Panic on the writing course – writing diary

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As I wrote in my last Writing Diary entry at the beginning of June, I spent six weeks in May and June following an on-line writing course.

Novel Writing Panic

This was my first creative writing course since a weekend in the spring of 2018. And that was my first in years. Decades. So, Novel Writing Essentials from Writers & Artists. Tutor William (Bill) Ryan. Six weeks of intensive work (intensive on my part at any rate, and I think on the part of all my course-mates). Six workshop sessions where I got feedback three times from Bill on my writing, and written feedback from my fellow students four or five times.

The first feedback session was hugely stressful. More because of me than for any other reason. I haven’t had public feedback of this quality and focus (excepting the weekend in 2018) for so long. It came during the first session, Monday 18th May. Fortunately the build-up to it was quick. I didn’t know I’d be the subject of Bill’s attention in front of everyone else until about two hours before it happened. So I only had 120 minutes to work myself into a state. But I managed quite well even so.

I mean, I managed to panic.

My piece of writing also managed quite well, in a different sense. The feedback was good – critical but constructive – but I only saw that looking back. In the moment, my fingers, my feet and my nose all went cold and I found myself short of breath. Afterwards I had to have a glass of brandy (the only strong spirits available) and stuff my face with bread and cheese.

Writers & Artists

Novel Writing Essentials was Writers and Artists’ first on-line course. Once upon a time, when I was young and fresh-faced, W&A used to produce an annual Yearbook. A catalogue of publishers and agents, story and illustration markets. They still do, but I suppose the pressure of the internet and electronic publishing over the years caused them to diversify. For the last few years I’ve been visiting their website and reading the ads they put up for evening, weekend and even one-day courses for apprentice writers. They also offer a number of editorial and mentoring services.

Many of the courses and services look good, but the prices are high. For me, living abroad, the cost of following a course in person wouldn’t be even half of the expense. I’d have to pay for bed, board and travel too. Prohibitive, as I wrote in the last post. Still one can window shop

And then came Covid and my window shopping revealed W&A branching out with an on-line course. Courses, as it turned out. There are currently six on-line writing courses advertised on the Writers and Artists’ website – several of which appear to be sold out.

Feedback loop

The last Novel Writing Essentials session was on Monday 22nd June. Yesterday I completed the feedback form. My answers are still fresh in my mind, so why not use my feedback as a frame for today’s Writing Diary entry?

As I wrote last time, the Monday sessions were broken in two, with Bill Ryan delivering a power-point-supported lecture on the week’s focus topic. After the lecture, which took about an hour, we had a workshop session in which Bill gave four course participants feedback on the texts they had submitted. There were nine course participants in all, so Bill rotated the feedback sessions among us. Everyone was workshopped at least three times.

From my point of view, the most useful sessions were the final three. Not that I didn’t get something out of every week. I did. But there are degrees in all things.

Useful, Most, Least

Of the last three, the second to last session was the most useful: Introduction to Plotting and How to Write a Synopsis. I’ve tried to write Elin’s Story several different ways over the years. (It’s been 11 years since I started!) And what with one thing and another I’d not realised how far I’d lost the thread of the story. Being obliged to write a 300 word synopsis was a difficult and very useful task. It sent me back to the drawing board for The Long Way to London – the first part of Elin’s Story.

The 600 word synopsis, which I submitted for the final session (What Does a Literary Agent Do?) was a great improvement. But I still need to review and reformulate the story.

I even found myself questioning whether Elin ought to be my central character. Perhaps it should be Princess Cecilia?

Well, no. I came back to Elin. But it was a salutary experience.

The least useful session of the course, I felt, was the first. I’m not thinking about the feedback session and my panic attack here. It’s Bill’s lecture I have in mind. Perhaps I’m fooling myself, but I think I already know enough about The Basics of Writing Fiction.

I see W&A have since re-packaged the course and split it into two. A four week Fiction Writing: Fundamentals course and a six week Advanced course. (And at £395 each, both course separately are cheaper than the £495 I paid for my course.) Were I to be looking for a course now, I’d go for the Advanced alone.

Digestion and Zoom

Having done the course, though, I’m not likely to be signing up for anything new from W&A in the immediate future. There’s so much still to digest, so many words demanding to be written. But, in six months or in a year, if they are still offering on-line courses, I can see myself signing up again. For something more focused on a genre perhaps, or a deeper dive into other aspects of novel writing.

Let me wind up with a few observations about the on-line experience.

Technically it was interesting to be participating through Zoom, a platform I’ve heard so much about recently. As it happened, the week after the W&A course started, I was able to join the Virtual Stockholm Writers Festival (aka #Stuckhome) also on Zoom. So I got a sudden immersion in the platform. It was impressive. Especially seeing how Zoom coped so well with several hundred participants for #Stuckhome.

Problems and numbers

The experience on the writer’s course was good too. There were only a couple of problems really. The one that sticks in my mind was when Bill himself was booted out of the workshop for a period. The rest of us took up the slack and we were still chatting about writing-related issues when Bill found his way back to us.

One niggle, there didn’t seem to be an option to “raise my hand” to ask a question. OK, the option did exist for part of the time, but not when the Bill was sharing his screen for the lecture. Which is when I would have found it useful.

Finally, it was a definite plus to be able to communicate with the other course participants, to read some of their writing and get feedback from them as well as from Bill. As I say, there were nine of us which I thought was a good number.

I understand W&A were hoping for around fifteen. I think that would have been too many. Not all of us course participants managed to give everyone else feedback every week even with nine. With fifteen participants that would have been even more difficult. At any rate, I don’t think I’d have managed as well as I did with more than eight other people’s texts to comment on.

Squashing sentiment

Living as I do on the fringe of the Anglosphere, it’s very difficult to meet writers who are peers. I’ve been in a couple of writers groups in the past, but I was often the only native speaker there. I used to find myself falling into a language teacher role. It often meant the feedback I received on my own writing was not very helpful. Praise may be balm to the soul, but it doesn’t encourage you to stretch yourself. I didn’t feel I was developing, though I might have been helping others to develop.

For the last year, I’ve been a member of the web-based ex-pat writers group Writers Abroad. More about them in a future entry. But Writers Abroad aside, this writing course has let me feel that I’m not an aberration. That there are others out there with whom I’m able to talk on the same wavelength. It’s been both stimulating and comforting. (And occasionally panic-inducing, but that’s OK.)

During and after the last session I had to sit hard on my sentimental side to stop from gushing about this. (No one finds Needy attractive.)

Though I’d like to, I don’t suppose I’ll be keeping much in touch with my course participants. But I will hope to see their names as authors on the covers of some interesting books in the not too distant future.

I’ll report back here when that happens.

Panic on the writing course - Don't Panic
Panic on the writing course (apologies to Munch and Adams)

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2 thoughts on “Panic on the writing course – writing diary”

  1. Hi John,
    So good to hear that you started and finished this course. (Sorry for the late reply.)
    And I see that it went quite well – except the panic of course 🙂
    I am considering taking some similar online classes over the summer, your blog entry is really motivating.

    Hope to meet you again in another course or just in person in the coming days. Maybe in Göteborg again, who knows? 🙂
    Have a nice summer!
    Just keep writing 🙂


    • Hi Adnan!
      Thanks for your comment and for dropping by.
      Prior to Covid I was thinking maybe this summer I would get down to Malmö and Copenhagen and perhaps meet up with you and Sezgi again. It might happen yet – but who knows what excitement the rest of the year yet holds. 🙂 In the meantime I see you both on Instagram, so that’s nice.
      One positive effect of The Disease is that the number of on-line courses has exploded. I’m sure there are courses that will suit you – it’s just a matter of finding them! Good luck with your search – and your writing.
      Have a good summer, you too…
      …and also – keep writing!


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