When is the Right Time to do a Novel Writing Course?

I have been asked this question a lot lately so I thought I’d answer it here.

learn more cloudFirstly, a disclaimer. I’m a huge advocate of writing courses. Of good writing courses. I teach them, so yes, I do have a vested interest. But I’ve been on the receiving end of lots of writing courses and, without (some of) them, I’m sure I wouldn’t be published. But how do you know when it is the right time for you to do a writing course?

My early experiences with writing courses were a disaster that I hope you avoid.

Here’s my story of being an aspiring writer trying out writing courses. In the early 2000s, I was working full-time in marketing in Melbourne but the niggling interest in writing that I’d had for as long as I could remember became more than a niggle. So I enrolled in one of the very first online creative writing courses to be offered by a university; I couldn’t attend classes during the day and also go to work, so it seemed like a great option. It was terrible!

I didn’t do my homework. I blindly enrolled and trusted that if a reputable university was offering a course, it would be a good one. For the first four weeks, it seemed as if I was the only student there. Each week I would go online and post an answer to the questions we’d been asked to consider and each week I’d wait, hoping for some kind of response. Nothing. Then, finally, one other student appeared, perplexedly asking me where I had found the list of questions I appeared to be answering each week as she had no idea where to locate them. Where was the teacher? I have no idea. She appeared in about week 6, apologising for her absence. She marked my assignments, but otherwise I never heard from her. The unit taught me nothing about how to write; it was called Critical Friends and, to this day, I have no idea what it was supposed to be about.

Foolishly, I enrolled in another unit the following semester. This time there were about 4 students. We exchanged work. We ‘workshopped’. But no one had taught us what good writing was, what some of the key ingredients were, so how on earth could we workshop another student’s work? How did we know if the point of view was working if we’d never had a discussion about point of view?

Luckily I didn’t give up. I moved states and found a Graduate Diploma course with great teachers and excellent content. I went on and did a Masters in Creative Writing, which was all about learning how to write and re-write my first book. I learned a lot. I’m thankful I kept trying to learn my craft. 

I am a big believer in the idea that writing is a craft. There are tools and techniques that can be learned. What is subtext in dialogue, for instance? Why is it important? How do you craft dialogue with subtext? What are the advantages of a third-person limited POV? Why might you choose to use it over a first-person POV? If you add an understanding of the craft of writing to a great story idea and a natural ability and aptitude with words, wonderful things can happen.

So here’s my list of reasons why you might want to consider joining a course:

1. Perhaps writing is something you’ve always been interested in. But you’re not sure. Doing a course can help you to see if that interest is real, and also if you have an aptitude for it.

2. People are always telling you that you can spin a great story, that you should write your stories down. Again, doing a course can help you to see if writing those stories down is what interests you. It may be that you’re a natural raconteur and when you sit down to write, you lose interest. Or, perhaps that’s when the stories really take off.

3. You have an idea for a story but have no idea what to do with that idea. A course will open you up to all the many marvellous possibilities there are for your idea. It might motivate you to expand upon that idea, to shape it into a story. Because ideas are the easy bit. Weaving the idea into a compelling story takes more work than most people imagine. But it’s fun work, and very rewarding.

4. You’ve started to write a book, or maybe many books, but you’ve never been able to finish one. You lose interest. You think what you’ve written is rubbish. The story petered out just after it began. This happens to LOTS of people. The big challenge with writing is to actually finish something. A good course should give you lots of tips to get through the tough times and to become a writer who is ahead of the pack because you’ve actually finished a draft. It doesn’t matter if it’s rubbish. A draft can always be improved. An unfinished nothing is just that, nothing.

But make sure you thoroughly check out who is presenting the course. 

1. Has the presenter published recently (say in the last 5 years) in the area in which they’re teaching?

2. If they’re teaching novel-writing, they need to have published a novel, not a book of poems.

3. As I discovered, even going through a reputable organisation may not always work if the actual presenter or teacher isn’t on the ball. So do your homework, check them out and make sure that you’re investing in your writing with the right person.

Good luck. Happy learning! And if you’re interested in finding out more about the courses I’m running in 2014 in Perth, my monthly VIP e-newsletter has all the details. You can sign up here.

8 comments

  1. Couldn’t have come across this at a better time. Been looking for some writing courses to take myself. Very informative. Thank you!

  2. Great advice, Natasha! I’ve done courses and workshops on the craft of writing, without which I wouldn’t know the ‘rules’ (as flexible as they are), or if what I was writing was even worth reading. I’d also have no idea of the mistakes I was making. Courses help in all the ways you mention, and by giving you a deadline for work to be handed in; pushing you a little, extending you, so perhaps you even surprise yourself; and offering appraisal of your work, which is absolutely essential in order to improve. Reading the genre in which you write and trying to copy it can only take you so far. Writing with a good teacher checking your work and guiding you can move your writing forward in leaps and bounds.

    • I was wondering when I wrote this if it would be possible to learn everything you needed by being an extremely critical reader – and by critical, I mean one who literally studies every aspect of every novel they read, to understand how it works, and why it was done that way etc. Perhaps it would, but I think it would take all the enjoyment out of reading! Which is not to say that I don’t find rewarding an excellent way to learn – I do! I think the perfect combination is to reward lots, write lots and learn lots.

  3. marlish glorie

    I concur with Louise, great advice, Natasha. The operative word for me here, is – course – also meaning – path or the way. Doing a writing course is invaluable in showing you the ways in which you can write, the ways in which to tell your story. Over the years I’ve attended numerous writing courses and have found them to be invaluable, not only for what I’ve learn about writing but also the friendships I’ve forged through meeting like minded people. From one workshop a writing group was started up and we ran for 13 years! Great friendships, invaluable support, and all from a writing course.

    • Yes, meeting like-minded people is a huge bonus of attending a writing course. I wouldn’t be without my writing group either – such a huge help, not just in workshopping work, but in sharing ideas, boosting each other throughout the hard times and celebrating the good times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: