Student Experiences: Priceless Advice

Posted By Ashley Stokes

EIlidh Horder talks about the Online Fiction Workshop 


For anyone considering the Unthank School Online Fiction Workshop, I unreservedly encourage you to do so.

I originally signed up for the How to Write a Novel course, as I, well, wanted to learn how to write a novel. But that particular term’s course was postponed. So Head of School Ashley Stokes asked whether I’d like a refund, or would I like to enrol in the fiction workshop. I had a quick look, felt I’d be totally out of my depth – forums weren’t my thing, I was far too self-conscious, and this was aimed at writers with some experience – but took the plunge anyway. Ashley welcomed me warmly. But perhaps his was the easy part. Because he then sent me to Stephen.

If I was dubious of being in a forum scenario, with ‘real’ writers, I needn’t have been. Stephen, and the group, made me feel completely at ease, pretty quickly. Stephen kindly asked if I’d mind being one of the first to submit their 2000 words, and the truth is, if I hadn’t been in that first wave (of four), I may never have dared.

The other course members’ submissions were so varied. Each of them, unique and fascinating. There was historical fiction based on family memoir, life writing from backgrounds and cultures alien to my own, and wild and crazy adventures with characters bursting from the pages with sheer exuberance. Harrowing writing would follow on from something upbeat and clever (without being ‘too’ clever). I laughed out loud many times.

But I also shed tears. The first one fell in the very first round while reading some discovered poetry and memoir written by a Holocaust survivor. It was humbling – and, without doubt, the most difficult to critique.

I discovered the joy of reading a new author again and again. Settling down with a piece by an unknown quantity is like a Lucky Dip. You don’t know what to expect, but you always come out with a prize. None of the work was uninteresting. (And let’s face it, if you do end up with something that isn’t your bag, 2000 words isn’t that much to have to read!)

Part of the learning process was very much in the reading and analysing of all the submissions – what worked and why? And just as importantly, what didn’t work…? And it felt especially good if, now and then, I felt like I’d actually offered a bit of genuinely useful advice.

When my first critiques started to come in, I (literally) held my breath, and I found it hard to read the first couple. Nobody before – well, very few indeed – had read anything I’d written and given me feedback. But I exhaled with relief as I received warm words of encouragement. Obviously, you can’t get better if you don’t know where you’re going wrong, but any criticism was always gentle – with pointers and invaluable suggestions on how to improve.

And then Wednesday evening came, and Stephen commented. I was a bit petrified. But again, I needn’t have been. Receiving his ‘Well done’ (and so much more encouragement) was the biggest buzz I’ve had since, well, since a couple of days beforehand when the other course participants didn’t tell me my writing was rubbish and ask me what I was doing on the course. But joking aside, his tone was always friendly and his criticisms never too harsh, always cushioned with suggestions on which bits to work on some more and what direction I might go in. He asked the pertinent questions and got me thinking. He always got me thinking…

He was also very generous with course notes from the one I’d originally intended to do. Which meant I could brush up fairly quickly on terminology (‘purple prose’ – Was that a good thing? Short answer, ‘no, not really’), as well as the main techniques and structure.

And indeed, to start with, there were many terms employed that I didn’t understand – I was, really, a bit of a novice, and most of the group had a lot more experience than I did. But that was wonderful in itself, as it gave me a great impetus to learn. I could look it all up, of course, but also ask the group exactly what they meant, through the forum. There was also lots of sharing: tips and references to books, authors, even radio programmes and music.

Stephen is really approachable and always endeavours to answer any questions you might have to the best of his ability, which is a high bar. He is also realistic, telling it like it is, without giving false hope about being able to crack the market with a bestseller, or even possibly making a living from writing. But he does offer priceless advice – and has some hefty experience, including having judged in top writing competitions – about how to do your own personal best, and give it a damn good shot.

The Unthank Fiction Workshop – and Stephen – are worth their weight in gold. Or printer ink. Whichever is the most expensive at the time of ‘going to press’.