Booking It

These students write a novel faster than many of us can read one.

May/June 2016

Reading time min

Booking It

Illustration: Melinda Beck

They say Ernest Hemingway drafted The Sun Also Rises in just six weeks. Of course, for most of us, the prospect of writing a novel at all is a daunting enough challenge, without the added pressure of trying to create a literary classic.

It was with that in mind that Tom Kealey and Scott Hutchins, former Stegner fellows and current Jones lecturers, created the Novel Writing Intensive. And intense it is. Inspired by NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, the popular celebration held every November since 2000—and what Hutchins calls the “longstanding pedagogical problem of novels in the workshop,” their course provides the structure and support to push students through the grueling task of writing an entire novel in a single month.

The class starts off reading a few novels for inspiration and guidance. This past year, those were Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, Justin Torres’s We the Animals and Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. Students then sketched out scenes and structures for their own stories and created jacket covers for their books, complete with fake praise from the literary world. “Nabokov blurbed a few,” Hutchins jokes.

Once November hits, the writing starts, as students gather for nightly writing blasts hosted by one of their 18 classmates around campus and in Palo Alto. Playing by NaNoWriMo rules, they’re supposed to average almost 1,700 words per day to reach the mandatory 50,000-word count by the end of the month and complete their novels. And Kealey emphasizes that completion is the main goal of the class, so students get a firsthand experience with “how people write things to completion, and how do people write day in and day out” whether or not they’re feeling inspired. Even so, for the last class of the quarter, when the students gathered and read a few pages from their books, Kealey says he was “blown away” by the quality of their writing.

Students who took the class this year—just the third iteration, as it’s offered only every other year—credit the supportive environment with helping them see the novel process through. Natalia Birgisson, an MD candidate, says she had been wanting to write a novel for some time, and “Tom and Scott’s class was instrumental in getting me started.” Sri Muppidi, ’17, echoed this sentiment, saying, “I knew that if I attempted to do it on my own, I would not have been able to finish. But with the support of the class, I was able to follow through with the goal I set for myself.”

Finishing the book was, for many students, an emotional experience. “Several of them admitted to bursting out into tears when they finished,” Hutchins says.And as for the final product? In Muppidi’s words: “No matter how bad I think the writing is, I’m still happy with it because I did something.”

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