As any senior staring down the last chapter of his or her thesis knows, the ultimate inspiration is the deadline. For the students in novelist Susan Choi’s creative writing class, a deadline looms at the end of every weekday night.
In Choi’s class, ambitiously named “How to Write a Novel in Twelve Weeks (or at least make a start),” students create a full novel, one piece at a time. Though most fiction workshops focus on shorter stories, Choi said she wanted to teach a class dealing with novel writing, starting with the importance of putting pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard — regularly. She requires her six students, selected from a crop of 30 applicants, to e-mail her at least 300 words of their novel every Monday through Friday.
“Three hundred words feels daunting on uncreative days, and doable on the rest,” said Isabelle Puckette ’11. Every evening after dinner, Puckette sits down at a small wooden table in her room, with a cup of black tea at her side. Sometimes, she meets her 300-word quota in 45 minutes. Other days, it takes her two hours.
“It’s a treat I look forward to, a creative escape that I’ve promised myself for each evening,” she said. “When I think about it that way, I find time.”
Puckette’s novel is about “heroic love that spans generations, a bathtub in an overgrown forest, gypsies, a convent in northern Greece, plenty of coincidences, and a bit of magic — hopefully, all in moderation.” At least, that’s the plan.
One of Choi’s class policies: no editing allowed. When the goal is to write the first draft of a novel over 60 days, every addition is a sprint to the finish line. The policy helps students avoid getting stuck on one idea, said Daisy Radevsky ’13.
“As Susan Choi said, if we suddenly realize that our police-officer character should actually be a nun, we just have to start writing them as a nun and pretend they always were one,” Radevsky said.
“I found out, about a week in, that my narrator was actually really boring,” said Lillian Zhou ’11. “So I scrapped him, most of my story thus far, and approximately 90 percent of the human race.” Her novel is about a future in which extreme levels of solar radiation have driven civilization deep underground.
Other novels being pieced together this semester tell the stories of a Miami-based jai-alai player, a daughter’s stormy relationship with her immigrant mother, and a teenager who leaves home to discover “real life” in Paris.
“By spring break,” Choi said, “all six students were deep into amazing, unique, compelling novels that it might have taken them who knows how long to write if I hadn’t been standing there with the metaphorical whip, making them turn in 300 words every day.”