Our Head of Online, Stephen Carver, on How to Write a Novel in 2016
So, I’ve come to end of another year of teaching at Unthank, finishing in style, if I do say so myself, with the last session of ‘How to Write a Novel.’ All the assignments had been returned, the exercises finished, and the group passed a very pleasant day just talking about writing, everyone, I think, very satisfied with what they’ve achieved in the last three months, and already planning the next new chapters of their manuscript novels. This was a relatively small but extremely disciplined and dedicated group, with teaching sessions assuming the feel of an Oxbridge tutorial: courteous, civilised and intensely stimulating creatively and intellectually. As a teacher, it doesn’t get much better than this, and out of these directed discussions has grown several very different yet equally impressive works in progress.
One group member was already quite advanced on a novel, which has developed and been refined during the course (in parallel with a second project, in fact), while other members came with ideas and ambitions but not much yet written. By the end of the course, I was marking 10,000 word manuscripts (not counting critical evaluations, mind), which by contemporary publishing standards probably represent about an eighth of the first draft written. And these documents represent much more than the sum of the words that make them; they are the opening chapters of projects that now have a story, a structure and a style. The authors have developed writing routines, gained confidence, and are now equipped to finish these drafts, and then craft them into polished manuscript novels, fit for purpose and ready to go public. As a writing group, we have supported each other, learned from each other, and I’m delighted to report that the course sign-off was ‘Au Revoir’ because we will continue to work together in the Online Workshop next year. This means I won’t have to wait to find out what happens next in these wonderful stories, while everyone has agreed to write at least 5,000 words over the holidays. Groovy.
Let’s face it, this has been a weird year, from the death of Bowie through Brexit and the US Election, ending on a spectacular low as the carnage in Aleppo reaches Second World War levels and dictators call a flattened city a ‘historic victory.’ I also lost one of my oldest friends to cancer, the poet Colin Phillips. An Annus Horribilis and no mistake. Yet stepping, if I may, outside the bad dystopian movie that is contemporary history for a moment, for us it’s also been a very positive year. We end it having strengthened our professional links with our old friends and colleagues at TLC, with new courses planned and robust enrolment for 2017. I’m taking on a new workshop, in addition to my current courses, and am presently updating ‘Becoming a Writer,’ which was our inaugural online course what feels like an age ago. My wife and I were expecting our first kid when Ashley and I started working together, and this year he’s chair of the school council and has just passed his first grade in Karate – my son, I mean, not Ashley. It’s been a year of change and growth for me as well. I published a new book this year, and even though it didn’t exactly set the world on fire I was pleased with it and it was good enough to get me a contract to write another. The last couple of Unthank courses I’ve been a part of have also helped me get a second new project off the ground, so I have both a non-fiction work and a new novel progressing together as I enter the New Year, discussed, shared and stress-tested in group along with everyone else’s work. As I’ve said before, we’re all in this together, right?
I always wish I had something clever and profound to offer at the end of a creative writing course, but when it comes right down to it, the best advice I can leave any aspiring novelist with is to have faith in yourself, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, and, above all, don’t stop writing the first draft. Once you have that – and it grows one word at a time, the same as Shakespeare and Stephen King – then you can edit the hell out of it until you get it right. It’s having the faith and discipline to finish that first draft that makes you a writer, not style, or premise, or plot, just the practical determination to get it done. What I can offer, however, is a group of supportive, like-minded people who will help you get there, who all have to juggle work and family to find the time to write, who frequently doubt themselves, compare and despair, and sometimes stall completely, just like you. I’ve done it, I do it, and so does everyone else, even the literary wunderkinds and the bestsellers. This is what it is to be a writer, But then, you also get to amaze yourself with your own words, complete huge projects, and fulfil your dreams. It’s mad being an artist, but would we have it any other way? Boring, it is not, and that’s something and, anyway, no one is making us do this. We write because we have something to say, and because the need to get that voice out there outweighs any hardship. You know what I mean… come and join me, and I promise you we’ll get there together.
Have a Great Christmas.