Stephen Carver on Teaching ‘How to Write a Novel’ Online
Last week, I brought another USW How to Write a Novel course to an end, after three very pleasant and enjoyable months of writing and sharing. It was more a case of ‘Au Revoir’ than a fond farewell though; as always happens, friendships were forged and now we’re all linked up on Facebook, an informal writer’s group that expands with every course. Some students, meanwhile, are staying with us at the school and moving on to Ashley’s Online Workshop to develop the manuscripts they’ve been writing on my course. This happen a lot, because once people find their way to us – the friendly alternative to all those institutional and corporate creative writing programmes – they tend to stay. There’s a definite sense of family. And don’t get me wrong, we have all the knowledge and expertise of the professors, in fact some of us are professors, we just prefer to be a bit more practical and down to earth about the whole business of, you know, actually writing, rather than just talking about it.
I’ve been teaching this particular course for just over two years now, and it is always a pleasure. Because it has been a couple of years, I’m now seeing the novels that began in these courses completed – so revised, edited and polished to perfection – and submitted to literary agencies, with in several cases some very positive responses. Pretty soon, I reckon, we’ll start listing published novels that began with us so watch this space. And, as well as helping writers to find their process and their voice, we pride ourselves on preparing them to approach agents and publishers, with realistic, practical and no nonsense advice. You don’t have to take a separate course to learn more about publishing. We’re writers, we’re editors, we’re publishers, and we’re happy to share that experience. We’re all in this together, right?
I’ve been doing this for so long (I was at UEA for sixteen years before I joined Unthank) that I confess I sometimes struggle to find something profound to say when a course comes to an end, but one of my present students, Claudie Whitaker, put it perfectly, and has graciously allowed me to quote her here:
I am very pleased to have done this course and have discovered two things in particular which stay in my head: keep writing every day, and don’t worry about the s–t first draft. That second point seems so obvious now, but the s–t first draft was definitely holding me back at times and now I don’t care, I’ll just keep going, knowing that the editing process is still to come and for the time being I can write freely and see what happens.
And that, in essence, is the point. As James Thurber memorably put it, ‘Don’t get it right, just get it written.’ We become writers by writing. Like any other skill, if you want to get good at it you learn by doing, which is very much what this course is all about. It’s my role to encourage, guide and teach you the fundamentals, such as narrative structure, pace, plotting, scene-setting, character development and dialogue, and your role to just keep writing. And to do this, you have to accept that first drafts are going to be rough, and understand that all the great novels that you love started out this way and were then rewritten and refined; Hemingway, for example, re-drafted the end of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times to ‘get the words right.’
Now me, I’m a bit of a cheerleader for early stage writing. I do this myself as well, you see. (Just got a new book out, in fact.) I do not judge, and I’m not in the business of crushing dreams. The most common barrier to finishing a writing project is a lack of confidence. This is much more problematic than original plots or literary style. And the worse thing is that you’re almost certainly introducing criticism at the wrong stage of the process. As Claudie said, ‘write freely and see what happens.’
So that’s another course done. I’ve certainly learned from it and grown and, if I say so myself, so have all the students, armed as they now are with credible, viable and original works-in-progress and the vital accompanying momentum that comes of knowing that the way to write a novel is one word at a time until the first draft is finished. Then you can really go to work on it.
There are still places available on the next ‘How To Write A Novel’ online course, which begins in May (there will be another course starting in September), so for further information please refer to the USW website or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to hearing from you.