One of the few things harder than writing a novel might be writing a first novel. But in Nashville this summer a few dozen aspiring young authors are taking on the challenge. WPLN’s Daniel Potter has this story on a class for teenage writers, called ‘A Novel Idea.’
You might picture a writer’s workshop as a kind of trial where you sit quietly and try not to cry while a dozen peers wielding red pens read your work aloud as they hack it apart. That would be the opposite of what this class aims for. The overarching lesson on novel-writing here is, ‘Despite what you may think, it can be done.’
“Well, it’s a little confusing, but it’s basically about my main character…”
“His name’s Oliver, and he’s almost seventeen years old, and he’s very – Yeah, he is attractive!”
“It starts out in the Bible when–”
“–When he finds out that there have been all these people who’ve been living here since before this big war that happened, and they have all this technology that everybody’s forgotten about.”
“His mom has some issues and Social Services came in, and afterwards they realize that–”
“–She’s going to end up trying to escape because they end up bringing her to this abandoned warehouse.”
“And so one day she finds this like magical notebook, and she gets into her story and sees her characters.”
“And it’s about him trying to fit in with them.”
That was Elizabeth Yarbrough, Olivia Laskowski, Hannah Belcher, Lena Friedman and Lilly Sharpe.
“So, how come this class is all girls?”
“This is just a fluke of how they signed up.”
And that’s Kristin House, the dynamo behind this project. She’s also teaching two other groups this summer, both fairly balanced for gender, she says. Of the girls here today, the oldest start ninth grade next month.
They’ll all mash down some 40 thousand words of fiction. To compare, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is just under 30 thousand.
“What’s your word count right now?”
“Probably like eight thousand, five hundred?”
“You are awesome…”
House is a red-haired 30-something. A telling detail: her firstborn is named Holden, after the antihero of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. She holds several degrees and has taught writing at Belmont, but some might question a particular credential:
“You’ve finished novels, but you’re not published, at least yet. They might ask, ‘How are you qualified to teach a class like this?’ What would you say to that?”
“Writing, and publishing writing are two very different things.”
House argues being able to sell one’s work is secondary. First, writers, herself included, have to overcome the self-consciousness and inhibition she refers to as one’s ‘inner editor.’ House was a teenager when she finished her first novel, but she says self-doubt kept her from completing a second one for more than a decade.
“It doesn’t matter if an agent never loves your work as much as you do. What matters is that you’re your first audience, and if you never write it then no one will ever read it.”
House is now looking for a publisher. In a kind of double exorcism, she says she’s reached the point of fearlessness to critics’ reactions that she hopes to instill in her students.
It’s working, if Elizabeth Yarbrough is any indicator. The 14-year-old says she’s wanted to finish a novel for awhile.
“I’ve always written small stories, but they’ve never really gone anywhere, and it’s like this class has helped me, given me the push, like ‘Okay, you have a deadline, you have to do it.’ I actually just need that push, and then it’s really easy for me. Because I have it all figured out in my head; I just don’t want to write it.”
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