Skip to main content

Anatomy of a Novel-Writing Workshop

Anatomy of a Novel-Writing Workshop

By Dr. Derek Nikitas, Director, Bluegrass Writers Studio

A Bluegrass Writers Studio perk is our love of long-form prose, along with the short stuff. We’ve blogged before about our teaching in this area, here and here.

But what’s the shape of an actual novel-writing course? Depends. There’s the type where finished manuscripts get polished. There are auditorium seminars in plotting. Even some short-story workshops “allow” novel chapters. There’ve been whole AWP panels devoted to this question.

Here’s how I do it at the Bluegrass Writers Studio. I’ll be teaching another of these starting this fall.

First, I acknowledge that novels and short stories are different monsters. In workshop, we want from stories what we can’t get from novel chapters—a lesson I learn whenever I foolishly submit novel chapters disguised as stories to literary magazines. Where’s the ending? So, closure and fulfillment, for example. Sufficient context.

In workshop, short stories tend to be more “finished” than novel chapters, more polished. We discuss what’s on the page. With chapters, there’s the larger (conceptual and tentative) forest to consider. There’s less concern about what’s written, more concern about keeping the writer aimed and motivated. There’s talk about expectations, our hopes and fears about what’s coming next. There’s way more talk about process in general.

So a workshop exclusively devoted to novel chapters is a great way to keep focus.

I’ve also never taught a novel course where students bring in complete drafts (though that model  has its own significant merits). We start from scratch. In fact, each student knocks around several novel ideas before settling on the one s/he’ll pursue for the course. We test-drive strategies, from highly intuitive and unconscious brainstorming to carefully calculated outlining. Heck, I even have a Not-My-Novel exercise where participants describe what they don’t want their novel to be like.

But frankly, we’re learning not just how to write this novel, but also how to write a novel. We often think we know our own best writing strategies, but we’re often wrong. Sometimes it takes only a nudge—an uncomfortable assignment—to convince us.

Sometimes assignments fail us, and that’s all right, too. We’re here to discover what works and what doesn’t. You get folks who are comforted by a map or at least a compass, while others love hacking through the dense foliage with a machete, not knowing what’s coming next. Try both and see.

Finally, one semester won’t cut it for me. There’s just too much to do in sixteen weeks. Thus, I run a two-semester novel-writing extravaganza. Nearly two-thirds of the first semester is devoted to developing a novel idea through exercises and other assignments, including what I like to call “autopsies” of published works we admire. Only in the last third of that semester do we get down to the grunt work of piling up the rough-draft pages.

Semester Two is when we write our butts off. Here’s the specialized workshop where we keep ourselves focused and motivated through the long haul. It would be reductive to call this semester “Novelist Support Group,” but that description’s not far off. So many promising writers come into my class with the desire to push a project through, but without the habits, without the ability and confidence to accept the limitations of a rough draft. But every semester, they surprise themselves.

And let me add—I’m right there with you. Never in my career has my own novel-writing daily grind been more productive than when I teach these Novel Writing II semesters. The sense of community support is a priceless asset even for the professor.

To learn more about us and to apply for the 2014-2015 academic year, please visit or contact us here.

Contact Information

Kristen Thompson

Published on February 25, 2014

Open /*deleted href=#openmobile*/