Today I am honoured to have the founders of A Novel Approach, (what I consider the preeminent writing course for novelists, and full-length memoirists, struggling to finish their first drafts), James Dewar and Sue Reynolds. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I think the first order of business is to tell the audience, what exactly is A Novel Approach?
Sue: A Novel Approach is a year-long course specifically designed to motivate and encourage writers to finish the first draft of a book-length project in one year. Part of the course involves meeting every two weeks to study elements of the writing craft as well as doing writing on the spot in these sessions exploring the material studied. The other part of the course involves a reasonable schedule of production that holds writers accountable and organizes the process by offering them a secure website to post their work on every two weeks. (Readers can discover the specific details at www.anovelapproach.ca)
As a two time participant and writer who feels like he’s struggling to fit in to his own writer’s skin, A Novel Approach has been a grounding influence and a creative goldmine. It is the proverbial seat-belt, holding me in the creative moment for the duration of the class. What prompted you to come up with the idea for A Novel Approach?
Sue: I proposed this idea to James because I wasn’t able to find enough time to work on my own novel and I knew that he had a novel that he wanted to write.
James: We put together a plan to keep each other on target and then realized other writers might benefit from this approach as well. One of the key elements of our workshops has always been to encourage mutual feedback from each participant. In a group setting this creates an energy that sparks creativity between all the members while improving their knowledge of the craft of storytelling. At the time we came up with the idea for ANA we had just learned how to build websites and keep them private – a secure area for people to share their work. The combination of in-person biweekly workshops and online website comments provided the continuity and discipline to get the writing done.
This is the third year for the course, how do you think it’s doing? Are you surprised by its success?
James: Actually, in January, 2013 we will be starting our 5th year teaching this course.
Sue: We’re not surprised by its success. When we thought of the idea of combining bi-weekly writing and workshopping with uploading these first drafts to a website, we were sure that people would be energized by feedback from each other. And they are.
James: Because the group has been going on for so many years now, we’ve had a number of people sign up again to work on a new project. If you have trouble making room in your life to get your writing done, if you’re working on a book-length project, and if making a monetary and personal commitment to us as instructors as well as to the group as a whole is likely to be an effective motivator for you, this is an excellent course. Because we now limit each of the two groups, fiction and memoir, to 8 participants each, registration is already half full in both groups for 2013.
Sue: In terms of how we are doing, the criteria for success is how many writers finish that all important first draft each year. Only one or two don’t finish in each group each year. The reasons vary for each person. As for the many successful participants, several have moved well past the first draft stage to find agents and pursue traditional publishing channels. We’ve had authors choose to self-publish when they’ve finished our course, particularly memoirists who already had a specific market in mind for their books. It’s important to keep in mind when thinking about ANA that we provide the discipline, the group energy and mutual support, as well as the commitment of time and place, to give writers a structure that works.
James: Our attention to developing the craft of writing and storytelling throughout the year are key stepping stones that educate and motivate our writers. We offer in-depth individual feedback as well.
It think a big part, at least for me, is the class participation, the variety of voices and styles that the other class members bring to the table. I learn almost as much from them as I do from you. I come away with new tricks or a refining of my own writing based on the input from fresh eyes. Was that a conscious plan or a happy surprise?
James: It was a conscious hope at the beginning, because we weren’t sure whether participants would be able to maintain the enthusiasm for their own stories, and each other’s stories, for a whole year. What we’re pleasantly surprised about is that every year, each group builds an energy and commitment to each other that carries them through the entire process. As the knowledge level of the key elements of story develop for each participant they begin to share different points of view on each other’s stories that become trusted over time. Plus they come to really trust the feedback they get from each other because the participants have been working together for a year. They know each other’s stories and are offering thoughtful feedback from an informed and holistic perspective.
Sue: I have always maintained that is the case in most group writing situations. That’s why writing circles can be so effective in improving one’s writing, as long as there’s a reasonable amount of knowledge about the craft of writing in the group.
James: People want a kick in the butt to keep them on track, as well as the safety to tell their story in their own way. If they get more than that, they feel their money was well spent. I think the camaraderie they develop with each other is an unexpected bonus. For our fiction writers the big moments come when one of the group shares a brilliantly structured scene, an outrageous character development, or a key plot twist that nobody saw coming, and the room erupts in congratulations.
Sue: for memoirists, the shared energy of the group is tremendously validating. We do a large amount of writing on the spot the nights we are together, and often what is written on the spot can feel “not worthy” to the writer. It isn’t until it’s read aloud and they get the feedback on it that they realize they’ve produced something that strikes a deep chord. Structure is one of the hardest issues for memoirists – I would argue that it’s even harder than it is with fiction, because there’s so much material in a life – so much material caught in memory. How to decide what belongs and what doesn’t? The course offers a way to understand the story that is being written and a way to stay faithful to that story (rather than the many other interesting tidbits from a life that also beckon for attention).
In this course, you employ a number of different teaching “aides”. These exercises vary from year to year and class to class. In your Advanced Creative writing class through Durham College, you taught a lesson on poetry. While I am in no way a poet and resisted it initially, I found the techniques used in writing poetry are great for enriching descriptive passages in fiction and, I would imagine, memoir. You also use a technique called Collaging, which, while it didn’t work for me, it worked wonders for other writers. Is it safe to say that what works for one writer may not work for another?
Sue: I would not only agree that different techniques work better for some writers than for others; I would also say that at different times something that didn’t work well earlier, may be more useful later on. This may be because they’re at a different stage in the book; it may be because they’re at work on a different kind of project. But a writer shouldn’t assume that just because a technique didn’t work once, it will never work for them.
Whether an author is a “plotter” or a “pantser” will also make a difference as to what exercises work for them. For some authors – creating a collage of their novels is a very visual and intuitive process. Some authors fall into the process easily, while others (who are perhaps more logic oriented) struggle with it.
The authors who didn’t do as well with the collage may do better with the timeline exercise, because the logical development of story comes more easily to them.
It is in the author’s interest to stretch the limits of his or her comfort zone – even if an exercise doesn’t seem useful at the time, the writer is learning techniques as well as producing pages. The writer’s mind and imaginal processes are always at work in the background. Something that didn’t seem to work at the time may yield results weeks later.
“It is in the author’s best interest to stretch the limits of his or her comfort zones”. That should be a golden rule right there. It’s one that I believe in. Ultimately we, as writers of fiction or non-fiction or poetry, have to be sponges. We have to absorb as much as we can and filter out what we can use and there is no better way to do that than to take writing courses and workshops.
One final question, new in 2013 A Novel Approach will be available as an online course, what’s next for A Novel Approach, are there any other changes on the horizon?
James: Sue and I have been working hard on designing a second year revision course. Details are nearing finalization. What we can say is that we have a name for it: ANA – The Final Approach (we’ve already purchased the web address).
Well that is exciting news! You heard it here first, folks. Sharpen your pencils.
Thank-you, Sue and James, for your time and your dedication to the craft.
For any budding writers out there with a first draft of a novel stagnating in your head, I urge you to go to A Novel Approach. I did. Twice. Without their help I never would have finished the first draft of either book. It opened my eyes to ways to improve my writing and to see things from a different perspective.
Remember, only you write like you. Be proud of your writers voice but always be open to change.
That’s it for the Author’s Voice. Keep your pen on the page and your head in the clouds.
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? I want to hear them all. James and Sue would love to answer some too.