Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Novel Excerpts Revisited

Narcissistic Novelist in the Northwest makes things complicated…

It's been over a year since I wrote a short story. There were a few months in there when I wasn't writing due to juggling work and a long move, but for the most part I've been working on a novel. It was a bit of a stutter-step process at first, but I've more or less hit my stride with it by now, and so I can't help but wonder: do I have to write a short story or two in order to apply to writing programs? Because the truth is I'm excited enough about this novel, and have been for long enough, that I'd really rather not set it aside right now. On the other hand I do want to go to an MFA program, and Austin is very high on my list (they say that "novel excerpts are strongly discouraged unless they stand alone as short stories").

Okay, now suppose I have a short story or two that I can use. So I give my manuscript readers a combination of short stories and, say, three chapters of a novel, (my manuscript readers are very generous on this point) and ask them to choose the "best writing". And suppose they unanimously choose two of the novel excerpts. Now, these excerpts will be reasonably self-contained, but all of them will raise questions of plot and character that aren't answered until later in the novel, and I don't know that I would consider them standalone stories. So: should I send both novel excerpts or should I choose one novel excerpt and one story? And, assuming I'm still worried that the novel excerpts aren't necessarily standalone stories, should I send a different manuscript to Austin than I send elsewhere?

NNiN, I want to be very clear first. My advice here is an exception to what my normal advice would be as far as the writing sample goes. My regular advice is: Send your best work, and send the same work to all of your programs.

But since Texas has made a point of discouraging novel excerpts, I don’t see that you have any choice but to send them stories. So man-facting: send them stories. Two stories. And send everyone else your best work, be that stories, novel excerpts, or a combination of both.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

While it's always a good rule to send in your best work, I'd have to weigh in against sending an excerpt of a novel. The only readers who count are the readers who decide whether to accept you or not. If your novel excerpt raises the question of plot and character - don't send it. Take time off from your book, write some short stories. Your readers will want to see that you have a strong, coherent voice, can create memorable characters and can TELL A STORY. Remember that the readers at these programs will be pouring over upwards of 500 manuscripts. It will behoove you to write something memorable, that will set you apart. Or you'll be passed over.

Dan said...

Hey NN, it sounds like you and I are in the same sinking boat. I find this quite frustrating that I have to put down what I want to write -- the novel -- for something I'm just not interested in, just so I can get into a school I only want to attend so I can find time to write (i.e. fully funded) and improve. If anyone knows of programs that WANT novel excerpts, dear God, post them now please. ;)

Anonymous said...

Generally, it's difficult to workshop a novel. It requires a lot of reading on behalf of your classmates. Of course, you could workshop a novel chapter by chapter. But, most MFA workshops focus on the short story - not as a rule, but as a matter of practicality.

Anonymous said...

UNC Wilmington might be open to novel excerpts since they offer workshops specifically for novels.

NNiN said...

Thanks for the input! Obviously I should set aside some time soon to write a story or two--I also noticed a couple of days ago that UCI, my top choice, requires at least one short story for their application. I'm not averse to short stories by any means--in fact the novel I'm working on started as one, part of a set that I very much want to complete eventually--but like I said I'm very excited about the novel at the moment and certainly want to finish it.

I'm quite interested in hearing more observations about trying to write novels in an MFA program. Obviously some students write one for their thesis, but I also understand the comments about novel sections being difficult to workshop. What have you guys seen/heard/experienced in terms of writing a novel while in an MFA program? TK if you're reading these comments I'd love to hear your thoughts.

NNiN said...

Oh, and Dan, even though UCI requires at least one short story for their application, I know that a lot of their students write novels for their theses.