The Anatomy of a Rice Class

ENGL 401: Advanced Fiction Writing (Spring 2017)
DESCRIPTION: Each student will design the entirety of an original novel in the genre of his or her choice and write the first 80–100 pages of the text. There is no expectation that the work that students produce will be especially literary (whatever that means) or, for that matter, successful (i.e., “good”).

Justin Cronin’s fiction writing class is based on the premise that the best way to write a novel is to write. Cronin would know: He’s the author of five novels, including the Passage Trilogy, his best-selling postapocalyptic vampire series. And while his novels have been both commercially successful and critically acclaimed (he’s won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Stephen Crane Prize and the Whiting Award), he urges his students to keep their eyes off the prizes and to start at the beginning. “The best advice I can give any young writer is to write something you would actually want to read and to aim toward a genre that you like simply because you like it,” he instructed his students. “Do not try to impress anyone (least of all me) with your highbrow tastes, even if you have them.”

Democracy in Action

While the class is small — only eight students — it’s by no means elitist. The students voted on its reading list, which includes young adult literature, science fiction, fantasy and horror. “It’s their class,” Cronin said. “I told them they’re probably not going to write ‘Moby Dick,’ so let’s not read Melville. You’re modeling books that you like, that you know. As a consequence, we’ve had an obscure Soviet science fiction title and a YA fantasy novel — it’s aimed at 16-year-old girls, but why not? I don’t have to like it. But to the young woman who picked it, that novel was a touchstone.”

Worlds Apart

The reading for one class was a 1971 Russian novel, “Roadside Picnic,” in which aliens have visited Earth and left behind mysterious artifacts that have terrible effects on the people who find them. Not everyone in the class enjoyed the book, but they agreed it was unsettling, which seemed to be the point. “Science fiction is not afraid to lose a reader,” Cronin said. Some students complained that it was distracting to keep up with the details of the sci-fi setting. “When I was writing ‘The Passage,’ I created a document describing [the fictional world] for the reader in advance of actually going there, and I still got complaints,” Cronin said.

Family-Size Fantasy

Knowing it would be a challenge didn’t stop Cronin’s students from creating elaborate fictional worlds, however. Sophomore Erika Schumacher’s novel centers on three siblings who are fleeing their war-torn homeland when the eldest winds up in a magical coma, and the younger two must find a way to heal him. Interwoven with the main conflict is a secondary story about a man on a quest to stop a doomsday curse. “It’s a story with alternating perspectives that are on differing timelines, and it’s also a family drama in a fantasy package,” Schumacher explained.

How to Write

Some of Cronin’s writing lessons apply to any genre. His main advice: Set time aside to write, use that time to write and keep writing. “A book is a person sitting in a room trying to do some work,” he said. “It doesn’t come from outer space. It doesn’t emerge out of whole cloth. It’s a daily job.” The only way to finish the job is to get to the end — and that means not getting sidelined by your inner critic along the way.

Read an excerpt of ErikaSchumacher’s novel here.