I’m getting ready to teach a workshop in novel writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. This will be the tenth consecutive year that I’ve taught at this conference, which I think is one of the best in the country. I could tell you why—an emphasis on craft and not publishing (no agents or editors lurking in the weeds), small workshop size (six participants), stimulating craft talks, an egalitarian atmosphere with accessible faculty members, an abundance of social activities, outstanding readings by faculty and participants alike, individual conferences for each participant—but what I’ve come to tell you is what teaching this workshop has taught me about writing novels.
I see approximately twenty-five pages of each novel by the participants in my workshop in advance of our arrival in Montpelier. Often people give me the opening chapter or chapters, but not always. Sometimes I see pages from the middle of the book. Sometimes I see a synopsis, but, again, not always. It may seem like a daunting task to be able to be helpful to the novelist after seeing such a brief excerpt, but over the years I think we’ve all managed quite well. I’ve seen a number of novels find publishers following our workshops, which isn’t to say that what we talked about during our time together had anything at all to do with that success, but still it’s nice to think so.
Our primary goal is to give each novelist a good idea of the center of his or her book as well as an understanding of the shape it wants to have. Along the way, we talk about what we find compelling when it comes to the characters and the events. We think about what will make this book memorable. We also talk about how the writer is using setting and point of view to express what the book wants to explore. We think about the contradictions that arise in the main characters and the push and pull within them that helps propel the narrative.
Perhaps the most important thing we do is to talk about what the early chapters of a novel promise the reader. It seems to me that when we begin a novel, even if we have no idea where it’s going, the writing gives us clues. I like to think about where the trouble is, the tensions that exist between characters, the instability of the initial dramatic premise. Clearly, that tension can’t come from plot alone. To be really interesting it has to come from character as well. What is it about the character’s situation that causes him or her to act, and how does that action lead to a rising line of complications?
We also have to think about texture. Not always, but often a thin plot line doesn’t take us very far. Sometimes we need to get more than one ball up in the air. This is what opening chapters often do. They sketch out the threads that the writer will pull through the book.
Another question the opening chapters brings to the fore involves point of view. Who’s telling, or experiencing, the story? Why are they the ones to invite us to follow the narrative? What’s at stake for them in the telling? Where does the urgency come from? Why do the main characters have to share their stories?
Teaching this workshop has reminded me of the steps we can take to increase our chances for success when we begin a novel: trouble and tension, dramatic focus, character contradictions, an urgent reason for the telling which is always connected to the stakes for the main character, the narrative threads that will vibrate against one another in a significant way as the writing goes on.
Of course, strategies might change in the writing as the novelist may hit upon aspects of characters and situations that rise to the surface. That’s the joy of discovery, and it must be honored. We have to be open to anything that might come along, but if we can pay attention to these precepts for opening the novel, we’ll be moving ahead to discoveries that will excite us. So much of writing a novel depends upon momentum and urgency and the surprises that await us.