I’ve just finished reading and evaluating the applications for Brandon’s English 318R class at BYU. For those of you who don’t know, Brandon teaches a creative writing class each winter semester. The lecture portion of the class (English 321R) is open to as many students as can fit into the auditorium, and many of the lectures have been posted online for those who can’t attend in Provo.
The main thing students are graded on is whether they complete 30,000 words of the beginning of a novel during the semester, submitting chapters each week. Brandon encourages students in his lecture class to form writing groups to read and comment on their classmates’ work. The students who are accepted into the 318R workshop class are divided into three groups, and Brandon rotates among them each week, reading the submissions and giving feedback. Because of time constraints, he can only give this personal attention to fifteen students each year.
In order to spend his time and energy where it will do the most good, Brandon has asked me to decide which of the applicants is in the best place in their authorial development to get high-level feedback on their writing craft. It doesn’t help anybody if he has to say things like, “I really couldn’t understand what was going on in this chapter,” or, “Your grammar needs so much work that it overshadows your plot.”
You may think that I’m exaggerating here, but I’m honestly not. Each year, most of the submissions we receive are from enthusiastic applicants whose writing shows that it needs a great deal of work before it will be at a level where Brandon's individual attention will be helpful. We also get some pretty fabulous submissions each year, and I’m always excited to find them. I have even been known to ask for more of the novel just because I want to read more of it. Some of the students who pass through this class are so well prepared that they go on to publish within just a few years.
Here’s a quick rundown of how the application process works. First I read each submission and write a quick summary and my first impression of the skill level of the writer. Each story gets a grade of yes, maybe, or no. Then I read the applications, and take into account what year each applicant is in school, whether they’ve taken the lecture portion before, and how many novels they have finished. After that, I narrow it down to the fifteen finalists, and send out the good (and bad) news. If you want more details on this process and hints for getting accepted, see the FAQ page.
Most of the submissions arrive in the last few days before the late December deadline, so I do almost all of the reading between Christmas and New Year’s. With all of the regular holiday stresses, I’m often rather grumpy this time of year. Reading fiction that needs so much work makes me even grumpier, so I try to smash the whole process into a couple of very grumpy days (I am exaggerating a bit here; it’s not really that bad). When I worked at BYU’s Leading Edge magazine with Brandon and my (then future) husband Peter among others, we called this sort of reading “wading through the slush pile,” and I think it’s an appropriate activity for some of the darkest, coldest days of the waning year. (Regarding those submissions that arrive well ahead of the deadline, I'm able to review those in a more relaxed and less stressful setting.)
The hardest part of the process is not actually the reading of submissions. Even the ones I dislike for one reason or another have some redeeming qualities—an interesting plot, relatable characters, imaginative settings, and so on. The hardest part is reading the applications’ short essays knowing I’m going to have to reject most of the authors. Almost all of them say something like, “I love writing, and want to devote my life to it. I owe so much to the authors who have inspired me that I want to give back to the community by writing great fiction.” I’m seldom reminded as strongly that my friends and I are living the dream of a career in the publishing world than when I see how many writers out there are still dreaming.
That’s why in every rejection letter I send, I include the hope that those writers will continue writing, continue learning to improve, and continue sharing their work. And in fact, each year I receive and accept applications from students who have applied and been rejected in the past, but have a much better submission the second or third time around.
I’ll end with a few statistics you may find interesting:
- We had 72 submissions this year (though two of those were late, and were rejected without being read).
- There were 39 women and 31 men (I guessed from the names, so this might not be quite accurate).
- After my first impressions, among the submissions there were 9 automatic passes, 40 automatic rejections, and 21 maybes.
- By far, most of the submissions (45) were from seniors, plus 13 Continuing Ed students, 2 law school students, 3 grad students, 10 juniors, 7 sophomores, and 1 freshman.
- Applicants reported a total of 139 finished novels, with the most prolific author clocking in at a whopping 16.
Congratulations to the students who were accepted, and good luck in the future to those who didn’t make it in this year.