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Arts in Review

Creative Writing: A novel idea?

This fall, the UFV students in English 311: Novel Writing have been attempting to prove that something as deeply personal as a novel can be successfully written in a classroom setting.

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By Paul Esau (The Cascade) – Email

Date Posted: October 28, 2011
Print Edition: October 26, 2011

The Novels…

Josh Frede: “My novel is a science fiction novel. It’s based about 400 years in the future, and it’s about a boy who’s growing up in New Shanghai, and he doesn’t know a lot about his ancestors or his parentage or anything like that. It’s about a package that sort of comes to him one day that changes everything and sets his life on a whole different trajectory than he had imagined for himself. I want to deal with issues like diversity and individualism. Also a central aspect of my story is gene modification in humans.”

Read the opening chapter of Frede’s novel…

Sarah Brown: “My [novel] is set in the 90s. It centers around a group of four boys. They self-describe themselves as ‘skins.’ They’re attempting to be hardcore punks. I guess you could say the leader of them concocts this plan to burn down the house of an old lady who lives beside the main character, Johnny. It’s kind of inspired by Graham Greene’s The Destructors… so I was drawing on that reference there. So basically what happens is they set up this anarchist plan to demolish her house on the eve of the Millennium, December 31. They’re kind of jaded by all the technology that’s affecting the world, but Johnny befriends the lady who lives there because he hears her playing the piano, and they begin to form this relationship that’s pretty much, incited by sound. A lot of the events in the book center around sound, so I tried to make it very lyrical in that sense.”

Read the opening chapter of Brown’s novel…

Lucas Smith: “My novel is about a man who, at least in the present day, is in prison for murdering another man. It’s revealed through a series of flashbacks and some introspective soul-searching that his family was murdered five years prior, and the murder that he committed was kind of a revenge murder… he’s trying to find justification or a reason why his family was taken form him. Throughout the course of the novel he learns more while in prison about the actions and the events leading up to his family’s murder. He’s a writer himself and a reporter who outed a lot of politicians and people who negatively affected the world… I guess at the core of [the novel] it’s him dealing with the loss of his family, as well as personal issues such as obsession and then addiction, and trying to overcome that.”

Read the opening chapter of Smith’s novel…

“The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

-William Faulkner

Most authors agree that there isn’t one true path to writing a novel, at least beyond getting a certain number of words onto a certain number of pages. Some writers travel for inspiration, some become hermits, some (like Faulkner) drink themselves into the creative abyss. Obviously it’s not a process which lends itself to formula, yet some argue that structure is exactly the thing to impose upon the creative chaos. This fall, the UFV students in English 311: Novel Writing have been attempting to prove the veracity of this argument, to prove that something as deeply personal as a novel can be successfully written in a classroom setting.

Creative writing professor Andrea MacPherson is the brains behind the class, as well as the author of two previous novels. Her first work, When She Was Electric, doubled as her Master’s thesis, while her second, Beyond The Blue, elaborated on her grandmother’s experience in WWII Scotland. MacPherson describes the name of the class as “kind of a fallacy because you can’t complete a novel in three months.” What students are expected to complete, according to MacPherson, is instead “an extensive outline and the first four chapters of the novel.” The class is organized into a series of workshops where students are broken up into groups which provide criticism for each student’s work, interspersed with sessions focusing on elements such as plot development and characterization.

MacPherson admits that many students find the course daunting. “I think they just, honestly feel overwhelmed when they think about the novel,” she said. “They think about the 300 pages, they’re not thinking about each chapter individually.” Consequently, MacPherson used the first month of the semester to help her students create a robust outline for their story, even if she suspects the outline is itself only a guide. “We do the outline and do all that work,” she said, “but then I tell [the students] that if things change along the way to embrace that and not be so tied to your guideline that you aren’t willing to stray. I think interesting things happen the further you get into writing a novel. Characters raise their head and demand to be heard.”

Yet what compels someone to devote four credits of their semester and over $500 in tuition to the pursuit of a novel, one they might not even finish? How does such a class function, how is it taught, and most importantly, is it working? Those answers cannot be provided by MacPherson alone.

Josh Frede, Sarah Brown, and Lucas Smith are all students in English 311, and all aspiring writers. Over the course of the semester they have already committed dozens of hours to creating outlines, then actual chapters for their respective stories. Each admitted to being driven to write by different motivations:

“I think for me the answer would be that I don’t sleep,” said Smith, “so it’s a good way to kill the hours between 1-5 a.m. But I guess there’s been a lot of moments in my life when I’ve turned to books… This [class] is a golden opportunity to try and create something. I think that’s why I’ve always wanted to write… other people’s ideas and thoughts have effected me, maybe if I do something down the road it will inspire somebody else.”

According to Brown, the question of motive reminds her of “this quote from John Lennon that I read once, and it was something like ‘whenever I write I feel like I’ve been taken over by aliens that are grabbing my hand and forcing me to move the pen,’ or something. I know that sounds insane, but it’s the way I feel a lot of the time… It’s almost like there’s a certain sentiment that is trapped inside you that you have to get out although you’re not sure why.”

All three agree that the class is an opportunity to pursue a dream each has had, but never before, found the time and motivation to realize. They are especially grateful for the criticism they receive from their peers within the class.

“My favourite part is when people in your workshop group talk about your characters as if they’re real,” said Brown. “I just think that’s so awesome and it’s like getting to see your work come to life… You feel like you’ve actually created something that people can relate to.”

“You’re not allowed to talk when everyone else is talking about your work, so you can’t defend yourself,” added Smith.

Each student is required to bring a copy of their chapter for each group member, to be discussed the following week. The fledgling novels being showcased in each group range from historical fiction to fantasy, to most genres in the middle. The strangest novels, according to MacPherson, are “always the fantasy ones, because some people have such crazy imaginations… I’m interested in the fact that [I] don’t get a lot of mystery or thriller, because that’s typically what you see on lists of popular fiction.”

Not surprisingly, Frede, Brown, and Smith all described their novels on very different terms. Each was required to do a significant amount of research before their idea took novel proportions.

Brown explained that “I grew up listening to a lot of punk music, so I used that as a standpoint for my characters. So then I was also reading this book called Please Kill Me, and it was about punk music in the 70s and kind of the political stance they were getting behind as well as the people behind the music, the guys in the band and so on… I did a lot on the Internet; the Internet is a wonderful thing. Libraries and stuff, bookstores, I talked to my piano teacher…”

“For my setting and other aspects,” said Smith, “it takes place in Texas… I did a lot of research on the prison system down there. I found a prison that kind of fit the bill for me, and I took that name, and from there [I] look[ed] at images of different landscapes in Texas that will come up later in my novel… because my main character is a writer it leant itself to a lot of things I’ve studied so far in school and stuff I’ve studied on the side. A lot of those pop up, references to Kafka, and even more well known things like Catcher in the Rye.”

“My story takes place in a somewhat post-apocalyptic world,” admitted Frede, “so in that respect I’ve got kind of a clean slate to work with. A lot of the places that appear in my story are unique to my story, but most of my research was following up on the technological advancements that I wanted to have in the story. Seeing what they already have up there and what sort of technologies have been hypothesized. Also I’ve never been to Asia, and the story basically takes place in east Asia… I’m definitely going to hit YouTube a lot and check out what that part of the world looks like and its slums and jungles and stuff like that.”

Over the next few weeks these three individuals will continue to refine their work under their classmate’s supervision. Although they are being graded upon the quality of their work, one can’t escape the feeling that it’s their pure enjoyment of their craft which drives these aspiring authors, the ability to push each other towards perfection. In their eyes, MacPherson’s class is not so much a requirement as an opportunity to fulfill a greater dream.

“Real writers are those who want to write, have to write, need to write.”

-Robert Penn Warren

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