Student Experiences: Turning an Idea into Reality

Posted By Ashley Stokes

Zoe Bell talks about how the Online Fiction Workshop has helped her grow and shape her novel.

Before I attended the Unthank Online Fiction Workshop I thought I could do it on my own: a biology degree and a career at a multinational corporation were adequate preparation for writing historical fiction, obviously.

I’d drafted my novel in the early mornings and nights around family and work, and then left it in a drawer to mature for a month. When I took it out again to do final edits, that’s when I realised, not without horror, that much more work was needed.

An advertisement for the Unthank School Online Fiction Workshop crossed my Facebook page. Serendipity? A present from my fairy godmother? Who cares. I clicked on it and thus began my transformative journey.

Shepherded by the unfailingly good-natured Stephen Carver, erstwhile Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and author of the most excellent regency adventure Shark Alley, I redrafted my manuscript into a work I’m proud of and ready to submit to agents.

My focus was historical fiction but the workshop is suited to all genres. I attended two back-to-back sessions (24 weeks!) because my book is on the longer side and I truly benefited from the discipline imposed. Participants from all over included history buffs like me but also memoirists and writers of detective novels, thrillers, contemporary fiction, short stories, and literary fiction. All of us had different forms but our aim was the same, to write and finish our story.

The course delivered completely on what I expected and more: detailed supportive critiques of submitted portions of my novel every two weeks, an opportunity to review and learn from others’ work, lively online discussions with participants once a week, and as much reading on various aspects of writing as I could manage. Without a literary education beyond the love of books, I benefited from learning about the finer points of literature I’d never known to consider: What makes for a strong start? What’s the purpose of secondary characters? What on earth is a story arc? What should I strive for in an ending?

Was the course perfect in every possible way? Of course not. What is? Occasionally participants including myself ran up against life and couldn’t post a submission or comment on a particular week. We could do it the following week. Occasionally the comments were harsh or not harsh enough, or highlighted something I’d rather not deal with. Overall, however, the feedback was extremely helpful in pointing out what worked and what needed further work.

Stephen Carver’s generous and experienced tutoring sustained us all throughout the weeks of the course, confirming what we were trying to convey, questioning word choices, suggesting bolder aims, always getting us to strive for better. I think all of us would agree that we found our voices, we gained a better understanding of what it means to be a writer, and we were encouraged to persist. I think that’s what this course helped me with the most: being part of a community of writers with the same aim, understanding the difficulties we share and also the great sense of fulfilment delivered by good writing. That got me through to the end of my work so that I could say: I did it. I love it. It’s time to send it out into the world.

My next novel is science fiction. As soon as I’ve sorted out the story in my head, I’ll be signing up again to the Unthank Online Fiction Workshop, because the best idea means nothing if it remains unwritten.