November: the Writing Month
November is National Novel Writing Month! Both experienced writers and newcomers are encouraged to write a 50,000-word work of fiction between November 1st and November 30th. While it's not likely that we’ll produce a high-quality first draft, it helps people learn how to put thoughts into words and helps them get into the habit of writing regularly. 50,000 words is a lot for one person, but it’s certainly doable if you divide it up amongst a group of people. For this project, your class will write a novel together.
Students will be assigned individual chapters, which we’ll get into in a bit. But first, the class needs to work together to plot out the story.
Craft a Synopsis
First thing’s first. What’s your story about? You may want to start by narrowing down the genre that the most people in your class like. Create a main character or a small group of main characters. Decide their strengths, motivations, personality, and so on. What’s the setting - in your classroom, in outerspace, in a medieval castle, in an office building? And most importantly: what’s the central conflict. Try to think of the greatest thing that could go wrong in the setting, or the greatest difficulty that the main characters need to overcome.
Crafting a story from scratch can be challenging. If you and your students feel up to the task, then go for it! If not, you can modify a pre-existing story. For example, you can think of something that happened in your community that got people talking. Take that idea, and expand upon it - ask what ifs to create more complications. How could the bad things be even worse, and how could the good things be even better? What details could you add to make it more fun?
Alternately, take another fictional story that the class knows well and riff off that. Take the core elements of the story and change just one of them. What if Harry Potter was about aliens instead of wizards? What if Star Wars had dragons instead of lightsabers? Or you could write another story within a pre-existing universe, like what did Elsa and Anna do a month after Frozen ended? This is called fan-fiction.
Once you know the synopsis, it’s time to outline the plot.
Outline the Plot
First of all, this takes time. If you wish, you may craft the synopsis and outline the plot in October so that November can just be about actually writing the story.
If each student is responsible for writing a chapter, they need to be aware of what goes on in the other chapters so that the novel feels cohesive, not disjointed. Therefore, you need to decide as a class what happens in each chapter, broadly speaking. A paragraph for each - or a few bullet points - should suffice. Essentially, you need to decide for each chapter:
What happens to bring the main characters closer or further from their goal?
In what way does the state of the characters change? (this could be emotionally, physically, economically, relationally, intellectually, or socially).
Where are they?
How much time passes during the chapter and between chapters?
But before you even get to that point, start more broadly - with your synopsis - and add specifics from there until you know enough to figure out the chapters.
There are plenty if ways to outline a story. You can use your own method, or peruse the internet for ideas. I personally recommend using Dan Wells’s Seven-Point Story Structure. In this method, you identify seven key moments (click that link to learn what they are). Once you’ve done that, the rest is just filling in the gaps. What needs to happen to get the characters from point A to point B? Also, if your students have cool ideas for a scene, between which two points would that scene most make sense?
Read our post on Storyboarding for an alternate way on outlining a story.
Write the Chapters
When November hits, it’s time for the students to write their own chapters. By this time, they know the important things that need to happen in their chapter. How exactly those things are fulfilled is up to them, as are all the little things that happen in the chapter.
The students have ultimately 30 days to finish, but perhaps a better option is for them to finish most of it in 20 days or so. Then put the students into small groups, perhaps four in a group, and have them discuss what’s going on in their chapter. If any student has trouble figuring out how to resolve the issues of their chapter, or if their chapter is too short and needs to be fleshed out a bit more, the rest of the students in their group can offer suggestions and help them brainstorm. Then the students have the remaining days to make those changes and turn in their full chapter.
It’s About Completion, Not Perfection
Of course, you want your students to aim for correct grammar, usage, and spelling as they write. Logical story flow, or even scene progression, is also good to pay attention to. But with only one month to write the novel, the priority is not on getting everything right, but rather on just getting it done. Students who finish early are welcome to go back and edit their work. But if a student tries to get everything correct the first time and it slows her down or overwhelms her, encourage her to just keep writing, and the finer points can receive more attention later.
You can a great opportunity to edit the novel in December or over the spring semester; I think that would be a good learning experience for the students. However, some students will be done with the novel as soon as December hits, and if the class chooses to never see it again, there’s nothing wrong with that. The mere fact that they wrote a novel - even a flawed one - is really impressive, and they should be proud of themselves.
Writing a class novel demands a lot of coordination among all the students. If you’d like to do a similar project that requires a bit less work, write an anthology instead. Skip the ‘Outline a Plot’ phase and give students the autonomy to write whatever story they want given the characters and setting. Some can ignore the overall conflict or focus on a minor character instead. This way, the students will write short stories that all take place in the same fictional universe, but they won’t be chapters that need to flow from one to the next.
Yet another option is to go fully into individual projects instead of a class project. Students could write their own short stories with 5,000 words instead of 50,000. Read last year’s post on our ideas for how to facilitate that.