Workshops : Master Class in the Novel

Master Class in the Novel

July 24, 2016 - July 31, 2016

Summer Wood • 2016 UNM's Summer Writers’ Conference at Santa Fe (formerly the Taos Summer Writers' Conference)


Instructor letter

Dear Fellow Writers,

Thanks for your interest in joining me in this summer’s Master Class in the Novel. I’m looking forward to an exciting week of hard work, deep engagement with each manuscript, and intensive exploration into the heart of that unruly beast, the novel. July in Taos is a marvelous time of sudden thunderstorms and furious growth, and it will be wonderful to share that energy with a group of fellow novelists as we work together to bring our narratives to life.

Beginning in May—and no later than June 1st—please send your novel manuscript (double-spaced, 12 pt. font, 300 pages maximum, please)* to me as an email attachment. I will forward it to your workshop mates, and we’ll each have no more than six novels-in-manuscript to print out, read, and comment on by the start of the conference. Ideally, each of you will have the chance to read through each manuscript twice: first, for general impressions regarding the story and overall flow of the novel; and second, and more critically, to comment on specific sections in the margins.

Each reader will address this task differently, and the variety of responses is part of what’s valuable about a workshop setting. Still, let’s agree on a few things. That golden rule applies: don’t criticize another writer’s work in a way you would find offensive for your own. Do be helpful and specific about what works and what doesn’t, but don’t try to “fix” anything; solutions are best arrived at by the author. Let your fellow writers know what you particularly liked or didn’t like, places that wowed or confused you, specific impressions about language, character, pacing, plot, imagery, etc. The clearer you can be about your own response, the more useful your contribution. If you feel it would be helpful to copy edit, restrict that to a couple of pages. Try to engage each work on its own terms. Don’t compare it to what you or another writer might do; rather, make the effort to understand what the author is aiming for, and indicate places where she or he achieves that aim or is not entirely successful.

In July, we'll meet as a group for the first time Sunday evening, sharing a table at the whole-conference dinner and getting acquainted. Monday we'll devote our whole session to an intensive on craft issues, zeroing in on narrative elements most pertinent to this particular set of manuscripts. Each of the following three days we will focus our attention on two manuscripts (an hour each, with time for a break between), with additional time for a discussion of craft issues raised by those specific manuscripts. Friday's meeting will be devoted to questions of process, publication, and career.

After we've discussed your manuscript, you'll receive your classmates' annotated copies as well as mine, and my written comments. Try to schedule time that evening to review the comments and jot down notes and questions. I will meet with each of you for an hour-long individual consultation the day following your time in the hot seat. We're packing a lot into this week, so the more prepared you can be to absorb and respond to what happens, the more value you'll take from the experience.

If you can, try to read two novels in advance of the workshop: [2016 selections will be provided shortly]. You may already be acquainted with them; try to go back and reread them with an eye toward the novelist’s craft. We’ll be talking at great length about narrative elements, and it will be useful to have some work in common.

Less important, but helpful nonetheless, are a few essay collections. If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird – or haven’t recently – do yourself the favor: it will make you laugh, and provide useful advice. If you have the chance to read Charles Baxter’s short The Art of Subtext, that’s amazingly helpful. The essays in Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World are terrific, as are many of those in the collection Bringing the Devil to His Knees (eds: C. Baxter and P. Turchi). Parts of James Wood’s How Fiction Works are indispensable.

I will be revisiting each of these in preparation for the workshop, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to read all – or even any – if time prevents. Focus on the manuscripts, and let the lessons you gain from reading each other’s work seep back to help you bring a fresh eye to your own. And remember: your attention is a gift you bestow on each writer’s work. As is their attention to yours.

It's no easy thing, writing a novel and putting it forward for comment from savvy, engaged readers. Bravo to each of you for your courage and commitment. I know we'll move forward with brilliance, compassion, mutual respect, and a whole lot of fun. I'm sure looking forward to it.

Feel free to email me if you have any questions, and please know how honored I am by your willingness to trust me with your hearts and hard work.

Best and warmest,


*A little more about manuscript length, since the issue has arisen several times over the last few years. Your novel is as long as you need it to be, of course. In a workshop setting like this, however, it's challenging for the members to pay careful attention to manuscripts longer than about 85,000 words. If your manuscript runs longer than this, don't worry—but please do contact me by email in advance so we can discuss the options.