Students Take on Writing Novels
Students Take on Writing Novels

by Susan Dowd
Senior Copywriter, Marketing and Enrollment Communications

“We want to write a novel.”

Those were the restless words that assistant English professor Chris Dowd heard last spring from one of his undergraduate classes. Chafing under the restrictions of the short-story format, the students were eager to stretch their literary wings. “Why hold them back?” Dowd figured, so, after getting approval from his department head and Dean Lourdes Alvarez, he launched “Writing the Novel.”

(L-R) John Faugno '13 and assistant English professor Chris Dowd.

The course, which ran from May to August last year, didn’t meet on a regular schedule, but the long span of weeks gave students the time to devote to a work of this magnitude. “It was an amazing opportunity to work on an ambitious project and quite rare for undergrads whose creative writing courses usually focus on short stories,” Dowd said.

Thinking that 100,000 words — the average length of a novel — might be a little too ambitious, Dowd asked his students to plot the novel and write just the first couple of chapters — about 10,000 words. One of Dowd’s students, John Faugno '13, dashed that off in a week and then continued on at the breakneck clip of 6,000 words a day (most pros write 2,000 words a day). His finished novel, “Three of Blades,” is a fantasy that engages the reader both politically and socially and is written with a high degree of mental tension.

“John’s work was very good,” Dowd said. “He was writing at a level and pace uncommon in an undergraduate course.”

Other students explored the murder-mystery, sci-fi, and comedic-existential genres. “The quality of work that came out of that class got me to do some soul searching,” Dowd said. “I began to wonder if I had been limiting my undergrads by not including novel writing.”

With that realization, he then offered novel writing in his fall course, “Crime Fiction.”

The timing turned out to be perfect.

November is National Novel Writing Month, a project that attracts pro and amateur writers from all over the world and encourages them to finish a 50,000-word novel by midnight on November 30. Dowd challenged his class to go for it.

The class comprised 10 criminal justice and forensic science students and eight English majors — two disparate groups that sparked some fascinating dynamics, according to Dowd. “For instance, the CJ and forensics students would critique the English majors’ writing by flatly stating, ‘That would never happen at a crime scene.’ But all in all, the two groups didn’t clash; they got on well and helped each other.”

Dowd has nothing but praise for UNH’s leaders, who gave him the go-ahead for undergrad student novel writing. “From the top down, the administration is very supportive of getting students engaged in big projects. So, now, we’re doing that in English as well. It gives UNH an edge because we can offer some very unique opportunities for creative writing here.”

Any words of advice for would-be novelists? “Don’t go chasing trends in writing; by the time you finish your novel, that trend is going to be gone,” Dowd said. “Also, keep in mind that the timeline between completing a manuscript to getting it on the shelves is another two to three years.”

As for the grueling process of finding an agent to promote your book and nail down a publisher — a process that Faugno is currently engaged in — Dowd’s words are nothing if not pithy: “That’s real experiential education.”

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