How To Write A Novel: Reviewed

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As I teach creative writing, taking a writing course might seem like a busman’s holiday, or teaching grandad to suck eggs … or something like that. But I am firmly of the belief that practitioners should keep their practice fresh. There are always new inspirations in creative fields, and it helps teachers to see familiar ideas in new frameworks.

I am also an eternal student, and come September that slant of autumn light makes me wistful for the classroom. So last term I took two online courses on writing a novel from the University of British Columbia’s prestigious writing programme. Offered via the edX learning platform, they use probably the best teaching materials on writing I’ve come across. Week by week, they cover the following aspects of craft and process:

How To Write A Novel: Structure and Outline
* Character, antagonism and world-building
* Internal and external journeys
* Story architecture 1: acts, scenes, beats, and story hierarchy, as well as a broader discussion of outlines
* Story architecture 2: complications, saggy middles, subplots, and resolutions
* Endings and scene analysis
* The transition to writing, including the creation of a detailed writing plan

How To Write A Novel: Writing The Draft
* The aesthetic journey: voice, prose style, point of view, and beginnings
* Conflict and tension, including characterisation
* Dialogue, including subtext
* Plot, including the specific requirements of genre and endings
* Research, including ethics
* Mind over manuscript, including theme, focus, blind alleys and procrastination, and other practical tips on the writing life

They don’t need to be taken in this order, and can be taken independently of each other. A commitment of four to six hours a week is suggested, though the courses are self-paced, and materials remain available to learners after the courses have ended. Downloadable video lectures, backed up with transcripts and additional notes, are pithy, punchy, and engaging, with ideas further brought to life through close readings in all the major genres.

Practical assignments are well pitched, and include the writing of specific scenes as well as various Q&As that will help you analyse what your book needs in terms of craft and technique. I’ve seen many character questionnaires in my time, but the one created for the Structure course must be the most purposeful in making your characters more engaging; I doubt you’ll answer all its questions right away, but it will give you plenty to think about in going deeper with your writing, which can only be a good thing.

The courses do not offer detailed workshop interaction or mentoring, though online forums get you to discuss important matters in your work and share selected samples of your output. Fellow learners, who included beginners as well as experienced professional writers, were dedicated and encouraging, and given the online setting it was refreshing to meet people from all over the world, some of whom were writing in languages other than English.

I particularly enjoyed working in a setting based in Canada, using examples from various writers who were new to me. And who can’t fail to be impressed by a country where working in more than one language seems no big deal at all? Postnational: I’ll take that description. It’s a good one for the country of writing.

The instructors, award-winning authors Nancy Lee and Annabel Lyon, are immensely generous in sharing their own experiences. Throughout the course they bring matters of craft and process to life by discussing their own work, and they also post examples of their own outlines and drafts. Further support comes from sf writer Andrew Neil Gray, who’s active in fielding questions in the discussion area.

The teaching team’s engagement goes even deeper in live weekly hangouts (lunchtimes in Vancouver, 9pm here in London), when they answer specific questions posted in real time or during the previous week. Annabel, Nancy, and Andrew genuinely engage with writers’ questions with good humour, bright ideas, and endless encouragement. Videos of the hour-long chats are saved for learners unable to attend at the designated time. These hangouts were really energising, and one of the things I’ll remember most about these courses.

What’s also sparky are occasional marked differences in the instructors’ style and process. Nancy, for example, told us how she starts her second draft in an entirely fresh document, not even referring back to the first draft. Annabel, on the other hand, returns to her previous drafts in a particularly organised way. Further videos offer valuable contributions from a number of other authors, such as Sarah Dunant, Lauren Groff, Paula Hawkins, Miriam Toews, and Jeff Vandermeer. The diversity of advice reflects the fact that all writers need to find their own way in matters of both craft and process.

I certainly gained plenty of fresh insights and practical tips from these courses. For example, one term that was new to me was half-scene, which describes that blend of summary and scene that I realised is the narrative mode of many books I enjoy; I am already applying this idea more consciously in my own work. The week on research prompted vigorous discussion on the ethics of cultural and personal appropriation in writing. I also came away with a deeper respect for and wider understanding of the possibilities of outlining. A good outline can not only bring the practical focus and discipline that keep you going until you complete a first draft, but also stimulate the imagination and help you find room for the flair a novel needs.

These courses are, I believe, currently running twice a year. A third course, on revising your novel, is in development for later in the spring of 2017, and it sounds most promising. The next offering of Structure and Outline begins on 10 January 2017: you can watch an introduction from Annabel and Nancy on YouTube.

Academic courses are no longer the only route for someone keen to learn the craft of writing. But creative writing is an industry, and some offerings are more practical – and far better value – than others. Of all the courses I’ve come across, online or in person, these are the best on writing fiction that I’ve come across. They are also far more affordable than most (US$295 for each course). I would recommend them heartily, not only to any writer keen to build their own programme of studies, but also for recent graduates of MFA/MA programmes in search of impetus, or experienced writers wanting fresh insights for a project that’s stalling. They could be particularly useful for writing partners or small writing groups who want to share some external structure for their practice. I took these courses alongside another writer friend, and I think it might really help to have that additional motivation to help keep you on track and continue with the work.

 

4 comments

  1. Patsy Alford

    I agree taking these courses would be a great idea for an established writing group who could share their work amongst themselves.

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