How To Write A Novel: Reviewed


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.


Story Is A State Of Mind


Today is my first day back at my desk, and even though it feels as if summer only began last week autumn is certainly in the air. This is my favourite time of year. There’s something about the slant of morning light in September that makes me think about fresh notebooks and starting back to school. Maybe I’m just a perennial student at heart. Last September I felt a particular pang of envy, and, as I was taking a short break from reading manuscripts anyway, on a whim one Friday night as the new series of Graham Norton was coming on (no, not more Hollywood hard-sell), I signed up for a creative writing course ‘that approaches writing with the rigour of academia and also as a contemplative practice’. I needed a refresher, and wanted some inspiration, and this felt like a perfect fit.

That course was called Story Is A State Of Mind, which is run by Canadian writer Sarah Selecky, author of the story collection The Cake Is For The Party. The course is online and self-paced, which suited me just fine (I’m also something of a hermit at heart). I started the next day, the Saturday, and organised it into a mini retreat of three weeks, three days for each of the seven units.

Those units have the following titles:

* Freewriting
* What Starts A Story?
* Character
* Dialogue
* Plot and Drift
* Consciousness
* Influence

Each unit includes a lecture, readings and reading debriefs, shorter exercises of writing practice, and a longer writing assignment. These materials come in the form of thoughtful audio podcasts (usually between ten and twenty minutes long), alongside print notes in PDF format transcribing the audio. There are also four video lectures, as well as links to other recordings and videos of writers talking about writing; I found the one with Ira Glass particularly incisive. The podcasts occasionally use breezy transition music that succeeds in being ever so energising in setting the tone for the work you have to do. Jaunty jingles clearly rouse me.

Sarah Selecky is in herself the great inspiration within this course. A lot of thought has clearly gone into making everything work in print as well as in podcasts and video, and Sarah brings a warm and inviting presence that is also grounded in a practical grasp of what it takes to write purposefully and effectively. She offers various tips, which range from obvious reminders, such as carrying a notebook with you at all times, to more personal observations on freeing the imagination. The idea of writing as ‘the kind of knowledge that feels like it is coming out of your body’ really makes sense to me, and I love the idea of letting your writing orbit around you in the same way you hold respect for a person you love:

A dear friend or love is always something of a mystery. The beauty of a deep relationship is that you can orbit around each other for years, always learning new things about each other, always trying to understand each other.

My advice: treat your writing with the same kind of respect.

There are many excellent writing prompts too. One of my favourites is a really good twist on the popular ‘I Remember’ exercise.

I gained many fresh insights. I particularly liked the idea of drift as it relates to plot within your drafting:

The art happens when you go off track.

I also brought away a sense of how I need to pay more attention to dialogue in my own writing. Nothing beats good dialogue for bringing life to a story, does it?

Aspects of craft are introduced artfully and easily, and the course gets the balance just right in explaining important concepts and techniques without constraining your creativity. One of the first exercises gets us to understand (and practise) the difference between showing and telling in a straightforward, intuitive way. There are plenty of fun activities for creating characters, and the first-rate lesson on dialogue contains many thoughtful recommendations on, e.g., the importance of subtext. Point of view is explained with clarity. Many introductory courses get schoolma’amy, or bogged down in jargon that belongs in an English literature classroom. Or they are simply boring. This course, however, feels more like a studio in an art school. It possesses a lightness, and energy, and the emphasis is certainly on fostering ways to write spontaneously and easily.

Everything is extremely well organised, and well designed. The choice of readings as explanations and departure points is particularly strong, and includes work by writers such as Karen Joy Fowler, George Saunders, and Tobias Wolff, as well as a number of writers who were new to me. A number of them are Canadian; Canada seems to produce so many noteworthy writers whose work I enjoy, and this added a further freshness of perspective for me. In addition, an interactive style diagnosis quiz in the section on influence presents recommendations for inspirations in further reading based on your own preferences. Apparently I am a Fearless Creative who might enjoy Lorrie Moore or Mary Gaitskill; this is true!

The focus is, on the whole, on the craft of fiction that is most relevant to writing short stories, but would-be novelists should not be deterred – characterisation and dialogue and attention to detail are things any writer needs to practise and grow, and we have to walk across a room before we can run and go the distance of a marathon. And, too, short stories are a joy in themselves. I’ve had a summer reading many good books, and I dare to say that the ones I enjoyed most were books of short stories. No second best.

Best of all, this course gets you to do lots of writing (LOTS), and to finish a short story. I almost filled a notebook with writing – about 140 handwritten pages in three weeks (which, even though it also includes some notes, is significant creative output for me).

Since I took this course in 2015 it has been renamed the Story Course, and Story Is A State Of Mind is now used as the name of the larger online school it belongs to. Other classes include the Story Intensive (a teacher-guided and interactive version of the Story Course, with classmates and fixed deadlines) and the Story Intensive (a critique course with organised feedback for a story from each member of the class). The Story Course currently costs US$250, and you can enrol and start at any time, and take however long you need to complete it.

I can’t recommend Sarah Selecky’s Story Course highly enough. I’m already a believer in and practitioner of contemplative approaches in writing and learning, and I truly enjoyed everything it gave me. If you want an inspiring entry point into creative writing that also offers a grounding in fundamental techniques, this class ranks among the best. An inspiring Friday-night whim!