A Novel Approach: Learning to Write More Than Stories

John Stazinski

In an intimate room on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, novelist Michelle Hoover leads her students through a fiction workshop. If it weren’t for the pricey view—an autumn game of touch football on a leaf-strewn Boston Common—it would appear just the same as any other workshop in any other city or town across the country. Each of the five students holds a copy of the manuscript to be considered, each copy marked up in earnest red ink. They sit around a conference table, cautious of one another in the way workshop writers often are, raising their questions and their confusions with a gentle hesitancy that signals respect for the writer’s feelings. They preface every other comment with, "Maybe it’s just me, but.…" The writer, in this case Rebecca Taylor, nods and scribbles notes in a leather journal. Only occasionally does she look to Hoover, who is mostly quiet, for affirmation.

The difference between constructing a short story and constructing a novel is like the difference between building a rowboat and building a yacht: They both have to float, but one is bigger and grander and meant to carry more people farther. Just as the yacht is not simply a bigger rowboat, the novel is not a big short story.

Before long though, it becomes clear that this is not a typical fiction workshop. The students are critiquing Taylor’s novel, "The Last Days of the Blind Age," a complete draft of which they read months ago. This afternoon they are beginning a second read, focusing on the first chapter of the revised draft, and it’s obvious the class is invested in Taylor’s work in a way that only readers of a novel can be. As they address the changes she has made from the previous draft, they talk of chapter and structure, of scene and pacing, but they can’t keep from mentioning their love of certain characters and their visceral attachment to them.

This sense of engagement points to the truth of what nineteenth-century author and Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells claimed when questioning why collections of short stories don’t sell: "We become of a perfect intimacy and a devoted friendship with the men and women in the short stories, but not apparently of a lasting acquaintance," he wrote. "Recurrence and repetition seem necessary to that familiar knowledge in which we hold the personages in a novel." It’s precisely that familiar knowledge and lasting acquaintance with character that has changed the dynamic of this particular workshop.

These students have committed an entire calendar year to one another and to one another’s novels, a commitment that includes reading each and every student’s novel—twice. The class is an experiment offered by Grub Street, an independent center for creative writing in Boston, and its aim is to fill a hole left by the near-exclusive concentration on the short story by traditional graduate workshops. Chris Castellani, Grub Street’s artistic director and a novelist himself, explains that the center realized that "MFA programs weren’t addressing the needs of our students who wanted to write novels. They would come to us and say they already had MFAs and knew nothing more about writing novels than they did when they entered their program, or they’d say they were researching MFAs and were being told by the programs that they would be discouraged from workshopping novels."

This is certainly the case for Rebecca Taylor. She’s currently an MFA candidate at Emerson College and is taking the Grub Street class on top of her graduate program’s course load. She enrolled in a class Emerson offered on the novel but was frustrated by the time constraints of the single-semester course. Each writer had time to submit only a couple of chapters for critique. "Imagine," she says, "reading a random chapter of a novel without reading the rest. You could praise the individual scenes and sentences, but you could say nothing about whether the chapter was working as part of a whole." Taylor has wanted to write a novel since she was in seventh grade, and only now, she says, in the Grub Street course, is she learning how to do it.

The Grub Street experiment raises some uncomfortable questions for MFA programs across the country. Sure, the short story is a great pedagogical device for teaching certain aspects of fiction writing. Like a great country song, it’s a display of craft, it reveals emotion through compression, and, in an hour-long workshop, can be chiseled down to its essential parts. The novel, on the other hand, is a loose and sprawling thing, a symphony as compared with the story’s simple country tune. But no one dreams of writing the Great American Short Story Collection, and every MFA candidate working on short stories knows, or should know, the market for story collections is limited at best. When publishers want fiction, they want a novel. Yet the typical MFA workshop urges students to concentrate on the story, leaving the would-be-novelist with a diploma and the daunting task of writing a novel by extrapolating what she knows about writing a story.   

But the difference between constructing a short story and constructing a novel is like the difference between building a rowboat and building a yacht: They both have to float, but one is bigger and grander and meant to carry more people farther. Just as the yacht is not simply a bigger rowboat, the novel is not a big short story; knowledge of one doesn’t necessarily translate into knowledge of the other.  

I speak from experience. After graduate school I was determined to master the short story. I poured all my time into a story collection, ignoring the idea of a novel completely because I believed that behind the MFA model there was a process: Learn the short form, understand its internal mechanics, its scenes and its structure, its dialogue and its character, and the longer form of the novel would come naturally. Yes, I loved the short story and still do, but I also thought of it as a stepping-stone, the apprentice’s form. I thought one built the yacht by building dozens of rowboats. That seemed to be what graduate school was attempting to teach.

With each of my stories that found its way to publication, I’d get a half dozen queries from agents who expressed admiration for my work and wondered if I had anything worth their time. Whenever I replied that I had a nearly complete story collection, their reaction was icy—if they reacted at all. It took me too long to realize what they wanted was a novel. I didn’t understand until a generous agent spent the time to outline in an e-mail how one of my stories could be turned into a novel.  

So I took his advice, took it as a sign that I was finally ready to write that book. My apprenticeship, I figured, was over.

What was slowly and very painfully revealed to me in the following months was that the novel and the short story are separate beasts entirely. In an essay for the Rumpus, novelist and critic William Giraldi writes, "The novel is as different from a collection of stories as a truck is from a tricycle: They both have wheels, yes, and will get you where you need to be, though in decidedly dissimilar fashions and with dissimilar degrees of alacrity." What I had after months of work was neither truck nor tricycle, but some awful seventy-five-page amalgamation of the two that would not steer straight (Philip Larkin’s "a beginning, a muddle, and an end"). In reality what I had was a graduate degree in fiction writing but no notion of how to construct a novel. Despite having a handful of publications, I had the sinking feeling I was a fraud. I became convinced that I knew how to write a novel about as well as I knew how to build a yacht. Novel-panic had set in.