Hit Me with Your Best Shot

Hanging out with other talented, industrious writers is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But alas, writing is a lonely activity. How are we to connect?

Last year at about this time, I saw an ad on Facebook for the Stanford Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. I clicked on it, which led to a slew of other ads offering courses in writing, about which I blogged. And now the Stanford ad is back, so I thought I’d take a serious look at what’s on offer. Stanford is, if nothing else, a reputable institution of higher learning.

First the good news. The certificate program consists of five full college courses. Admission is limited to 60 students, and they’re divided into four “cohorts” of 15 students each. In between reading the course materials and writing your own assignments, you’ll be critiquing the work of the other students in your cohort, so there will be lots of personal interaction. The students will not be utter beginners; each of them will have at least some experience in writing fiction, and will be serious enough to sign up for a demanding (and expensive) course.

The course description suggests that they’re happy to include writers who are working in genre fiction (SF, fantasy, mystery, etc.), which suits me, as I’m definitely a genre author. I have no interest in producing literature or mainstream slice-of-life stories.

As a senior citizen (that sounds so much nicer than “old fart”) I’d get a 20% discount. I’d be paying “only” $900 per course, and I can afford that. One way to look at is, if I’m serious about writing, I’d be investing in my own future. Not necessarily in my own future earnings, though that’s possible. In my own happiness, fulfillment, and contentment. This could be worth doing.

Now for the bad news.

In their video pitch for the course, they display the covers of half a dozen “success stories” — novels by students who enrolled and presumably completed the program. So I had a gander at these books on Amazon. As far as I can tell from the blurbs, none of them is genre fiction, they’re all mainstream slice-of-life stories. Only one of the six authors has produced, to date, a second novel, though most of the first novels were published in 2018. This is also true of the woman who runs the program, by the way: She has had one novel published, and that was 12 years ago.

I’ve published either five or eight novels, depending on whether you count the Leafstone saga (those covers up there at the top of the blog! buy the books! read them! rave about them to your friends!) as one novel or four. Also four nonfiction books, a collection of short stories, and blah blah blah. This suggests that perhaps I’m over-qualified.

Being over-qualified is not a deal-breaker, however. I’m not going to find a group of authors to hang out with who are as far down the primrose path as I am. You take what you can get.

Here’s the big blinking red light, though. The certificate program lasts for close to two years, and the course list looks like this:

Year 1. Fall: The Writing Life: Form and Theory of the Novel. Winter: Novel I: The Powerful Beginning. Spring: Novel II: Plot and Structure.

Year 2. Fall: Novel III: Subtext, Theme, and Language. Winter: Novel IV: Manuscript Completion.

The explicit idea, as you can see, is that students will take two years to finish their novel. But for anybody who is serious about writing genre fiction, that’s just plain silly.

Right now I’m thinking quite seriously about writing a series of mysteries. I have two or three good ideas for series, in fact, one of which already exists as a partial draft backed up by thousands of words of notes. A series mystery tends to be about 80,000 words, give or take. I can easily write 2,000 words a day, if not more, day in and day out. That is, I can produce a first draft in no more than two months, including a little time out for untangling plot snags. And having been a staff writer on a magazine for 25 years, I write publishable first draft. There’s always some editing after the fact, but that only takes a couple of weeks, because I edit as I go along.

I’m not unusually productive. I daresay a lot of genre mystery writers routinely write four books every year. Some of them write under several names, so as not to clog the market with their output. But the students in the Stanford program will, in their second course (Novel I), “write and workshop an opening section of up to 5,000 words.” My goodness! You’ve already shelled out two thousand bucks, and you’re only now writing an opening section of 5,000 words?

The winter quarter of Year 1 will end, I would suppose, in February 2023. If I keep my nose to the grindstone, by that point I will have finished at least two novels and be well along with a third.

In sum, the idea that the Stanford program is suitable for industrious writers of genre fiction is a flagrant non-starter. It may be ideal for wannabe writers who have thousands of dollars burning a hole in their pockets, and some of them may, in the end, produce very nice novels. I’m not knocking the work of any of the graduates, since I haven’t read any of it, nor of the instructors, who I’m sure are well qualified and provide excellent advice on writing.

Nor am I claiming that I can reliably produce novels on a schedule. Some of my work has taken an embarrassingly long time to get from initial conception to publication. The Leafstone story started in 2004 and was finally published in 2018. But that wasn’t because I worked slowly and continuously; it was because I gave up entirely for years on end, then retrieved the story, breathed new life into the corpse, and started over. I don’t see that process anywhere in the Stanford curriculum, and I sincerely hope I’m done with it, because it ain’t fun.

Every writer’s process is different. Someone could write only one novel and then stop, and it could be a classic. (Case in point: To Kill a Mockingbird.) So I can’t claim no graduate of the Stanford program will ever become famous or write a classic beloved by millions. But to me it feels as if the curriculum is aimed at dilatory dilettantes. 5,000 words by the end of the second quarter? Gott im Himmel!

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