Sunday, December 12, 2010


So Cathy, what happened? How did your students do?

I’m so sorry it’s taken me awhile to update you! The end of NaNo is also the end of the semester, a busy time, as I’m sure you know.


15 students

12 reached 50,000 words. Four of 12 started October 1. Everyone who started October 1 finished. Eight of 12 started November 1 and also finished. Most spent the month/s writing toward the novel they planned to write, but a few students started writing towards another project when one idea petered out.

Three did not reach 50,000 words. One came within 5,000 words. Another came within 12,000 words. Another stopped generating new words at the midway point and started revising.

So did the students who failed to reach 50,000 get a bad grade?


The 12 students who reached 50,000 words got full credit, 100 points. The students who did not reach 50,000 did not get full credit, but still received 90 points, an A-.

When I created the syllabus, I made “NaNoWriMo Completion” worth just 10% of their grade. I wanted their NaNo performance to be about something other than Writing for the Grade.

However, I did not reveal how many points they would receive out of 100 if they “lost” NaNo either.

Honestly, about midway through the month, I expected the students who were falling behind to pin me down on this. “Professor Day? If I don’t reach 50,000 words, how many points will I get? If I only get halfway, will you give me 50 points? Zero points?" But, to their credit, they never asked me, so I didn’t talk about it. I just kept saying, Keep trying. Keep going.

Did they write from scratch, as NaNo encourages?

Yes and no. It was up to each student. Some students started from absolute scratch, others wrote towards ideas and plots and characters that had been germinating for awhile. One student said, 
“I pulled out a stack of short stories I wrote in high school. Each was short, no more than five pages double-spaced and they concerned a high school student living in California with her lawyer mother and her socialite aunt. Since I was already familiar with each character, and since a novel concerning the three had been marinating in my head for years (I even based a half-finished screenplay on my stories once) I deemed this a feasible world to write about.”
What kind of novels did they write?

One wrote a novel of psychological and aesthetic realism, akin to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Outsiders. One wrote an epistolary novel akin to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which we read as a class) and Go Ask Alice (her favorite book). The rest wrote some form of genre fiction. There were many speculative, science fiction stories about time travel, the mind and identity, dystopian futures. There was some fantasy. There was mystery and suspense. Two students ended up writing toward nonfiction projects rather than fictional ones: one student worked on a memoir, an account of a trip he’d taken to another country, and the other wrote worked on an immersion memoir, an account of her November preparation for a very important qualification exam.   

So, how well did they write? Did they cheat?

On December 1, each student sent me the Word doc file that contained all their NaNo writing. I opened each file, scrolled around a bit to make sure that all the words were legitimately theirs—not cut and pasted text from Wikipedia. All of it was legit. The quality varied widely from somewhat unreadable, very rough (my own 50,000 words could be described as such) to very readable, very decent prose, which is incredible considering how fast they were going. This “readability” quality seemed to depend on how much thinking/planning/writing they’d already done toward the project, but ultimately, readability and writing quality were not the desired outcomes anyway.  

So, if you’re not grading the quality of their writing, what the heck are you grading?  

Here’s the breakdown:

Process Blog    20%
Book Report 1  20%
Book Report 2  20%
Participation     20%
NaNoWriMo Completion  10%      
Revision of NaNoWriMo piece 10%

What is a Process Blog?

Simply, it’s a class blog where students chart their progress transparently. They don’t just talk to me. They talk to each other. Over the last few years, I’ve been introducing emerging media technologies into many of my classes. This has been a significant ongoing project: integrating into my teaching practices the lessons I’m learning as a working writer in the 21st century. Blackboard allows me to create a closed social media environment that builds camaraderie and community, a fertile environment for risk taking among students. You might ask why not use Blogger or Wordpress so that you could “follow” our process discussion? Interesting in theory, but I think asking students to post to an open blog rather than a closed one might change what they say, what they write about, what they’d be willing to share.

From my syllabus: 
“Imagine that each of you has requested to work with me on an independent study project, a Big Thing. I want you to write a description of your project, a faux independent study proposal, and the Process Blog is a virtual meeting place, a transparent journal, a think space where you’ll post, update, and maintain information related to your project. Every week or so, you will be required to check in with the process blog and take stock. ‘What did I do this week toward my project?’ The process blog is the place you go to talk to me (and everyone else) about your project and your process.”
What is a Book Report?

These reports were worth a combined 40% of their grade, and thus, much was expected. Each report involved a four-step process in which students create their own learning activity.  
  1. The first step: Identify the technique you want to study, something you struggle with and know you need to focus on. Creating emotionally complex characters. Transitioning between scenes and chapters. Structuring a plot over X number of days/weeks/months/years. Creating suspense which leads to a “surprise ending” that actually works. Grounding dialogue so that it’s organically integrated into the scenes.
  2. The next step I call “Taking Note” in which you don’t just passively read the book, but also take notes as you read—in the book or on your own. It helps you notice things you don’t always notice while “just reading” and helps you identify and mark patterns, rhythms, recurring motifs, echoes, chronology, the passage of time, the introduction of characters and ongoing subplots, themes, conflicts, characters.
  3. Next, they write what I call a craft analysis (3-6 pages) that responds to these prompts: What did I learn about X from reading this book? How can I apply it to my own writing or to my reading of the work of others? Why did the author approach X this way and not another way? How would different narrative decisions produce different effects?
  4. The last step is to produce a visual aid, an artifact that represents your physical interaction with the book. An outline, storyboard, collage. A transcription to get the “feel” for the style or voice. You should do whatever you think will be useful. This is shared with the class—because what you find might help someone else, because what you find might help us read your work better

What books did your students read?

Haven Kimmel, A Girl Named Zippy
Haven Kimmel, Something Rising (Light and Swift)
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
+ one book of their choice

Haven Kimmel is a native Hoosier and a Ball State alum, and so it was really amazing to have her visit campus right before NaNo. A Girl Named Zippy provided a good model of a non-linear narrative, a way to write a novel as a collage rather than as a straight line. I chose the Chbosky book because the subject matter is ‘relatable,’ it’s got a discrete timeline (one school year), and it’s got what my colleague Matt Mullins calls “Two Plots,” the suspense plot (the scenes that dramatize Charlie’s life and build tension) and the emotional plot (the internal character arc, the change Charlie undergoes). I’ve already talked about using Kerouac here

Also: each student was allowed to pick a book that most directly matched their particular needs for their NaNo project. 

What did your classroom look like day to day, week to week, month to month?

We spent most of September and October discussing the assigned books. If you had walked past my classroom on most days, you would have thought it was a typical English class. But I set aside a few class periods as “Studio Days,” time devoted to students working individually or in small groups on their Book Report or NaNo Prep. On some Studio Days, I provided focused prompts and we typed, generating character profiles and short scenes. Some days, we simply “sprinted” just to gauge how fast or how slow we tended to write, depending on the circumstances. Studio Days helped us acclimate to writing in that room with each other.

During November, the class became a writeshop. Students signed the attendance sheet, checked in with me to update their word count, listened to my announcements, and then spent the hour typing furiously. Once, I surprised them and asked to see the words they’d generated that day, which they sent in an email. But for the most part, I removed myself from their writing process. I wanted them to turn off their Internal Editor, that pesky voice in your head that leads to writer’s block. I wanted them to write for their own pleasure and edification. I did not want to be a voice in their head until December. 

On December 1, they turned what remained of their energy toward producing a good first chapter or excerpt of 10-25 pages. They gave this excerpt, along with a novel synopsis, to their peer group (three people) and spent time “workshopping” each other’s novels and talking about what to do next. I read over all these excerpts very quickly—two days with about 150 pages—and provided one or two suggestions about how to polish the excerpt further.

Now what happens? 

Tomorrow, December 13, 2010 at 4:30 is their scheduled final exam. They will post these synopses and excerpts to the Process Blog. The process isn’t over. They haven’t written novels yet, and they understand that. But those polished pages do represent a milestone, and as anyone who has ever written a novel or run a marathon can tell you, milestones are pretty powerful things.

Next post: “No More NaNo.” Why I won't be "doing NaNo" again. Not officially, at least. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

Finding Time for a Big Thing

The last two questions on the midterm Survey Monkey survey I gave to my students: 

What has been the hardest part of this process? What has been the easiest part of this process?

Far and away, they said the hardest part was finding the time to write:

“Making time within the day to write. I have so many things going on.”

“Sitting down and actually writing... I get distracted by online quizzes and video games easily.”
“Actually finding the time day to day in order to write.”

“making myself sit down and do it”

“Writing without distractions has proven difficult.”

“Exhaustion. Approach-avoid conflict.”

“Keeping up with the writing.”           

“Scheduling time to make up missed days.”

“Forcing myself to write.”

“Finding the time to write.”

You might be surprised by what they said was easiest. (Here's a sampling.)

“Writing it. I just find it enjoyable and I love taking time off from homework to do it. In fact, I stopped calling the writing process homework. I just find it too much fun to consider it in that category.”

“When I get going, I usually don't stop unless I have to go do something. Also, writing directly after amputating the words 'distraction' and 'road-block' from my vocabulary. Sitting down and writing 2,000 or so words an hour every class period has helped immensely.”

Many students said they would have liked “more guidance on how to find the time to write.” 

I laughed. Well, duh. Limit or eliminate television, gaming, and Facebook, and you’re golden. The request made me cranky. It’s not my job to teach you time management skills! But then I realized that, yeah, it sort of is—given the unique nature of the course. 

A former student of mine who lives and works in San Francisco just started participating in #Reverb10. It’s kind of like 750words + New Year’s Resolutions. Each day during December, Reverb10 sends you a writing prompt, which my student is using to reflect on her life generally and her writing in particular. She’s sharing these reflections on her blog--->sharing your journey is part of the point--->you send out “reverberations.”

Her prompt for December 2 was “Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing — and can you eliminate it?She outlined a typical day and took a good hard look at how she spends her time. Next time, as part of our preparation for this course, I will require my students to outline their own days and take a good hard look at how they spend their time. 

(Actually, why not do this in all my creative writing classes?) 

Even if you don’t become a writer in the long term, even if you don't finish the novel you drafted, you learn a lot from participating in NaNo. It reveals with startling (sometimes painful) clarity the reality of how you spend your days. 

How do you find the time to write 50,000 words in a relatively short period of time? Well, how do you incorporate any big thing into your life? Said “big thing” being novel writing, having a baby, caring for a dying parent, taking a second job, studying for the bar exam, taking 1,000,000 pictures, training for a marathon, traveling to every country in the world, eating a healthy, well-prepared meal every single night, etc. You find time, make time, create time. Or you don’t.

Recently, The Fiction Writers Review asked the incredibly productive writer Benjamin Percy this question:

“You’ve got this novel coming out. Stories keep popping up in magazines. You teach at Iowa State University and in the low-res MFA program at Pacific University. You contribute to Esquire and other publications. How do you balance it all and still find new material and time to work on your fiction? How do you stay in the ring, to reference another of your P&W articles?”

Ben said:
“You’re forgetting the hardest job of all: I’m father to two young children. I don’t sleep: that’s the answer. Five hours a night sometimes. My blood type is caffeine. I never take it easy—I’m always working, always writing or editing or grading. Even when I’m supposedly relaxing, I’m not. If I’m at the gym, I’m listening to an audiobook. If I’m watching a movie, I’ve got my notebook out and I’m jotting down ideas. If I’m out in the yard with my kids, I’m pushing around sentences in my head. People often seem to view writing as an indulgence, but I operate under the belief that you must give up all indulgences if you want to write seriously. I used to think this was a calling—that’s too romantic of a term. I’m fairly certain that I’m driven by obsession.”
For some, the answer isn’t how to do more with less time, but to alter one’s life, to make it more outwardly simple in order to live more richly.

In her novel, The Maytrees, Annie Dillard writes:
She took pains to keep outside the world’s acceleration.  An Athenian marketplace amazed Diogenes with, “How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes hath no need!”  Lou had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox.  In the past few years she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in the town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care.  She ignored whatever did not interest her.  With these blows she opened her days like a piƱata.  A hundred freedoms fell on her.  She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite’s tail.  Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.
A few months ago, the New York Times ran this piece, “But Will It Make You Happy?” which seemed to strike a cultural chord. I know it certainly did with me.

Finding time to write wasn't something I thought about until I was no longer in school. Suddenly, the external structure that had guided my writing life up to that time was gone. NaNoWriMo teaches valuable lessons about personal development and life planning, knowledge that students can keep for life, the ultimate transferable skills.  

Next time, I’ll talk about why I’m NOT going to formally engage with the National Novel Writing Month headquarters next year. 

Yes, this probably surprises you. It surprises me, too.