We write. We revise.
For months, I’ve been posting excerpts of my Ivy Street Salon writing workshop student’s pieces (The Revisionistas). Together we work on short stories, novels, personal essays and various and sundry other writings. A page on this blog had said I would write ditties about writing and writing groups here and again. To date, I haven’t. But it’s about time I did, so today, I’m posting my first one. It’s about something dear to my novel-writing heart.
Any day now, I’m expecting a UPS truckload of manuscripts to land on my doorstep. I get excited and anxious about this prospect every June for the past 7 years. For the past 7 summers I’ve been the writer-in-residence at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. It’s my favorite job in the whole world. I start pining for July to arrive in the previous November. As writer-in-residence, my job is to do the novel tutorials with the Institute’s fiction students who request a special reading of their manuscript, up to 300 pages.
So every June I receive about 10 manuscripts to read by July. Why do I love this job? The novels are drafts, not published, but hoping to be published. They are at all levels of skill. And yet, this is the best teaching job. I have finally realized what it is that I find so satisfying. A novel is only a novel if you know the big picture. To critique 10-, 20-, 30-page excerpts for workshops can be difficult and often frightening. Sure, a 300-page manuscript can be daunting, but to give advice on 10 pages without knowing what the other 290 have to say, is scary. How do I know if anything I’m saying holds true for the NOVEL? How do I know the STORY, or the intended story, until I’ve read to the end? How can I point out what doesn’t work, or more importantly what does work, if I don’t know what really happened? I sometimes feel like a liar, like I’m only guessing at what the intention is when I critique 10 pages and don’t know the rest. Sure, it’s the responsibility of the author to take only the critique that works for them, but there’s more. The satisfaction in editing a novel, is much the same as reading a novel–to find out what happens at the end.
I think I first started to realize the importance of a novel workshop that was truly a NOVEL workshop and not a 10-page short story/novel excerpt workshop and I was applying to MFA programs. I was sitting in a meet-and-greet at Columbia University and the Dean mentioned the trouble they’d had in trying to make the workshops as fair to novel writers as for short story writers. I’d been in workshops for years and was always frustrated with waiting to get 10 more pages read. Would I have finished my novel any faster, had I had more pages reviewed, that remains to be seen. But then after I was published and many wonderful requests come in like being asked to be the book prize juror for both PEN/USA and LA Times Book Prize, I again got boxes and boxes of books left on my doorstep by my favorite UPS delivery person. And, once again, it dawned on me how much more grateful I was to have the whole gem in my hand, how much I love reading novels, how much a big fat story means to me in its entirety. I also realized that even when I don’t like a book, when this subjective business of creative writing delivers to my doorstep a story that isn’t my tastes, I can still be a better advice-giver if I know what the author’s intention is, if I can see if they met that intention. My job isn’t to tell the author if I did or didn’t like the story, but what worked and didn’t work based on my hopefully unbiased judgment. Because in a novel, the intention, the big picture, the theme, the story, the stuff that makes it a novel, all of it has to be sprinkled throughout.
With that in mind, I started a Savory Workshop (savorysalons.com) with David Ulin, book critic of the LA Times, where we look at 200-page manuscripts and work as a group on the Big Picture. Stay tuned for the next installment on that workshop.
And with the Revisionistas in my Ivy Street Salon workshop, this fall, the four who are fast finishing their novels, we are going to do big reads and get to the end. This site will carry the play-by-plays on that workshop this fall.