Curious about our Novel in a Year programs? Stacy Tolbert took the time out of her busy writing schedule to share her NIAY journey with us.
For as long as I’ve owned a house key, I’ve packed an adventure kit before heading out for the day. As a kid, these kits were often peanut butter sandwiches and nickels. (Bus fare for minors was only 5 cents where I grew up, and protein bars didn’t exist.) Sometimes, I’d bring along the plastic compass that I’d found in a box of popcorn to give legitimacy to my plans, despite its insistence that every direction was east. Now, as a writer, I pack what I call my “ghost catcher’s” kit. It’s just a notebook and an arsenal of fine point pens, but it’s quite sensitive at detecting the supernatural.
My journey through the Novel in a Year: First Draft program began like most of my adventures: I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for, but I would know when I found it. At the start of 2017, my ghost catcher’s kit began detecting some activity around the image of a battered sailboat docked in the dirt yard of a tenement building. Soon, a boy with a chipped front tooth was detected aboard the boat. Before long I knew his name and that he lived with his grandmother. (But I didn’t know why. Then again, he wasn’t the type of kid to offer up unsolicited information.) One day, a brown-skinned girl with thousands of freckles across her face showed up, glaring at the boy from over the boat’s bow. This girl had bad timing. I’d been in bed and seconds away from sleep when she arrived—my ghost kit down the hall, packed for the next day’s adventure. Soon, every occupant of that building with a window overlooking that dirt yard was registered on my simple apparatus.
Pursuing these ghosts required a significant commitment of time. And, I was in need of more sophisticated equipment to complete the task. After transcribing my initial findings, I shared my discoveries with a fellow ghost catcher, who then referred me to StoryStudio, where she had previously taken classes. My concern was that StoryStudio, located in the Ravenswood neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, would be too much of a haul for a year-long commitment as it is at the opposite end of the city from where I live in Hyde Park. Nevertheless, I attended StoryStudio’s information session for the Novel in a Year course, armed with my fine point pens and a qualified recommendation. It’s worth mentioning that by the time I showed up for the information session I’d already made a very powerful decision. I would commit to writing the story, and I would do whatever was necessary to do justice to it. In return, I reasoned, the process of writing this novel would teach me how to write a novel.
Abbi Geni, the instructor of the NIAY: Novel Novice and NIAY: Revise and Launch cohorts, presented at the information session. She spoke of the process involved in completing her book, stating how NIAY was designed to guide writers through the hinterlands of the long process. She also mentioned that her book was set on the Farallon Islands, also known in the Bay Area as “The Devil’s Teeth.” I took this as a sign. If I got into her cohort, my San Francisco boat story might be in good hands.
I needed guidance, but I also needed companionship and accountability in taking the story beyond my notepad. I was informed that my work would be workshopped and that the instructor would conduct a manuscript review. The program coincided with the start of the academic year, so, as a teacher, this also meant running dual marathons until spring. However, I’d have a completed manuscript and the entire summer to work on revisions. I could free up my evenings by avoiding social media and outsource weekend errands to online vendors. It was doable.
So here’s what I’ve discovered on my NIAY adventure thus far:
1) Put that ego on ice! Success or failure in the writing process is not a measure of the person. All that matters is what’s on the page, so strive to make it good. No one is impressed by my struggle to do justice to the boat story. As Alison Lurie wrote, “No One Asked Me to Write a Novel.” Get out of your way and get back to the work!
2) Show up for every possible literary opportunity. Do not miss the chance to participate in workshops, readings, masterclasses, lectures (in person and online). Read passages that make you feel euphoric. My work is improved when I indulge in these practices, so I require a daily dose.
3) Finally, get help with the work. Risk making public mistakes. While still learning to write compelling fiction, welcome occasions for the work to be evaluated. Enlist fellow ghost catchers. There’s no need to go into that haunted house alone.
Ready to apply for Novel in a Year? Our next cohorts will begin late summer 2018. Join our waitlist to be notified when the application period opens. (Please select “other” and specify the exact NIAY program or programs you are interested in.)