editing experience. If you don't like my credentials or lack thereof no one's forcing you to read this or participate.
THEORY: WHAT IS A NOVEL? Okay, let's talk about novels! [smile] You are here because you want to write a novel. But what is a novel? A novel is a story. A story is a series of events happening to one or more characters, and the thoughts and actions of these characters. While some would argue with this, my personal opinion is that the thoughts, actions, and events of a story must add up to make some sort of point in order for it to qualify as a coherent story rather than random babble. This point is called the theme, thematic argument, premise, or moral. Besides having thematic unity a story must be unified in other ways. Aristotle suggests that all the events in a story must be causally related, a story must happen in one setting or a group of related settings, a length of time with no huge gaps in it, and with a group of characters which is mostly the same at the beginning as at the end. Of course there have been novels that stretch all these conventions - a novel where events happen to the characters with surreal randomness, a novel which follows thousands of years of evolution, a novel where the characters journey through several apparently unrelated dimensions and never return to where they started from, a novel where the cast of characters is repeatedly killed off and replaced, or a novel where a character changes until they are unrecognizable as the same being. Can you do these tings in your novel? Yes you can. But, if you do all of them at once it will not be a novel. Why? Because what distinguishes a novel from other forms of fiction such as a short story collection is that the novel must in some way or another be the same animal 50,000 or more words down the line that it was at the beginning. The first few thousand words of a novel create a 'contract with the reader': You as a writer are offering to take them on a long journey and promising to get them somewhere meaningful by the end. Which brings us back to the idea that stories have a point. What kind of point, what kind of meaning? Stories show characters' acting and the results of their actions. These results can be regarded as rewards and punishments for the characters' actions. A story persuasively suggests to its audience that the people who are rewarded did the right things in the right way, while those who are punished did the wrong things or did the right things in the wrong way. Stories also work by creating suspense: questions in the reader's mind about what will happen next, when and how the characters will get their rewards or punishments. The reader is only held in suspense if they care, if they become emotionally invested in the characters and what is happening to them. But novels, unlike episodic tv series or comic book series, come to an end. At this end the reader's questions are dramatically answered. The reader feels satisfaction because their suspense has been resolved and along the way their emotions have been cathartized. Thus the point of the story is not just an intellectual statement about how the characters' problem is finally solved, but also an emotional statement about everything that has happened. Readers read novels because they (more instinctively than consciously) want to learn something from your characters' lives, but also because they want their mood adjusted: want to be cheered up, or scared silly, or made to feel longing and love, or made to feel excited and righteously angry. Think about what you are subconsciously hoping for when browsing a bookstore's shelves looking for something new to read, and why your favorite books really resonated with your emotions and stuck in your memory.
METHOD: WHAT IS YOUR NOVEL? There are several ways to approach the question of what novel you want to write. We're looking mainly at emotional genre (comedy, tragedy, horror, adventure, romance, etc.) and plot structure here, not so much characters, worldbuilding, or tropes. I will start with the easiest and work towards the most difficult. 1. Identify an existing novel to emulate. If you are thinking that this is cheating or plagiarism, that's BS. I am not talking about copying something word for word or plot detail for plot detail, I am talking about studying what you consider to be an excellent example of a novel so that you can understand what it is doing and why it works so well, then using the same underlying structure to build your original novel on. (I do not recommend using a fanfiction novel for this because they take shortcuts that are not available to original fiction). 2. The same as above, but using an anime series, manga series, tv miniseries, or other work of fiction with a unified plot structure. The additional difficult of using a source like this comes from the problems of retooling from a visual medium to a verbal medium, and it may also be necessary to cut out or condense repetitive material. (I do not recommend using a movie or play because their plots are generally novella-sized, not novel-sized, and rescaling the size of a plot is a very advanced problem which even experienced novelists stumble over. Similarly I do not recommend using an anime series more than 26 episodes long. Anything which is more episodic than linear is totally unsuitable for basing a novel's structure on.) 3. If you can't find a single novel or other work of fiction you think is excellent, you can try to use two or more examples to mock-up a Frankensteinian model to emulate. This is mentally more complicated because of the difficulty that your examples will require editing to make them fit together properly. It will also take more time because you will have to analyze each of your examples completely before deciding which elements of each to keep and how to combine them. 4. For the person who yearns to tell a particular story but can't think of any example which is really similar, try to envision your finished book and analyze that in the same way you would analyze an example. (This will not work unless you already know approximately what you want to happen in your plot.) 5. Finally, (and this can be combined with any of the above methods) you can approach the problem backwards: search your memory for moments in books or other fiction that really resonated with you or grabbed your attention, and for each moment analyze what was so interesting or important about it. Then look for common themes - are several of these moments important for a similar reason? Could some of these moments easily fit together into a particular genre or structure of story?
ASSIGNMENT DETAILS: What exactly do I mean when I tell you to analyze an example? I mean you are to get a copy of this work of fiction, preferably a cheap copy you can write in, stick post-its in, or even cut up, and use it to type up a plot outline and post it here. Focus on what seems interesting and important to you, since these are the parts you want to capture in your own novel. Make note of when characters are introduced or removed from the story and any important changes in character's emotional states, goals, or mindsets. Above this outline please state the title, author, genre(s), and try to summarize the story in 1-3 sentences (this is called a logline). Below your outline please spend a paragraph or two explaining why you picked this example and why it is meaningful and important to you. Or if using method 5, post a list where you describe each moment, analyze its importance to you, and then describe one or more plot structures which could contain all or most of these moments and display them well. Please have this done and posted here by Friday August 17th although sooner than that would be great too. Responses may be posted later than this and will still be responded to, but assuming I get at least 3 responses I would like to post a new lecture and assignment once a week. Always, please feel free to ask questions. :) [Edited by - sunandshadow on August 4, 2007 5:44:48 PM]

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If anyone plans on participating, perhaps you could post and tell us which method(s) and example(s) you'll be analyzing?

I'm doing Pride and Prejudice (the tv miniseries version) to demonstrate methods 1 and 2. If time permits I'll demonstrate the other methods as well.

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Original post by sunandshadow
If anyone plans on participating, perhaps you could post and tell us which method(s) and example(s) you'll be analyzing?

I plan to participate, though I have a few comments/suggestions to give before that.

First, thank you, sunandshadow, for taking the time and effort to put together and host this workshop. You contribute a lot to the Writing forum with your experience and helpful nature, and you always seem to provide encouraging advice and criticism. Thanks!

Anyways, on to business... I think for such a project as this it would be wise to get interested individuals before actually starting the workshop. In your novel workshop syllabus critique thread, there were one or two others who seemed like they would enjoy the workshop, but you didn't actually receive words of commitment from them. Without an established base of students, I think the teacher (that's you!) will find the workshop failing to meet the minimum requirement of three students pretty quickly.

Second, I think a novel workshop might be too much to begin with, especially without committed writers, and seeing as how you haven't hosted a novel workshop before. Starting a short story workshop, I think, would be more productive, as this would allow you to test the waters with your syllabus (a condensed version, rather), and will generally be something that many more writers here are capable of participating in due to the lowered requirement of time and effort--we all have school, jobs, some of us families, and other things to tend to, so starting small gives us all a moment to adjust our schedules to allow for the future event of larger projects.

On the note of time, when you say "Make note of when characters are introduced or removed from the story and any important changes in character's emotional states, goals, or mindsets," do you actually want us to make mention of these shifts in our outline, or to simply note them mentally? With less than a week to complete the assignment, I, personally, wouldn't have enough time to re-read an entire book to mark such character states. I'm probably going to opt to go with method two if that's the case, as anime and miniseries tend to have much fewer shifts in characters' mindsets than novels do, and introduce much fewer characters--this is something much more manageable for me at this point.

That said, I think you should provide an extra week for this first assignment to collect more students. Classes start again soon (for semester-based universities, anyway, as well as non-year-round high schools), so that will pull some time away from the crowd. Also, some people interested in participating may want to see what others submit as a guideline for what they need to provide with their own assignment. Just a few suggestions. Would help. :)

Regardless, I'm still going to put my foot into the pot. I should have my assignment complete by next weekend. In that time, though, please consider the concerns noted above. Thanks again!

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Thank you for the kind words and insightful comments. [smile] I'm not personally interested in short stories and have consequently never spent much time studying them, not to mention that there are already free short story workshops available on the internet, while as far as I know there are no free novel workshops. I also am trying to write a book on how-to-write-novels (and other long form fiction like graphic novels). So, I'm going to keep the workshop novel-focused, but the short story possibility was a very reasonable suggestion.

I've already done pretty much all I can to gather students, mainly posting links to other forums and mailing lists whe I know writers hang out. But I think giving an extra week for the first assignment is quite reasonable. I did indeed mean for people to make note of those things directly in their outline, and as I am making a demonstration outline I am realizing that this could easily be an 8 or even 10-hr project. Double or triple that if someone wants to use multiple sources. So yeah 2 weeks is a more reasonable about of time for people to do that kind of assignment. I may post the second lecture and assignment next Friday anyway just because I'll be bored lol, but I won't consider the deadline on the first assignment to have expired.

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Although I'm not a novelist (or any notable form of writer), I do take interest in your threads and would like to see this workshop continued.

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While I'm always interested in writing workshops I can't help but feel you are biting off more then you can chew with this workshop. You might want focus on the more creative aspects of writing to introduce the technical aspects rather then focusing on the technical aspects. You are more likely to attract participants that way. As it stands it probably sounds too much like a homework assignment for most peoples taste.

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The purpose of this exercise is to help people who are having difficult writing a novel by giving them the tools the need to deeply understand other novels and their own. It would be pointless if lots of people participated but I didn't teach them anything they could already be learning from existing how-to-write books and typical high school or college creative writing classes. Now, if someone truly wants to write a novel then gaining insight into novels will be fun to them. If they are clever and pick an example book they love, rereading it to make an outline should also be pleasant. But this is not a social activity. Note the word 'work' in 'workshop'. Contemplate the phrase, "No pain, no gain." or if one was of a religious mindset, "The lord helps those who help themselves." I've done a great deal of research to get to the point where I feel able to share my knowledge with others, and I'm currently doing the work both to write the lectures and to do example of the assignments along with the students.

I've seen writers half-kill themselves to do NaNoWriMo and I've seen visual artists work their butts off in online workshops like this, if people here aren't willing to outline one novel they've already read within the extended 2-week period I can only conclude that they don't really want to learn how novels work, and if they don't want to learn I'm happy not to teach them.

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I shall join. My book for analysis and study shall be Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I will analyze this as thouroughly as I can, and hopefully my speed of reading will help me, even with only 6 days to perform my task, nay, duty.

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Original post by Delphinus
I shall join. My book for analysis and study shall be Dracula, by Bram Stoker. I will analyze this as thouroughly as I can, and hopefully my speed of reading will help me, even with only 6 days to perform my task, nay, duty.


How fortunate that there are actually 10 days until Friday the 17th then. [wink] A good choice, I'll look forward to seeing your analysis. Also don't be afraid to use cliffs notes or existing online analysis of the book as secondary materials, but do trust your own judgment and interest over theirs. Which brings up an interesting point - that it actually doesn't matter so much exactly what is in the book, it's more important to figure out why the books feels excellent and meaningful to you. If you remember something wrong and prefer your remembered version to the real one, make a note of that.

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Here is the complete Pride and Prejudice analysis followed by my comments. Let me reiterate that this is more detailed than really necessary.

I'd like to do another example of something different, perhaps Ender's Game, The Lord of the Flies, The Clan of the Cave Bear, or an anime series like Uninhabited Planet Survive or some other space/military academy story. I don't know if I'll have time to do so though - have to get some actual work done this week.

Oh, one other thing I wanted to say about why I picked this particular assignment: this is a research and inspiration-finding technique students can use independently, and can if they like repeat for several different examples, probably learning something new every time. I think giving people skills they can take away with them is more valuable than just leading them through one exercise or giving them some abstract knowledge. Although of course theory is important too because it is how we figure out what our goal is and what skills to use to accomplish it.

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