Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Pedagogy of Novel Writing

In the field of curriculum development, there is a methodology called Backward Design. In principle, backward design calls for an educator to establish end goals for students and then create lessons that will – by the end of the course – provide them with the necessary scaffolding to achieve those goals.

As an educator, I was doing this before I was made aware of the term. This always made perfect sense to me. I think that’s because writers work this way, even those who don't outline. Writers, by nature, see relationships and arcs, in characters and stories.

I'm 150 pages into a book I began last summer. This one is a break from Peyton Cote and the Border Patrol novels. It's set at a New England boarding school, a setting I am somewhat familiar with.

The 150-page mark means I've entered the deep end of the pool. There's no turning back now. With this book, as with all the others I've written, at the midway point I am well beyond trepidation. The mystery is defined, and so are the characters.

I have read and reread the manuscript. Notes in the margins of my Google document say things like "bring this character back" and "who told him that?" I’m solving the mystery along with my sleuth now. This stage of the writing is fun.

My outline for this book is only a few pages long (four, I think; haven't glanced at it in months). No matter, as I write and read through the draft, I'm spotting connections and gaps that need to be tied together to achieve the end result. (Barring an unforeseen plot shift – which actually has happened in the last 50 pages of one previous book – I know who the perpetrator is and why the crime was committed.)

So what does this have to do with Backward Design?

To a writer, the pedagogy is common sense. I know where my protagonist (the students) must go and what his intellectual and physical strengths and weaknesses are (students' academic skill level) and therefore what challenges the storyline (the curriculum) will present to my sleuth. It’s my job as writer (and teacher) to guide my character to the finish line.

Writing a novel is about seeing connections between people and tasks. John Irving, I once read somewhere, compared writing a novel to creating a spider web. Teachers, I believe, see these connections naturally.

Some of us even geek-out on it.

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