I’ve just finished teaching two online groups for the Unthank School of Writing, the modular How To Write A Novel course and the Online Fiction Workshop. These were hard-working and dynamic writers’ groups, and I’m delighted to report that several students have decided to stay with us moving forward, while we’re also welcoming many new faces to our forthcoming summer term. Discussion was lively, friendly and creative, we all learned and grew, and there was some excellent writing.
After such an intense learning experience, even after all these years, I’m never really sure how to finish. I had an English teacher at school who waved us off at the end of the year with ‘Fly, fledglings, fly!’ This was a little bit annoying at the time (as was he), but now as a teacher myself I get exactly what he meant. You started with a group of very different people, bonded quickly over a shared interest, and then worked closely together. And after three months of intensive activity, in which you all end up feeling as close as army buddies, everyone’s moving on, except the kindly old drill sergeant, of course, who waits to meet the next group and to start the process again.
Most of us keep in touch these days. It’s more ‘add friend’ than au revoir, but I feel like I should be offering some final piece of guidance to keep everyone on track and writing after the group (and the creative support it brings) comes to an end. This time I decided to address this need quite directly, with a summary of what I felt the main points of these courses were – a sort of brief, memory-jogging and hopefully motivational writer’s toolkit.
This I now pass on to you, in the hope that it might be of some service…
- Add to your novel every day – about 200 words a day adds up to around 70,000 in a year and that’s your first draft done.
- Finish your novel – not finishing things is habit-forming.
- It’s easier to improve slush than it is to originate brilliance – learn to love slush.
- Experiment – learn he rules and then break them.
- Avoid self-censorship.
- Don’t worry about achieving perfection – you’ll never reach it.
CHARACTER & DIALOGUE
- Your characters are not you.
- Idiosyncrasy makes characters.
- People believe ideas much more readily than facts – so do your characters.
- Know your characters.
- Trap your characters in impossible situations – let them figure out how to get out of it.
- Natural dialogue sounds unnatural on the page – keep it crisp and enigmatic.
- Never attempt an accent or a sound effect in words – this is not a comic. Describe the sound…
- Avoid information dumping.
- Good description is all about the little details.
- A three-word description can say more than a long sentence.
- Show don’t tell.
- There are three components to every story: the beginning, the middle, and the twist.
- Cut out everything that isn’t the story.
- Avoid point of view paradoxes.
- Story archetypes are your friends.
- Everything has been done. Everything you do is new.
- Follow your through-line wherever it takes you.
Your Three Key Questions:
- What’s this story about?
- Who’s this story about?
- Who’s the point of view character?
The Anatomy of Plot:
- Act One is the set-up.
- Act Two is the confrontation.
- Act Three is the resolution.
The Anatomy of a Chapter:
Part One – Action:
Part Two – Reflection:
- You promised your reader an explosive climax – always deliver.
- Never promise apples and deliver oranges.
- Keep the god in the machine.
- The resolution should be startling, but always seem inevitable looking back.
- Keep the denouement short and sweet – tie up the loose ends and get out of there, you’re done.
- There is no such thing as good writing, only good re-writing.
- Write like the wind – edit like a wet weekend in Skegness.
- A professional writer is an amateur who never gave up.
- Writing and publishing are different things.
- Getting an agent is hard.
- Not having an agent is only a problem if you really want an agent.
- Never design your own cover.
- Start a blog.
- Keep writing.
- Believe in your book – believe in yourself.
Carry on Sergeant!
The Online Fiction Workshop with Stephen Carver is full for May, though there are two places left for How to Write a Novel Online.