The Class I Wish I Had Taken During My MFA (part two)

At the upcoming Hands On Literary Festival in New Orleans, I’m going to be teaching a class on novel-writing, “The Class I Wish I Had Taken During My MFA.”

Last week, I wrote a post introducing the premise of the class, describing my own experiences trying to write a novel during my MFA. For most of my degree, although I believed I was writing a novel, I was instead writing what I now think of as “novel-shaped-fiction.”

In that post, I claimed:

As a category, “novel-shaped-fiction” is superficially similar to “a novel.” From a distance, they look the same. Novel-shaped-fiction has the same characters and dialogue and settings and chapters that a novel has. The only problem with novel-shaped-fiction is that, generally speaking, no one wants to read it.

In other words: although sharing work is essential, before aspiring writers start handing in pages for feedback, they should, as a group, discuss and work through some sort of framework for writing a gripping and enjoyable novel.

Now, what makes a novel a novel will always be, to some extent, a mystery, impossible to put in any framework. But even if half the subject is inherently enigmatic, studying the other half–the half that can actually be explained–can have a transformative effect on one’s fiction. That’s what my class at the Festival will involve: first working out some techniques for writing novels, and then discussing how we might weave those techniques into our actual writing practices.

Some Hints About Novel-Writing Found in Fairy Tales 

In his collection, “Italian Folktales,” Italo Calvino presents his own version of a lovely Italian fairy tale, “Silver Nose.” If you know the story of Bluebeard, you’ll recognise a lot of similarities. The story begins like this:

There was once a widowed washerwoman with three daughters. All four of them worked their fingers to the bone washing, but they still went hungry.

One day the oldest daughter said to her mother, “I intend to leave home, even if I have to go and work for the Devil.”

“Don’t talk like that, daughter,” replied the mother. “Goodness knows what might happen to you.”

Not many days afterward, they received a visit from a gentleman attired in black. He was the height of courtesy and had a silver nose.

“I am aware of the fact that you have three daughters,” he said to the mother. “Would you let one come and work for me?”Italo Calvino

The oldest daughter goes to work for Silver Nose. When they arrive at his huge house, he gives her keys to every room, but tells her never to unlock the “last room.” When she goes to sleep that night, he puts a rose in her hair and departs. When she wakes up, she doesn’t notice the flower.

Finding herself alone in the house, she decides to unlock the forbidden room. When she opens the door, she sees a kingdom of flames where thousands of people are screaming. Now she knows: Silver Nose is the devil and this room is hell. She slams the door shut, but before she gets it closed, a single flame leaps out and burns the rose in her hair. When Silver Nose comes home, he sees the singed rose, knows she has unlocked the forbidden door, and throws her into hell.

The next day, Silver Nose goes back to the widow’s house and says he needs more help getting his house clean. He takes the middle daughter to work for him. During the night, he slips a flower into her hair–a carnation–and when the middle sister wakes, she goes to the forbidden door and unlocks it. She sees her older sister screaming in hell, and, terrified, she closes the door, but not before a flame leaps out and burns the carnation in her hair. Again, Silver Nose returns, sees the burnt flower, and throws her into hell.

He then returns for the third and youngest sister. But when this girl wakes in the morning, alone in Silver Nose’s house, she takes a look at herself in the mirror and sees the flower in her hair. She takes it out and puts it in water for safekeeping. She then goes to the forbidden door, sees her two sisters screaming for relief, and forms a plan to rescue them both.

Before Silver Nose comes home, she takes the flower from the water, replaces it in her hair, and as a result, Silver Nose believes she has followed his instructions. She then sends him back to her house, over three trips, carrying what she tells him is a great bundle of washing, but is actually one sister after another, the last one being herself. The devil is suspicious, but through her quick thinking, the youngest sister tricks him into delivering all three bundles.

So the family was finally reunited. Since Lucia had also carried off great sums of the Devil’s money, they were now able to live in comfort and happiness. They planted a cross before the door, and from then on, the Devil kept his distance.

It’s a simple story, but there’s a lot that aspiring novelists can learn from it. Here are three techniques that I can see:

1. Dramatic questions are introduced quickly. The story isn’t afraid of exposition, giving us enough background to motivate the characters’ behaviour (we learn that they are poor and desperate), but it moves, in the story’s second sentence, to the first dramatic question or “hook” or “set up”: the oldest daughter’s willingness to work for the devil. The story then follows us with a series of additional dramatic questions: the mother’s misgivings about Silver Nose, the forbidden locked room, the rose placed in the girl’s hair. These dramatic questions reach forward into the story, creating in the reader’s mind vague outlines of future scenes (we guess, for instance, that the forbidden door will soon be unlocked) — encouraging us to keep reading.

(In terms of the story’s use of exposition, there is also the strange way in which “Silver Nose” gets more familiar as it develops. Although the story starts off idiosyncratic and full of mystery, it increasingly relies on myths and figures (the devil and hell) that we readers already know.)

2. Repetition makes the tale more powerful. If the first third of the story is powered by the use of dramatic questions or hooks, there soon comes a point where all the mysterious elements have been resolved. Once the first sister has been thrown into hell, all the mysteries–Silver Nose’s great house, his eerie manner, the forbidden locked door, the flower–have been answered. We know what’s going on. At this point, a second storytelling force takes over: repetition. The middle and the youngest sister are both asked to come to the house, are both given a flower, and both decide to open the forbidden door.

The repetition doesn’t simply enhance things in a general way: it teaches us how to feel the story’s events. When the middle sister goes to the forbidden door, we can immediately guess what will happen. When the youngest sister takes the flower from her hair, we instantly know what this means. We don’t need a narrator to explain it to us, because we see the story’s pattern either being maintained or broken. We read the event, but we feel the pattern.

3. Sympathy for the protagonist. A strange thing happens as the story proceeds. We started off with a family, a widow and her three daughters. But by the story’s end, we like the youngest daughter the best. Partly this is because, in Calvino’s version, she is described in a little more detail–he calls her “the most cunning of them all.” But mostly, it’s just because we see her struggle the most, overcoming the greatest obstacles. By the end of the story, we probably don’t even remember the first two sisters.

So. We’ve found three things in the story that feel like tools or techniques–they appear to be responsible, at least in part, for the story’s power, its engine. And you can see these same tools at work in a wide range of novels. When you slow down and re-read classic novels such as Jane Eyre or Mrs. Dalloway or Lolita, or short stories such as “The Dead,” or “Sonny’s Blues,” you’ll find an incredible amount of structural repetition, elegant introduction of dramatic questions, and the quick establishment of intensely powerful  sympathies.

Often, however, it doesn’t look that way. Often, classic literature appears to be nothing more than pages and pages of beautiful prose. Unlike in a fairy tale, where the narrative machinery is on full display, in a novel like White Noise, a writer like Don Delillo works hard to pretend that he’s just writing sentences, that he is breaking all the rules. But it’s possible to find the techniques there, nonetheless.

From “Silver Nose” to Jane Eyre

This post is already very long. Let me only allude, here on the blog, to another engine of storytelling that novels use, and which my class will discuss at length: the focusing of the story through one or more protagonists. Although the story of Jane Eyre is oddly reminiscent of “Silver Nose” (a young woman travels to a rich man’s house in which a terrible secret is hidden), our relationship to Jane is far more intense and lingering than our relationship to any of the sisters in “Silver Nose.”

In a classic novel like Jane Eyre, we experience the story through Jane, in scene after scene feeling her ups and downs alongside her (and her steps forward and steps back are arranged in a surprisingly regular fashion); equally, when the answer to a dramatic question is finally revealed, it is usually tied to an explosive realisation on Jane’s part.

The plot’s moments of reversal, and the character’s moments of recognition, are drawn together in extremely satisfying ways.

It’s possible to teach, visualise, discuss, and practise a lot of the above.  That’s what my class in New Orleans will do, and I’m really looking forward to it.

My class isn’t the only one on offer at the Festival: there are sessions on turning a short story into a novel, on using dreams in poetry, and the essentials of creative non fiction, all taught by masters of their form.

Take a look at the video trailer for the Festival, and, if you like, share some information about it on Facebook, Twitter etc.

Best wishes to all your writing projects!



The Class I Wish I Had Taken During My MFA

At the upcoming Hands On Literary Festival in New Orleans, I’m going to be teaching a class on novel-writing, “The Class I Wish I Had Taken During My MFA.”

As the title of the class is a bit odd, and the premise a bit unusual, I thought I would explain it here, and answer any questions readers have.

1. The Difficulty with Teaching People How to Write Novels Rutgers MFA

The more time that passes since my MFA, the more I realise how lucky I was. My colleagues were talented, my financial funding was generous, and my teachers were exceptional.

I studied fiction with Lisa Zeidner, Lauren Grodstein, and Adam Mansbach, and not only were they remarkably well-read and insightful, they continually maintained a high demand for quality work. That a story could be “better” or “worse” than the one you had previously written was just an assumed part of the feedback process. To me, that’s one of the most valuable things a teacher of fine art can do: insist on quality. Even if everything else about the writing of fiction remains a mystery, that insistence can illuminate the path ahead, steady the hand.

But our MFA was not alone, I believe, in finding classes about short-story writing more rewarding than classes about novel-writing. Cathy Day’s wonderful essay, “The Story Problem,” remains the definitive discussion of the topic, and Day’s account of her own classroom experiences indicates how broad and common this “novel problem” is. It isn’t about individuals: it’s a problem with the basic premise of the creative writing workshop itself.

The workshop begins with students handing in already-written fiction. Their classmates and teacher then comment on the piece and offer suggestions for improvement. For a novel workshop, that’s typically the first chapter or so of a novel-in-progress.

This approach assumes, however, that student writers are already able to write the first chapter of a novel, and simply need advice along the way to make it better. I no longer think that’s the case. Until the very end of my MFA, I wasn’t writing a novel at all; instead, I was writing what you might call “novel-shaped-fiction.”

As a category, “novel-shaped-fiction” is superficially similar to “a novel.” From a distance, they look the same. Novel-shaped-fiction has the same characters and dialogue and settings and chapters that a novel has. The only problem with novel-shaped-fiction is that, generally speaking, no one wants to read it.

This lack of readability wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t because we hoped to challenge our readers. Rather, there was something different in category from what our work felt like to read and what the famous novels we loved felt like to read. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that.Me reading at Rutgers

After all, it seems like the best writers can get away with anything: it seems like for any rule one can think of, the canon of famous novels contains 1,000 exceptions. Why couldn’t my novel be one of those exceptions, especially if I work really hard at it? And because we only had time to workshop the first few chapters in class, we could practice various forms of denial very effectively. Yes, most people didn’t like chapters one, two, and three, but they would have loved the novel if only I’d been allowed to show them the whole thing! So we struggled to make our not-quite-novels better not-quite-novels, trying out or ignoring suggestion after suggestion, some of us revising the opening pages many times, others feeling bewildered by the feedback we received.

The class I wish I had taken during my MFA, in other words, would have explored and worked through this crucial distinction — the difference between a novel and a not-quite-novel — before any of us had actually handed in any pages of our own. I think that’s the instruction that aspiring novelists most need.

Now, I’m still learning how to write novels myself. Although I’ve devoted much of the last two years of my PhD in Creative Writing to thinking through this problem, much still remains mysterious. I believe, however, that I have figured out some of the first steps, and now I’d like to share them. That’s what my class at the Hands On Festival will involve.

I’ll stop here for today, but in the next post, I’ll sketch out some of those first steps, using an Italian fairytale, “Silvernose,” and the classic novel Jane Eyre as examples.