Beginning a novel
with Richard Russo
Richard Russo’s master class at the Kauai Writers Conference is for writers beginning or at the early stages of a work of fiction. It aims to help you with the all-important questions of framing, subject matter, both superficial and deep, and finding a narrative structure best suited for the story you want to tell. Taking a hard look at these topics at the beginning of a novel can make the difference between a sharply focused and engrossing story and one which never finds its footing.
Richard says: Beginning a new work of fiction can be a bit like waking up in the dark. Where in the world (literally) are you? Is it a big place or a small one? What is its shape? What are its dimensions? If nothing else, answering these questions relieves anxiety.
So, how do writers recognize what they’re working on? What are the tell-tale signs that it might be long form fiction? Which storytelling elements naturally result in length? Which are more likely to result in fiction that’s more contained? Is it important to know what you’re working on from the start? If not at the beginning, at what point should writers know with some degree of certainty what the thing is? When should you start to worry if you don’t? And how can you tell whether you are, by temperament, a novelist or a short-story writer?
Students will be asked to submit five pages of fiction, preferably from (or near) the beginning of something – a story, a novel or (better yet) something that might be either.
Richard Russo is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of widely acclaimed novels, short stories, and screenplays. He is also a wildly popular teacher, having taught creative writing at Penn State University at Altoona, the University of Southern Illinois, Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and Colby College in Waterville, Maine. His 2001 novel Empire Falls received the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has written seven other novels, a collection of short stories, and a memoir (Elsewhere). His short story “Horseman” was published in The Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King and Heidi Pitlor.
Russo co-wrote the film Twilight with the director Robert Benton. Benton adapted Russo’s Nobody’s Fool as a film of the same title, starring Paul Newman, which he also directed. Russo wrote the teleplay for the HBO multiple award-winning adaptation of Empire Falls, the screenplay for the 2005 film Ice Harvest, and the screenplay for the 2005 Niall Johnson film Keeping Mum, which starred Rowan Atkinson. In 2017 he received France’s Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine.
Poets and Writers, in their extensive 2016 profile of Russo, wrote “He has become a statesman of American letters. He is revered for writing fiction set against the backdrop of declining mill towns while consistently drawing hilarity from his characters’ pathos; his wonderfully unhurried novels brim with wry humor and ruminative protagonists. The Washington Post has called Russo “the patron saint of small-town fiction.”