Friday, May 25, 2018

Through the deep woods – finding a path to a novel

I knew Suzanne Frank, director of The Writer’s Path at Southern Methodist University, from my own time in her program. When I met her again at a meeting of Dallas Mystery Writers, she invited the group to an information session this week. The goal of the program, she told attendees at the information session in SMU’s Dallas Hall, is not to teach students how to write in a particular style, or tell a particular type of story, “but to help you find your best story and how to craft it.”

Starting with the premise that if a person gets what she wants, “there is no story,” she asked how attendees wanted to spend their days. “It’s perfectly OK to say, I like my job, I just want to have two hours a day to write a book, or organize my short stories, or validate my poems and songs.”
“We can – note, not will or must – take you from your first idea to a first draft.”  
image: pxabay
The Writer’s Path has changed format a good deal since I participated in it years ago. It’s currently structured as a five-step program: Creative Writing Foundation, Story, Plot, Heroic Chapters, and Chapters. Additional classes are required for writers interested in applying for SMU’s New York seminar. The courses mentioned here are for the Writer’s Path novel program, with a somewhat different course structure required for writers interested in memoir and narrative nonfiction. 
With some exceptions, classes are five weeks long. They are all taught by published authors and meet once a week for three hours, with variable amounts of homework. Again with some exceptions, the cost is $450 per class, plus a $5 fee for a campus parking permit.
Beginning with the first step, “Creative Writing Foundation,” the Path leads through “Story,” which introduces writers to the story form called the hero’s journey and should enable them to complete at least two key scenes, including the final scene. If the idea of knowing the ending sounds too scary, Frank assured us that the “final” scene at this early stage, “may not be the end that you end up with later.” 
During the third “Plot” stage, participants should expect to put “muscle and tendons to make the story move,” working on characterization, including characterization of the all-important villain (or antagonist), and ending with at least nine major scenes for their narratives. These first three steps consist of five weeks of classes, meeting once a week for three hours each. 
The fourth step, “Heroic Chapters” is what Frank terms, “our special sauce,” a digging-deeper  -- and longer – class that lasts six weeks instead of the usual five.
“When we first put this into rotation, the difference between people who took it and those that didn’t was about three drafts.”
“Heroic Chapters” is followed by the final (for non-NY seminar attendees) “Chapters” class. By the end of this class, writers are expected to have completed approximately five chapters of a novel. They can then proceed on their own or take Chapters multiple times at their own discretion. 
When I first signed up for the program, it seemed so even to me that a former career journalist would find herself baffled at the prospect of writing fiction. Especially long fiction. Workshops and critique groups that helped with short stories, which were as much as a group of people could cope with in one or two sittings. But who could be expected to keep an entire narrative of perhaps 100,000 words in mind over a period of months, if not years of writing?
I needed something more structured than a critique group, lengthier than a weekend-long workshop, more goal-oriented than a semester-long introduction to creative writing class. But I didn’t want another academic degree. Or anything that would bust my budget. Then another writer said that he’d been exploring the non-credit creative writing classes called “the Writer’s Path” at Southern Methodist University.
No degree given or required, but by starting with the basics and working through a year or two of structured classes, I could learn a fairly straightforward way to write a novel. I tried it, started a completely new novel as a way to work out what I was learning, and ended by being among a dozen or so alumni of the program invited to attend a seminar in New York, complete with pitching to real live literary agents.
Well, I didn’t get an offer of literary representation. And although a later agent agreed to represent that original novel, no more came of it. No matter. I kept writing, because now I knew how to.
Because of the cost and commitment of time, The Writer’s Path is not for anyone who isn’t already determined to become a writer. To anyone unsure whether to spend any spare time you can scrape up writing or, say, raising prize dahlias, consider taking any of the excellent shorter creative writing classes available in North Texas. WORD (Writing Organizations 'Round Dallas) includes a comprehensive list of writing organizations to choose from. Also note that since The Writer’s Path does not lead to an advanced academic degree it will not prepare you to teach (other than in its own classes). 
But if you are firmly committed to writing but feel you just need more structure and support than is otherwise available, give it a try. The Creative Writing Foundation classes are currently open for registration