One of my MFA students has asked about a timeline for writing the novel that will be her thesis. Certainly there is a timeline built in at the end of thesis writing. There are dates by which the thesis must be shown to the advisor, must be revised, must be submitted to the second reader, etc. But those dates are for the end of the process. A student who intends to graduate in August needs to have a complete and almost-ready manuscript to her advisor by the first of April.

But students will start drafting the thesis much earlier. For this process, there aren’t any established dates, but I think it’s helpful for the student to set some deadlines for such intermediate goals as completing a first draft or outlining the novel. (And the order in which these things happens depends on the temprament of the student. Some will write a very rough discovery draft and only write an outline after that draft is done. Others will need to outline chapter-by-chapter before starting to draft.)

In general, though, it’s good to have a plan and deadlines for when certain stages will have been reached. And for students who don’t know what process will work best for them, I encourage them to write the rough discovery draft, and to do so in a hurry. For some of these students, participating in NaNoWriMo during the November of their first year has been a great first step. This does mean that November is a month of being insanely busy with MFA studies, work, and drafting the novel during every spare moment. But after one month of grinding rigor, the student has a first draft, or at least a big chunk of it. After that first draft, everything else will be revision. Even if the idea for the novel changes a lot, all the new writing is still in the service of revision. This makes a big diggerence psychologically for many writers.

And, of course, NaNoWriMo helps because the writer is pressing forward with the novel at the same time as many other people are doing the same. It helps the writer to get into a rather obsessive mood to be churning out pages while other writers all over the world are doing the same and posting their word counts for all to see.

For some students and faculty in the NILA MFA, NaNoWriMo has resulted in novels were successful theses, satisfying manuscripts, and even, in two cases, books that sold.

I think I may participate this year if I can get my current novel, Steam, finished before November.


In English, we can make puns based on our names for countries: Turkey the country is also the large bird. Hungary sounds like “hungry.” Based on my so-far very limited vocabulary, I think I’ve found such a correspondence in Hungarian, though I can’t make anything funny out of it:

Ő ír?

This question can mean, “Does he write?” It can also mean, “Is he Irish?”

At the August MFA residency on Whidbey Island, the two principals of Red Hen Press, Kate Gale and Mark Cull, were among the speakers in the Business of Writing class. Kate keeps a blog, aptly named A Mind Never Dormant, where she sometimes posts several times a day and is interesting and entertaining every time.

Kate’s blog is so good, so readable, that it has made me re-think my relationship to social media and blogging.  Surely, between learning Hungarian, writing my stories, working on my novel, working with students, and writing my columns for I can come up with one interesting thing to say each day.

So for the rest of August and all of September, I’m going to spend five minutes blogging.  Every day, a readable thought, something worth contributing to the conversation.  I won’t expect to keep up with Kate. Who could keep up with Kate? Can even Mark Cull keep up with Kate, whose very name is synonymous with pleasure? He’s a good man for trying!

My favorite Hungarian phrase of the day is from the category of asking directions.

a villanyrendőrnél

“at the light”

The heart of this phrase is the noun for traffic light, villanyrendőr. With compound words, it often helps to break the word into its constituent parts. When I did that, I learned that villanyrendőr means “electric policeman.”

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