Student Experiences: Writing the Novel

Posted By Ashley Stokes

KJ Packer talks about Writing the Novel


I came to the Unthank School’s Writing the Novel course in September 2014, armed with a completed first draft, an agent, and the notion that I might have a final draft done by Christmas and start a new novel for the second half of the course. Three years and numerous drafts later, I am about to publish that first novel. It’s been a long and painstaking process, and the drafting, re-drafting, writing, re-writing skills I acquired on the course have assisted me throughout.

We were a group of four, previously unknown to each other, and all at very different stages in our lives and writing. The magic ingredient that brought us together from the outset was Ashley Stokes’s impassioned 10-week critique of The Great Gatsby – which for me was the first literary analysis I’d undertaken since English Lit O level, 32 years before. That and the delectable homemade cakes that tempted us each week.

The workshopping element of the first term introduced us gently to this somewhat delicate art form, following the example of Creative Writing MAs the world over. The intimacy of the group enabled us quickly to become familiar with each other’s standpoints, which set the pattern for the two-dozen sessions over the coming year. I soon learnt that literary criticism is all very well, but having a reader come fresh to your work and give their honest gut reaction can be infinitely more useful and instructive in the re-writing that inevitably must follow.

Setting aside Nick Carraway’s musings and bracing ourselves for a chilly start to the New Year, we embarked on the second term with Sarah Bower. No sooner had we shaken off the snowflakes and mourned the passing of the homemade cakes than we entered Sarah’s kitchen, to be greeted by the exquisite smell of just-baked biscuits. Was there a bake-off brewing, we wondered; were we to be the reality judges?

Moving from a 1-hour to 2-hour workshop session meant twice the content per week, which was a challenge, both in terms of producing the material, and close-reading the other submitted work. This proved to be the core of the Writing the Novel course – no longer any hiding in the shadow of Gatsby. In these sessions, our work was torn open, dismembered, and mostly not put back together – a few surviving remnants being the best we could hope for. Yet it was to these in-depth critiques that I returned time and again during my re-writing period following the end of the course – the novel undergoing another two major redrafts before the final.

Thankfully, what was for a long time a dim light at the end of the tunnel is now daylight. The novel is done. One of my co-participants from the course is very kindly proof-reading it and I am finalising the layout, building a website through which to sell the novel, and organising a party to launch it.


Try it. You won’t regret it.

K.J.Packer’s novel, Ring Master, is published by North City Press on 27th September 2017. Available from Jarrolds of Norwich and northcitypress.co.uk