From the Workshop: One Year Later (A Professor’s-Eye View)

My name is Susann Cokal and I led VCU’s novel workshop from
2010 to 2011.

A workshop leader lives not so much through his or her students or for them, but through and for their characters, who are progressing through worlds and plans and dreams that he or she could never have envisioned… despite the roles of facilitator and feedback giver, sometimes gentle guide, that s/he has played for–in the case of VCU’s workshop–an entire year.  And, now, it’s been much more than a year, as we’re deep into 2012 already and the novels just won’t stop growing.

It’s a fascinating trajectory.  We first met in May 2010, before the school year ended, to toss about ideas for the novels-to-be, give initial character descriptions, generally exchange enthusiasms and, yes, anxieties.  It is always anxious-making to embark on a
novel, particularly if it’s your first … and whether you’ve been dreaming of it for over a decade, as one of the participants had, or came upon your Big Idea recently, the fear and trembling are no less. Neither is the giddiness:  You’re going to be a novelist at last!  No more
short stories or poems or flash fictions for you, this is the real thing!  And by the end of the summer, you’ll have at least
50 pages!

Well, sort of.  I find it’s useful to set goals that are within reach but just barely, like that tempting plum on the highest low-hanging branch. That’s how I get myself to work, and it’s how I manage not to be too angry with myself if I don’t snag the plum.  After all, once you’ve crushed that fruit’s pulp against your palate fine, what will you do?  Give up for the rest of the summer?  Nah, keep … going … going …

Many participants did turn up in August with thirty to fifty pages, which was great.  Everyone had at least twenty and a detailed outline.  And the excitement in the room was as palpable as that plum.  We had a lively time the first semester, wrestling with those potential outlines, knowing they were going to change, submitting pages that either established character and setting or didn’t,
discussing what the Story should be … There were a dozen of us in that room all at once (one was, shhhh, a silent observer working on a dissertation about writing workshops), often with the window-mounted air conditioner going full blast, discussing the most impressively varied array of novels-in-progress I’ve ever seen.  There was the story of the young man from New York State, disillusioned with a budding career in politics, falling in love with a girl from the South. A high schooler sent to take care of his uncle Stephen, who suffered from a serious brain injury. A brassy nine-fingered guitarist who tangled into the most inappropriate relationships with her parents’ friends and random acquaintances. The lonely Arkansas teen who had to find the strength to uncover
the truth about her mother’s death, and to choose between falling into the arms of the town bad boy or her best guy friend. The girl surviving in a post-apocalyptic USA and just discovering her own paranormal abilities.  And did I mention the tale of a girl born
with hair of spun gold, trying to make friends at a small-town high school with newly minted goths and a bad boy who cried tears of real blood when he was moved by the power of art?

High-concept or not, these novels showed an array of daring and invention it’s uncommon to find in one room.  We were all moved by the girl who struggles to get free of a smothering mother whose own addictions to seducing men and hoarding beautiful but broken things function both as metaphor and as crushing obstacle to the daughter’s happiness. And we laughed over flights of prose from a young boy who was convinced he was “Talented and Gifted,” sighed over the lyricism in a novel about a young half-Lebanese woman whose chance encounter with a native boy leads to world travels and exchanges of letters ever more fantastic and imaginative.

So that was the first semester.  What happened over winter break was truly magical:  Everyone had some kind of breakthrough.  When we met again in January, a lot of people had rethought their projects, and always for the better.  I can’t say how they were better, except that they were more deft, more confident, better.  And the submissions each week were stronger, used dialogue and the long view toward plot with more assurance … These writers were finding the voices and pacing of their first books.

I got personally invested in every one of those projects.  Some of the students were graduating that spring, and I served on their thesis committees, happy to help them polish what they’d done into submission-ready shape.  The girl from Arkansas finished a complete
and terrific novel in that short space of time (okay, I admit:  most writers need more than a year to finish a novel, but some can get a good draft in that time–and this woman got a great one).  I was happy to sign off on their dotted lines.

And now, in 2012, the last MFA participants are finishing their time at VCU.  Most of them are including at least part of their novels in their theses.  I just received 342 pages from a woman who finished her long-dreamt-of masterwork, a tale that weaves together family
history of abuse, artistic inspiration, and celebrity culture with a hint of a ghost story.  I can’t wait to read it.

I know I’ve gone far over my 500-word limit here.  But I’m so honored to have been part of seeing these novels come to fruition, and to report that novel writing is alive and well and thriving at VCU.  Next year’s crop of novelists will be with Professor Tom De Haven, who started the year-long workshop decades ago, and I can’t wait to see what they put out.

So, all of you from last year’s 666, thank you for showing me the world–many worlds, many styles, crazy places, sad ones and funny
ones.  You’ve all touched me and made me proud to say

My name is Susann Cokal and I led VCU’s novel workshop from 2010 to 2011.


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“From the Workshop” by Harry Kollatz: “Aren’t You Writing That Richmond Novel?”

me-cityhall-jaypaul.jpgHarry Kollatz Jr., a native Richmonder, senior writer for Richmond magazine, is author of True Richmond Stories and Richmond In Ragtime: Socialists, Suffragists, Sex and Murder. He is co-founder, past president and current board member of the Firehouse Theatre Project. He served on the founding board of the Podium Foundation that established a literary and arts journal for Richmond public high schools. He lives with his partner-in-art Amie Oliver and their cats in the city’s  fashionably scruffy West of Boulevard South of Cary (WoBSoC) district.  Photo: Jay Paul.

I failed from the top.

On a rainy Valentine’s Day, 1996, I lugged to the hushed and pristine offices of the William Morris Agency in Manhattan a first person quasi-autobiographical novel nine years in the making. The recipient was an acquaintance from my VCU undergrad days. My then new bride had urged me to complete the manuscript by the time of this visit. Her insistence proved the value of a deadline. I hacked a couple hundred pages from a sprawling mess and then marveled at the product in a box, like a baby in a manger. There it all was: my new novel, my ticket into the literary world, of book tours and collegial chuckling at symposiums.

My William Morris friend, who read something like 60 manuscripts a week, took my life’s work and inside a month replied: Good writing here, but not consistent enough to make it a novel. After that, glancing at shelves of new fiction at bookstores caused a pang in my sternum. I’d read first pages though my hurting eyes wouldn’t let me finish.

I started writing again, with fits-and-starts. My partner-in-art understood the need for my retreat into a room to interact with imaginary people. I often felt that it was colossal silliness and maybe I was nuts. I’d get asked, whether or not the person knew I was working on something, “Haven’t you written your Richmond novel yet?” I should’ve replied, “Haven’t you?” Instead I’d mumble something about, “Off and on.”

In my other life as a journalist and culture observer I bumped alongside Real Published Writers, most of them either graduates of VCU or teaching there, some of whom I got to know well enough to show pages. They provided encouragement and valued criticism. Yet I remained becalmed as a galleon in the Sargasso Sea’s grasping weeds. I instead wrote some histories. Still, at parties, the good-natured query, “Aren’t you writing a Richmond novel yet?”
Rejection from a short story collection gave me a signal: Stop. Cease this delusional pursuit.

I groused – on Facebook – to Susann Cokal. We can help, she said, and invited me into the workshop. Here I found smart talented people immersed in fiction. We talk about the process and the progress of one another’s work. My fellow writers at lengthy intervals discuss the nuances of my characters and the shadings of sentences. This excites me as when I’ve written for the stage where actors who’ve assayed Shakespeare and Mamet bring to life the words of, um, Kollatz. It’s a messy process, filled with private frustrations and jaunts to Cous Cous for coffee. (It’s a night class).

Novel writing is the mental equivalent of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail: at times arduous, at others, providing astonishing panoramic realizations. My fellow adventurers are negotiating the path. When we lose sight, we can call back to each other.

Yes, I’m here. Yes, I am writing that Richmond novel.

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“From the Workshop” by Lee Bloxom: “I Might Be Crazy”

plbloxom.JPGLee Bloxom is pursuing a PhD in Media, Art, and Text at VCU and has recently completed a grant-funded oral history project about farm life on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. She holds an MA in English (writing & rhetoric) from VCU and a BA in American Studies and English from Wellesley College. She has worked professionally as a video producer, English teacher, writing coach, and journalist. Since 2002, she has taught writing at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. Her oral history blog can be found here. Her website can be found here.

I’m a 3rd-year PhD student in VCU’s MATX program and I’m writing my first novel in VCU’s full-year novel-writing workshop.

Yes, I am writing a novel and a dissertation at the same time.

Yes, I might be crazy.

Why write a novel? And why write one now?

One thing I know about myself is that I’m a writer. I’m also an oral historian, a media
studies scholar, a photographer, and a teacher … but mostly I’m a writer. Not writing
makes me crazier than working on three projects at one time. It doesn’t really matter
which project I’m working on – the oral history project, the dissertation on technology,
place and local culture, or the novel – they all feed my need to write.

There have been moments this semester when I thought the novel was taking over.
Writing fiction makes me happy in a way that writing scholarly nonfiction does not.
That’s one reason I signed on for the novel-writing workshop. Having to write fiction …
because it’s homework … I liked that idea a lot.

At this stage of the PhD, my work is solitary. Me, alone with my ideas and my research.
Checking in with my dissertation committee as rarely as possible since they’re all very,
very busy. My family mostly wants me graduated and out of school. “Isn’t this program
over yet?” Socialization is essential for keeping me sane. The folks in my novel-
writing workshop talk writing and fiction and story in all its forms … TV, film … it’s
conversation that rejuvenates.

But then again, I could call my friends and go out to dinner.

The question remains … why a novel? Why write a novel now?

I’ve written a number of short stories that don’t work because they’re not short stories …
they’re actually super-condensed novels and the only way they’ll ever work is if I expand
the ideas, go deeper with the characters, take them farther.

The question I’ve struggled with is how to find the stamina, the heart to take an idea and
flesh it into a full-length piece. I’ve never been a distance runner, but this year I’m in
training … as a distance writer.

I’m almost to the end of a semester working on the one novel. If I were doing this on my
own, without the structure of the workshop, I’d have gotten discouraged and switched to
something new by now. But I’ve committed to these characters and their obstacles, and
I’m going to go deeper. Take them farther. I’m going to bring them home, or take them
to the moon … whatever it takes.

Like most things, I figure that the first full-length book is the hardest. Once I get a sense
for my rhythm – for the times and places I’m most likely to lose heart or interest – then,
next time, when I don’t have the benefit of a social structure to keep me going, I’ll have a
better sense for how to keep myself going. That’s my plan anyway.

So far it’s working.

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“From the Workshop” by R. Dale Smith: The Time for Procrastination is Over

R. Dale Smith is a graduate of both James Madison University and Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and currently is a student in VCU’s MFA Program. He travels nationally with his one-man show Jesus Phreak

In the summer of 1999, a few days after my 29th birthday, I got the idea for a novel.  The idea combined much of what I was passionate about, seemed funny to boot, and I was certain it would make me famous.

All in all, it was a pretty good day.

Writing the novel didn’t make for such good days, however, and I soon found ways to procrastinate.  Self sabotage, I believe
it’s called.  I took an extra job, telling myself I needed the money.  I got a boyfriend, telling myself I needed the intimacy, then broke up with the boyfriend because I needed some time alone.  Then I went to graduate school, hungry for a career change–or rather, just some sort of career.

But all this was nothing compared to my most extreme form of procrastination, which was to write a one-man play, even though I knew nothing about playwriting, and begin performing it, even though I knew nothing about performing.  I might be shaking backstage before every show, but at least I had a good reason for not working on the novel.

Then, on the verge of turning 40, I decided the time for procrastination was over.  I was going to write that book or else.  I applied to graduate school again–this time to the MFA in Creative Writing Program at VCU–and signed up for the year-long
novel workshop.

It proved so beneficial that two years later–my last year in the program–I’m taking the workshop a second time.

I dread the monthly deadlines, very much so, but they do get me working.  The novel that occurred to me over a decade ago is now becoming a reality–and while it may not make me famous, or even get published, it’ll at least get finished, which offers its own satisfaction.

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“From the Workshop” by Bri Spicer: Writing With That Wild Belief


Bri Spicer received her BA in Writing from the University of
Central Arkansas and is in her last year of the Fiction MFA program at
VCU. She lives half the year in
Little Rock with her fiancé and half the year in Richmond, watches too much
baseball, and owns too many books.

When I was fifteen, I got it in my head to write a novel
full of ideas and beauty and all the things that a fifteen-year-old girl from
east Texas thought she needed to say.
I had just read Richard Adam’s Watership
and T.H. White’s The Once and
Future King
and I was completely fascinated with the way those novels
weren’t really about intrepid bunnies or questing knights. Those books carried ideas and
philosophy and a way of seeing the world that had a profound impact on me as a
storyteller and as a would-be writer. 

So, intoxicated with a need to put my voice down in ink on
paper, I launched into a story about a girl and her brother, siblings obsessed
with books and stories and the way that libraries smell with all those pages
and words wanting to leap down off the shelf and into their hands. I wrote with a wild kind of freedom,
not caring if the sentences sounded clunky or if the characters stumbled into
clichéd plot twists (at the time I hardly knew what a cliché was). I wrote and wrote because I had
something important to say, something
that needed to be said. At the time, I felt that whatever it
was that wanted so badly to get out of me and onto the page must be huge, must
be something that could change the world. I felt like no one could ever stop me.

I reached the end, writing until it felt right, unconcerned
with page count and then, without another thought, I pressed print. As the printer spat out my pages, full
to brimming with my ideas and my sentences that could never have come out of my
own mouth, I sat back and admired it all.
There was a product, a pile of crisp white paper that would carry my
crisp black words out into the world. But, once I had it all stacked up on the desk, over 200 pages tall, I
decided that it was too new, that it was too fresh to go out into the sun or
into another person’s hands. So I
put it all in a wide shoe box under my bed.

Thank God.

As you can imagine, when I looked at the novel about a week
later, I realized it was horrible. 
It was a Frankenstein-patch-work creature that lumbered and stumbled
under purple prose, themes and motifs.
My characters were really symbols and my metaphors were definitely
mixed. And of course, once I
realized all this, I was disappointed and went through each line, trying to
figure out how something that seemed so beautiful and wonderful could turn out
to be something so terrible.

While I work on my novel for the novel class at VCU, I feel
like I’m still dealing with some of the issues that I first encountered at
fifteen. I love the feeling of
having an idea, of being overwhelmed by it, and I love writing with that wild
belief that what I’m doing might turn into something beautiful. At the same time, I’m trying to look at
my work objectively and to focus on specific sentences, scenes and
characters. With a little more
than half a year left in the program, keeping both the freedom and the focus in
check feels like a reward and precarious balancing act.   

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“From the Workshop” by Katy Resch: The Best Kind of Surprise

Remember! Our annual Festival is happening tomorrow, Thursday, November 4, 2010, at 7pm at Singleton Center, when Victor Lodato will read to us from his winning novel, Mathilda Savitch. After the reading, there will be a panel discussion, featuring Victor, his agent David McCormick and his editor Courtney Hodell. For details, follow the link on this page.

To celebrate the event here on our blog, we present a new feature, entitled “From the Workshop,” in which students from VCU’s MFA program Novel Workshop share their impressions of working on a first novel from in the midst of the process. This unique year-long class offered every other year at VCU was what inspired the establishment of the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award–now in its ninth year.

But now, without further ado, the fabulous and talented Ms. Katy Resch, who is currently hard at work on her first novel:

katyblogpic.jpgKaty Resch holds an MFA in poetry from Brooklyn College, and has taught writing for the City University of New York and New York University’s Expository Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Belleview Literary Review, Poetry Motel, and other small journals, and is forthcoming in Pank Magazine. 

I never imagined I’d write a novel. When I first became serious about literary arts, I wrote (or tried to write) poems. Eventually, I dabbled in fiction, but as a reader and writer I favored short stories. Even as I applied to VCU’s MFA and learned of the yearlong novel workshop I thought, Wow, what a great opportunity–for someone else. I was pleased the course was offered for the seriousness it indicated of the program, but I didn’t plan to take it.

That was two years ago–not very long, but long enough for me to recognize I’ve been working towards writing a novel all along.

Being a student in VCU’s short fiction workshops was central to that discovery. As I generated and revised story drafts, and processed feedback (thank you instructors & colleagues), and revised some more, I noted a shift in my work: each piece was longer than the last, or attempted a richer psychology or character history. Essentially, it seemed each story had grown more novelistic in scope. Weird, I thought. Despite this shift, I also noted that many of my stories considered similar themes. It didn’t matter if I had a male or female protagonist, or if I wrote from a first or third person point of view, certain ideas and images I couldn’t shake. This worried me. Who wants to write–or read–the same story over and over? But maybe having a preoccupation doesn’t condemn a person to write the same story for the rest of her life. Maybe it means her ideas need more room. This notion felt true for me, and so when it came time to register for the fall semester, I read the course listing for the novel workshop and thought, Wow, what a great opportunity.

And it has been. As I navigate this new process of drafting a novel, I’m grateful for the community of aspiring novelists and the guidance of our instructor. Among its benefits, the workshop keeps me focused on manageable tasks. One reason I enjoyed writing poems was, well, they’re short. Or, mine were, anyway. I’m going for economy, I would say of my work, or something like that. Such little pieces offered an immediate sense of completion, and that satisfaction propelled me into writing the next small thing. With a novel-in-progress, sometimes I see the project extending for the next who-knows-how-many years, and I think to bag the whole thing. It’s just too daunting. But the novel class helps to divide the work into approachable components, letting us enjoy a tiny taste of that satisfaction along the way. Besides, abandoning the project would be impossible now. The world and ideas I’m grappling with are constantly on my mind, and have been for a while. I couldn’t make that change. So, here I am, compelled to write a novel. It’s a surprise that makes perfect sense.

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