Top 10 Tips for New Novel Incubator Students

“Moleskine reporter notebook” by Hades2k is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Note: Except for posts from occasional guest bloggers, Dead Darlings posts are written by graduates of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program in Boston. To find out more about the program, click here.

This advice is poorly timed because the “new” Incubees are already deep into class and probably have no time to read anything besides their classmates’ manuscripts, the side novel, the classroom reading, the other novel that they’ll be doing their craft essay from and the 47 pages of feedback they’ll get after each workshop, but, oh well. These are my Top Ten Tips for success in the Novel Incubator.

  1. Don’t plan any major life events. To get the most out of this year you should avoid all of the following: getting married, going on a honeymoon, having a baby, having small children, having teen-agers, having parents, getting sick, having a family member get sick, losing a job, searching for a job, having a job, moving, travel for business or pleasure, or the death of a family member.If you absolutely must have life events, try to limit it to no more than 10 of the above items.
  2. Abandon all your hobbies. This year is about writing. And reading. And more writing. Put your other hobbies on the back burner.But don’t forget how to do them. You’ll need them when you’re done, because you will be so sick of writing that making banjoes out of gourds will be a balm to your weary soul.
  3. Try to keep your activity tracker step count higher than your word count. Sometimes the only exercise you get will be the 3 blocks you walk to and from class on Monday nights. So, bring the manuscript you’re reading this week to the gym and prop it up on the treadmill in front of you. This way you have something to fan yourself with while you catch up on your TV shows.
  4. Show up for your fellow classmates. Read their work just like you want them to read yours. Don’t be that person that has a million excuses about why you are late all the time or can’t read people’s manuscripts. Two of the women in my class gave birth during our year, and my father literally died and we managed to still get our reading done because that is the commitment that we made. If we had just wanted to work on our own books, we would have paid for a manuscript consult like sane people. No one will like you if you come in with a lame excuse week after week. And it will not bode well for your writing career if you can’t meet deadlines, she said, having missed the deadline for her last Dead Darlings post.
  5. Remember that writing your book should be your main focus. And reading your classmates’s book should be your second focus. If you start to feel overwhelmed with everything else that has to be done in class, go back to those two things. You aren’t going to get a bad grade in class if you skip reading the side novel one week. But your book will suffer if you spend so much time on the other work that you neglect your actual writing. It is tempting to neglect your actual writing sometimes (because writing is hard and you just had a baby or are moving or actual live people in your life are daring to need you) but you signed up for the class to work on your book. So don’t forget to do that.
  6. Practice smiling and nodding and saying “hmmm” during your workshops. And don’t talk. No one cares what you “meant” to say or is actually looking for an answer to their questions. They care about pointing out plot holes or where there is tension lacking, or finding symbolism where you didn’t intend any. Your job is to write those comments down and then go home and think about them, not to argue with your classmates. And remember that if your font is small enough, no one can read your actual notes to yourself and you can write whatever you want.
  7. Feel free to ignore feedback. But also think about why you are ignoring it. Is it useless? Or do you just not want to write that chapter over again or take out that amazing scene that you worked on forever? Or does the thought of rewriting the entire thing from first-person present tense to third-person past tense make you want to weep? Do it anyway. This is your year to play around with your book, and try things that scare you or seem overwhelming on your own.
  8. Don’t sign up for more writing tasks at the end of your Incubator year. Sure, it’s tempting to think that signing up to write Dead Darlings posts will keep you on track with your writing, but really you’ll find yourself trying to come up with lame excuses to get out of it or cobbling together some Top 10 list at the last minute.
  9. Remember why you love your book. For me, being in the Incubator sometimes felt like having to be at a family party for too long with a new romantic partner. Sure, it’s nice to have attention on you but after a while your dress is uncomfortable and you are sick of people giving you advice and watching your every move and you just want to go home and lie on the couch with them and be alone. Being done with the Incubator means you get to go home and snuggle on the couch with your book, with no other eyes on you and no one judging you. And pants are once again optional.
  10. Don’t let anyone (including yourself) take the joy out of writing. This class has the capability to wring all the joy out of writing. Your story will be picked to death, you will be told to do this and not do that, that agents want you to be like this and not like that. You will be exhausted. And just when you think you are done, it will be time for the class reading and you’ll have to remember to stand up straight and not sway or grip the podium, or read from your pages, or sound like a robot reciting them or mumble. You might forget why you ever wanted to write in the first place.That is when you need to remember the joy of writing and the privilege of getting to stand up in front of people who are rooting for you and who want to hear your story (and who won’t care if you read from your pages). You’ll stand up straight because you will be so proud and happy to be in that room for your graduation. You won’t mumble because you will be excited for everyone to hear the thing that you made. And if you are very lucky you’ll do the thing we all hope for when we write – you’ll make someone laugh, or gasp, or sigh, or look sad. You’ll pull that emotion out of them with something that you created out of your very own brain and it will feel utterly like magic.


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