In 2012, I decided to write a novel. Earnestly, the way new novelists do. I sat at my computer and wrote 500 words and thought, gosh, look at me go. I even tweeted something terrible like, ‘Just written the first page of a Man Booker-winning novel.’

This kind of naivety is reserved for new writers: I have a story to tell. It is the only story. It will be hard, but not impossible. All it needs is truth and meaning and strength.

I read books about writing and signed up for writing forums and took myself along to writers’ festivals and wrote my 500 diligent words every day, and occasionally I touched my fingers to the screen and remarked vainly on the high standard of work I was producing.

Over several months, I plodded my way towards my would-be Man Booker prize in my new writer way – with bewilderment and a total lack of understanding. Gradually, I became frustrated. I had writer’s block. I dwindled to 200 words a day. My family loathed me, my cats detested me, and I was living on a diet of chips and chocolate and shame.

Gradually I came to imagine authors as mystics who locked themselves in rooms cut into old trees, banging away on antique typewriters and having enormous thoughts. I imagined their characters curled up next to them with cups of tea, more real than any actual person. These authors warranted awe and reverence, because writing a book was not an act of hard work, but of magic. And I had not been to Hogwarts.

So, like Dickens and Austen before me, I googled ‘how to write a book’.

I found an online course that swore I would come out with a complete novel. If I followed their proven model, I would be a novelist. A novelist. Gilded words (as well they should have been, because the first step was to pay the $3000 course fee (a small price to pay for being a novelist)).  I thought of my wannabe writer friends – so foolish, so unenrolled in courses. I would be published years and decades before them.

The first thing we were taught was seven-point story structure. If we were ever to be novelists, we had to explain our story according to those seven points. “What happens in story point three, scene five?” our tutor would ask, on our online forum, and the other students would duly describe a woman being fired from her job as a librarian, or a crime scene at the edge of a lake. It seemed straightforward, logical – and yet I couldn’t make my own story fit the puzzle.

I write magic realism and experimental fiction, which makes me both a terrible person and also a poor fit for a rigid framework. When my tutor asked me to plan out the scenes that made up my inciting incident, I said, ‘Is that before or after his mother turns into a swan?’ and felt further away from my dream than ever. I would never be a novelist if I refused to adhere to seven-point story structure. And why did I do that, anyway? Did I think I was better than seven-point story structure?

Other students turned in their relevant and clever pieces while I glibly plugged away at mine until it self-combusted and I crept away, tail between my legs. I didn’t write fiction for six months, convinced that my half-finished book could never fit the mould required for publication. I was doomed.

It took me the better part of a year to unlearn what I had taken from the course: that novels must adhere to a particular structure to be valuable.

In reality, it was a lack of self-awareness that sent me spiraling out of my story. I was so captivated by the idea of having a finished novel that I forgot to think about my own learning style and expectation. I am a hopeless and arrogant student, preferring to smoke behind the bike sheds and then cram on the morning of the exam. I had set myself up for failure because I wanted a quick fix.

Which is not to say that I learned nothing. I learned all kinds of things about writing: people learn by doing, or by instruction, or by copying from the next person, or one of any other myriad ways; finishing a novel isn’t even the hardest thing about writing one; it is the romance of writing a novel that makes it so easy to sell these courses.

Creative endeavour cannot be taught broadly. The nature of all courses is that they are pitched in the middle, with coursework that changes infrequently and must be applied to every unique student. A novel-writing course is always going to have cynical outliers because it works to a curve. Each writer comes to a course with a different skill set on which to build. One course framework cannot fulfill every one of these learning requirements.

Do we even want it to do so? If every new writer is encouraged to undertake formal creative writing instruction, how will literature evolve? Experimental writing is its backbone.

The danger is mitigated by writers learning about themselves. Unfortunately, that’s not on the course syllabus. It’s up to the writer to better understand the gaps in knowledge, and then plug them with the right information. But the call of the novel is strong, and the spirit of the wannabe novelist is optimistic. Years of reading diverse literature, of writing and then scrapping 200,000 words, is infinitely less appealing than being shown exactly how to find success.

Except that it’s a false economy. Between six months of torturing myself with seven point story structure, and six months of considering a career in animal husbandry, I had gone backwards. Authors were still wizards and I was still a muggle. The road to a good story is rarely the shortest one, however tempting that road may be.

When my twelve-month sabbatical was over, and I could once again entertain the thought of fiction writing, I started my education process again. There are thousands of options: watch Elizabeth Gilbert give TED talks; sign up to writerly newsletters; join a writers workshop; read and read and read some more. Even renowned writing hub, The University of Iowa, offers free online courses to develop skill and understanding and insight. I really thought about my limitations (sitting still) and my strengths (writing sentences), and how I could invest my time most effectively.

I paid for a mentorship through my state’s writing centre, and worked with a mentor who gave me direction and encouragement in a way that fit my learning style. The outcome of the mentorship was not a complete novel, but guidance and coaching and support. When the mentorship was over, I picked up my poorly novel and started writing again. My enthusiasm had been restored by recognising what I needed, and next year it will be published, even though it doesn’t adhere to a seven-point story structure.

I did eventually learn the unfortunate secret to finishing a novel: hard work. It turns out authors aren’t wizards at all; they’re just people who are amazing at keeping their bum in their seat, and knowing where their gaps are.

Anna Spargo-Ryan

Anna Spargo-Ryan is a writer and strategist based in Melbourne. She has contributed to the Guardian, the Age/SMH, the Wheeler Centre, Mindfood, and many others, and was a panellist at this year's Digital Writer's Festival. Her first novel will be published by Picador in 2015.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. That is also my story in that I started an online writing workshop that promised I would finish a novel in 12 months. About half way through I had to throw it away as the ‘template’ or the ‘structure’ we were required to follow, just did not fit what I wanted to write about, nor my style. This was demoralising and slightly embarassing as I had told friends and strangers who asked, that I was writing a ‘book’. Now I am waiting for the right time to pick it up again but this time approaching it in my way. So thank you for the article. Its good to know I am not alone!

  2. Anna I can totally relate to this. I made the mistake of having my first manuscript (completed) critiqued by someone who writes following a very structured process (which I didn’t realise at the time). It totally shattered me. I could certainly see the plot holes and areas in which my story and my writing needed work on, but the advice on how I should have planned my story, hit me for six.
    I spent the next six months trying to mould my story in to fit the suggested writing process. I have spent the last six months totally hating my story and not even looking at it.
    I think I am almost at the point where I am ready to redraft on my terms. Ready to trust in my ability and ideas.
    Thanks for sharing, you’ve brought me closer to this realisation.

  3. Do not despair, Anne and Jodi. The courses sound as though they’re run by charlatans (creative writing is BIG BUSINESS and a lot of people want to be in on it to MAKE big MONEY).

    I’m an avid reader and have dedicated many years to the study of literature. I have a PhD in English. I might have an idea or two about what makes a book (fiction) work.

    I’d suggest that structure should be something organic to your work itself, and that if a creative writing course is going to teach you anything it should be the ability to find and create that within what you are writing. Though nearly all fiction comes down to a structure of journey — whether that be internal external, put in reverse or what have you — the key is to find the journey of your story or character and go for it. It might be as simple as: this is a story about despair. Already you have a structure. Something happens to the protagonist and he or she is set on a course into despair and then there is the question of whether or not it is going to be resolved, for example.

    Don’t listen to these creative writing charlatans. One thing they never tell you is that you have to trust yourself. No one can write decent fiction without trusting their own instincts. So you both go for it, and best of luck.

  4. I have just finished a Masters Degree in creative writing. It has changed my writing life. Without it I would still be writing unpublishable prose. The discipline of producing writing every week and a major work ever 3 months has changed me as a writer for the better. it is like finding the elevator after plodding up the stairs alone.

  5. That’s a wonderful story. Well done Natalie. Yes, it is often things like discipline and commitment that writing courses can be useful for. Though if you couldn’t muster up the discipline and commitment on your own, then your writing may not be something that is burning inside you to get written. I could be wrong.

    Creative writing courses often help us feel not so alone in what we are doing, and because they belong to an institution, you feel (perhaps unconsciously) some justification for your project.

    It is hard, nearly impossible to hold a story-vision inside you and work at it alone and get it written. But actually, all great writing and the greats of literature, well, that is what they did. And the latter-day question of ‘why write?’ comes out of that existential experience of being alone with the work you feel compelled to create. And what better company for a writer whose writing than books, and the wisdom of other writers. You go to what stirs you, what interests you.

    I wish you luck. Keep writing.

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