Year-long workshop helps graduate students with novel pursuit

Michele Young-Stone has two forthcoming novels under contract with Simon & Schuster and another well-received novel already under her belt. She’s an author making her living writing books, pursuing her dream. And it all started in a VCU class.

Young-Stone, who received her M.F.A. in creative writing from VCU in 2005, is one of the more notable successes of the year-long novel workshop taught every other year in the Creative Writing Program at VCU. Random House published Young-Stone’s debut novel, “The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors,” in 2010 to critical acclaim, including recognition from Publisher’s Weekly, which named the book one of the top debut novels of the year.    

The first draft of the book was developed in the novel workshop taught by English professor Tom De Haven in 2004-05, and Young-Stone said the course was essential to the leap she made from writing solely short stories to tackling novels.

“I don’t feel like I could have written a first novel without the workshop,” Young-Stone said. “I needed that feedback and those deadlines, and I don’t know that I would have kept writing without knowing someone was going to be reading what I wrote. I also needed someone to believe in me and that was Tom De Haven.”

De Haven, who started the workshop about 20 years ago, still teaches it periodically, splitting duties with Susann Cokal, the director of the Creative Writing Program. Fellow English professor Clint McCown also has taught the course.

When De Haven first introduced the workshop, there was no blueprint for it. He did not know of another year-long workshop like it in the country. He worried that the demanding task of producing a full-length draft of a novel in a single academic year – a process that can take authors years – would prove to be too challenging for the students.

However, that first batch of students proved to have “incredible energy and talent,” according to De Haven. Two of the novels developed in the class ultimately were published.

“We didn’t lose a single person,” De Haven said. “The entire group pushed through. It was just exhilarating. It still to this day is my favorite experience as a teacher.”

The workshop can be a tough environment because each budding novelist’s work receives an exacting reading and critique from classmates and professors. Young-Stone said the process steels students for the vulnerable act of releasing their work to the public, where critics and readers await.

“It gives you very thick skin,” she said.

The camaraderie that develops in the class is key to the individual successes that emerge from it. The students naturally bond over the shared challenge they face and become invested in each other’s success. De Haven compares it to a group climbing the Himalayas and tying their ropes to each other so they can pull to the top of each mountain together. Young-Stone described a similar atmosphere.

“You’re scared and you don’t know what you’re doing, but you know you’re going to keep going,” Young-Stone said.

Participants in the first year-long novel workshop in 1992
Participants in the first year-long novel workshop in 1992