Five Things My Students Taught Me About Writing My First Novel

Five Things My Students Taught Me About Writing My First Novel

9781250059284 (1)Fall means back to school, back to books, and back to learning. But students aren’t the only ones picking up some new knowledge this season. Debut author Erik Fassnacht was a high school English teacher before leaving the classroom to pursue his writing. Even after he left, though, he took with him valuable lessons from his students that helped to shape his novel, A Good Family—a book about a family coming together due to a father’s illness. Here, he shares with Bookish what he learned.

My debut novel, A Good Family, was released in August. It was great to publish a book that delved into my experiences as a high school English teacher, and also to consider how many lessons I learned from my own students—many of which I applied when writing my first novel. Here are five of the most useful.

1) If it matters, clarify

During student teaching, I believed that casually announcing the homework at the end of class was enough to get the message across. I was wrong. Hilariously wrong. It turns out that kids forget a sizeable chunk of what they hear each day, because of daydreaming, the teacher’s delivery, the notes from the crush sitting next to them, their Instagram account—you name it. And in a world of environmental distractions, compulsive thinking, and social media white noise, we owe it to each other to underline what matters.

While writing my first novel, it was crucial to remember that readers weren’t in my head either—they were simply getting what was on the page, and their own imaginations could skew my message, provided I wasn’t absolutely clear. Now, this doesn’t mean provide billboard advertisements for moments that require subtlety. What it does mean is that glossing over the important stuff—an emotional scene, a snippet of dialogue, a recurring motif—is just not in the cards for a good novel. And on a more molecular level, being clear applies to each and every chosen word. In the end, clearing out the fog and allowing my novel to be seen was one of the best decisions I made in getting my book to a publishable stage.

2) Composure is the best medicine

Some days I just wasn’t feeling it. I felt haggard and cantankerous standing in front of class, and the thought of orating about buried metaphors or Lady Macbeth was enough to trigger a gag reflex. The (frequently trivial) reason for my mood didn’t quite matter. What did matter was understanding that losing composure in the classroom can actually have the opposite effect that a teacher intends, as students see those cracks in the façade as weakness, which leads to misbehavior and disruption down the line. The answer: establishing an even keel.

In much the same way, hammering out sentences that I would most likely delete in a fit of revisionist rage didn’t always sound like fun—especially when I was in a mood. Quitting writing for a week, deleting entire chapters, and scheduling my social life to interfere with my writing were many early coping methods that did more harm than good. But in the end, I learned to sit down, take a breath, and choose any number of more composed lifelines—make a nice dinner, walk around the block, call a friend, crack open a beer if necessary… but then get back to writing without delay.

3) Expect to succeed, but plan to adjust

There were times when the lesson I’d come up with felt like the crystalline manifesto for teaching itself, education with a capital “E,” and then, in the classroom, the students would resist my every attempt to teach. It was too perfect—it didn’t account for the human element, for the fact that this was a live experiment, and twenty to thirty other people had to play a real part. Eventually, I learned to see these warning signs early and veer, if necessary, toward what would make the real lesson better, not the idealized one.

One might similarly think that iron-clad organization would benefit novel writing, but this is not always the case. As we are trying to create realistic characters, sometimes these characters need room to breathe, and room to surprise us. Some of the best chapters I wrote came from letting go of the established plan, and allowing my gut feeling—and the will of my invented characters—to discover things I had never seen coming. And as long as you keep an eye on how these deviations will relate back to the central character arcs and plot trajectories of the novel, these creative allowances can be a very good thing.

4) Be human

One quality my students wanted was for their teachers to be actual people, not robots. True, education is about fostering knowledge and boosting critical thinking skills and planning for the future, but it is also about the ocean of students who are caught in some of the most tumultuous times in their lives, and our ability as teachers to occasionally provide a life raft. Sometimes a good memory and a simple hello can calm the waters faster than any “perfect” lesson or “A” paper.

When putting the structural and thematic pieces of A Good Family together, I also had to keep in mind that I was not a robot, and my novel was not a series of highbrow algorithms set to drop polished literary devices at timed intervals. Regardless of what type of book you are writing, injecting passion, heart, and yes, humanity into the proceedings can change everything. Readers can tell when a book (or even chapter) has been pre-canned and readymade for supposed literary success, and they can also tell when what’s on the page comes from the heart. Bringing personal passion and humanity into my book, and letting it breathe through my characters, made all the difference in the world.

5) Habit is everything

I have been frequently amazed not just by my students’ moments of brilliance, but by the diligence displayed by those who became determined to succeed at all costs. Some of these habits didn’t show up immediately—maybe they had a realization, found a passion, or got motivated by college admissions requirements—but once a good habit developed, those students moved forward and rarely looked back. And the thing about habits is that they are not occasional. They aren’t flicked on and off. The students who were serious about making it discovered that success doesn’t come as a windfall, it comes one hammer stroke at a time.

This adage could not be more true while I was writing A Good Family. Some days, I actually sat down and wrote 10 great pages—a cause for celebration! Other days I wrote five pages that were merely good. And still others I sweated and cursed as I whittled away on two measly, disgusting paragraphs. My biggest mindset change was understanding that each time I chiseled away, the novel would, in some small measure, improve. Maybe only by a paragraph that got its rhythm back, or by a metaphor rendered more vivid, or by some extra research that cast light on a previously vague scene. But by knowing that each small measure improved my book, I was able to establish a habit of daily writing that got the job done, and my novel to that publishable stage.

Best of luck to all those working on their first novels, and happy writing!

Erik Fassnacht was born and raised in Chicago. He attended college at the University of Iowa before becoming a high school English and creative writing teacher. Spurred by a lifelong desire to write, he left teaching to get his MFA at Columbia College, where he wrote his debut novel,
A Good Family.


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