Thursday, May 28, 2015

How The Writer’s Center’s Students Inspired a Book

by Kathryn Johnson

      I have taught at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda since 2008. But it wasn’t until more than a year later that the lessons my students were teaching me finally sank in. (I’m a slow learner.)

      As instructor of a course called Writing the Popular Novel, I addressed the usual fiction techniques: characterization, plot, point of view, dialogue, and more. While lectures focused on the basic skills, discussions centered on topics in which a particular group was most interested. Some students asked for more information on pacing and creative plotting. Others seemed more concerned with deep characterization or viewpoint issues. One student might be working on a love story, while another on a thriller, mystery, Western, fantasy, or family saga. But they consistently voiced two concerns: not enough writing time, and fear of failure.

      It didn’t matter whether an individual writer was retired from their career or working full time. Everyone was desperate for practical tips that would enable them to confidently complete their writing projects without neglecting jobs, families, and other responsibilities. And without spending 3, 5, or even 20 years to complete a single book! It seemed to me that they needed help in the form of an aggressive but reassuring model.

      And so, for the summer of 2009, I proposed a new course. It was to be in the form of an adult writer’s camp. We called it The Extreme Novelist. I envisioned it as a form of tough love for writers—an 8-week, intensive course that would support 15 authors through the process of getting a fast, rough draft of their novels written. It would be as informative as any writing craft course, while reinforcing a daily writing habit and troubleshooting life’s inevitable intrusion on writing time.

      To make sure students understood how serious I was about the program, and how committed I expected them to be, every student would sign a contract. It declared their promise to write “at least 90 minutes a day, 6 days a week for the duration of the course.” In addition, there would be “accountability time” at the outset of each weekly class, to make sure everyone was on task, and to urge on slackers and encourage the faint-hearted. The emphasis would be on making pages, building confidence, and getting the job done with less trauma—and with the knowledge that revisions and polishing to qualify their work for publication would come later.

      We’ve run The Extreme Novelist course for 2-3 semesters every year since then. The classroom is almost always full, and there’s often a waitlist. But it wasn’t until 2014 that I took to heart the comments from authors who said they would love to take the class but, for various reasons, couldn’t. They lived too far away from Bethesda. Or they couldn’t afford the registration fee. Or the Wednesday evening class times were already spoken for. Several said, “It’s a shame you can’t package it [the course] in a book.” I thought, “Well, why not?” After all, hadn’t I told them they could write any book they wanted to write? Shouldn’t I follow my own advice?

      This spring, that idea became a reality. The Extreme Novelist: The No-Time-to-Write Method for Drafting Your Novel in 8 Weeks became available in The Writer’s Center bookstore, as well as on a variety of digital platforms. It will be the first of a series of books intended to address novel writing from a practical, 21st-century perspective. When I tell people I couldn’t have done it without my students, I’m dead serious. While I may have succeeded in inspiring them to persevere and get their stories written, they have taught me how to better teach and support them through the challenging process of writing book-length fiction. And for that I will forever be grateful.

    May all of your writing days be productive and satisfying!  

The Extreme Novelist is available in the Center's bookstore
Order the title from your favorite Indie Bookseller, or find it...
For your Nook:

For more information on The Extreme Novelist course, or the book, feel free to contact:

Please note: If you are interested in taking the course, try to register early as seats fill quickly. The next class begins July 8, 2015. Register here


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