October 11, 2006

Issue #8 of A Novel in One Semester
by Mary Kay Zuravleff, copyright 2006

When I asked my first grader about school the other day, she talked about their Writer’s Workshop. Oh, really? What does that look like? She said, “We learned it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be –ish. Then we had a lesson on what is –ish?” That lesson was from Peter Reynolds’s liberating book Ish. In Reynolds’s vision, Ramon is a child scribbler whose older brother’s laughter prompts him to crumple subsequent drawings. When his sister grabs one of the wads, Ramon chases her to her room, only to see a gallery of his smoothed-out sketches. She points to her favorite, and he criticizes his attempt at a vase. “Well, it looks vase-ISH,” she says, freeing him to draw—and enjoy drawing—again. Of course, I ran right to class with this concept, where we now speak of our output being novel-ish. And that’s fine.

Up to a point. Because the goal is an actual, albeit not polished, novel, we must occasionally take stock. Stock may even work as a metaphor, as we’ve been throwing people, vegetables, and spice into our novelish broth willy-nilly. This week, each person (at 24K words!) presented me with a synopsis as a prelude to an individual conference. Many were surprised to see how rich their stocks were; that’s a reason to draft a short synopsis now and then. The most obvious prodding from me—what is the time span of your entire novel? who is the main character? what emotion most drives the book?—yielded interesting possibilities.

Depth Charges
While I stand by my previous lessons about conflict and explosions along the book’s way, the synopses hinted at potential depth charges. Depicting the stress two people feel in a deteriorating relationship can be conflict enough; showing a neglected child choose optimism in a doubtful situation might rival any explosion brought about by plot pyrotechnics. I tried to give each class member a challenge, mostly ways to trace the plot’s fuse back to a character’s emotional life. Character is where we started, but we didn’t know what we were setting off back then. We still don’t, and yet the spark is there.

By October 18, 2006, all are expected to be ablaze with 28K words!