The

‘Howdunnit’

Machine

What is it?

You know how pilots learn to fly 747s in a simulator? The Howdunnit Machine aims to teach you to write a novel in the same fashion.

It is based on experience I had when I began my career as a novelist. For years I started and abandoned numerous projects.  I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.

Then one day I finished something. I can’t even remember what now, it doesn’t matter. The simple act of finishing delivered an insight that was almost epiphanic. 

Suddenly I ‘got’ it. I understood what the task was, and, moreover, I knew exactly how to set about my next project. Which turned into my first published novel.

We’ve all had this experience from other walks of life. It is just so much easier doing something the second time around.

The first time of doing you acquire an intuitive understanding that no amount of books, tuition or courses can give you.

It’s the difference between reading about sailing and actually sailing round the world.

The Howdunnit Machine aims to deliver this understanding. And because it is a metaphoric machine you don’t get wet.

A group of 12 or so students convene in an online, password protected, classroom and following various prompts and questions jointly create the outline of a novel.

(We don’t write out long passages, that’s not the point.)

We start in week one with a seed idea that I provide and, during the eight weeks map out the structure, the plot, the characters and the whole journey. 

If you’ve done an online course before you will be familiar with the set-up, and if you haven’t, don’t worry, it’s incredibly simple. The aim is to demystify the process. Although the course is highly instructive, the atmosphere in which it is conducted is light-hearted, with the air of a great adventure or intrepid expedition. Anyone can do this course, and absolutely no previous experience is required. 

It is especially beneficial to people who want to write a novel but don’t know how to go about it, or who have previously started one and got lost somewhere. 

Your Captain on the

Perilous Seas of Ink

Yes, I know! You wouldn’t believe that an institution as august as Oxford University would employ someone who looked like me to write one of their courses, would you? That’s what I told them. Are you serious? I said. Don’t you want a proper writer in a silk tasselled smoking jacket? Yes, they said, we do, but we can’t afford one. You’ll do. So in 2009 I was asked to write the course for their online ‘Writing Fiction’ course. It went live in 2010 and I taught it until last autumn. 

The material in the Howdunnit Machine is largely based on, or inspired by, my seven years teaching that course, and also by my seventeen years as a published novelist for Bloomsbury. 

 

Can you really turn the wild,

unfettered stallion of creativity

into a ready-meal like this?

Yes, I think you can. Firstly,  we are dealing here with novels constructed according to traditional storytelling patterns.  We are not talking about paradigm-busting, experimental fiction. You know the sort: works that are ‘challenging’. The ones that replace half the words with algebraic symbols and put all the pages in the wrong order. 

The vast majority of novels do not fall into the ‘challenging’ category. People like to read a good story. 

 

What is a good story? 

It’s almost always about someone who starts off in the ordinary world (which can of course be very elastic in definition), then receives some sort of summons from Fate.

The hero exits the ordinary world into the story world (Act II),  in pursuit of…something meaningful. The second act is constructed to give the hero(ine) a hard time and make sure they don’t achieve their goal. 

Things go really tits up at the end of Act II, the hero(ine) undergoes some form of symbolic spiritual death. This is followed by the third act when they emerge reborn, grab the object of the quest and return changed for the better having learned something meaningful from the experience. 

This learning is called growth. Readers don’t explicitly refer to it, but they intuit it and put the book down with the sense of having experienced a meaningful and entertaining experience. 

This patterning has been called The Hero’s Journey, and forms the basis of the course. You can think of it as a sort of grammar of storytelling that has been distilled from thousands of years of first oral and subsequently written storytelling. There are other ways of deconstructing stories but this is the one we use. 

If you think it is formulaic, you are right, but so is the form of a sonnet. Readers don’t care. And once you have that Holy Grail of the first draft in the bag, you can experiment until your heart’s content.

 

The next voyage

Last time we headed for the Mountains of Delirium and turned left, trekking to the City of Ordu-Baliq. I was hoping to repeat that success but I’ve just had a letter from the Mayor of Ordu-Baliq asking us not to go back. So this time we’ll turn right at the Gates of Delirium instead. Precise dates are still to be fixed. but we should set sail some time in winter of 2018. Places are limited so email me early to secure your berth, or to find out more. 

How much is it?

The 8 week course costs £195 payable in advance. If you enrol and feel it is genuinely not for you I will refund the money up until the end of the first week. After that you get thrown to the dolphins. 

Will I go mad?

You might, but why worry? Sanity is overrated. One thing I can say for sure is this. If you complete the course and one day get a novel published, you will get a buzz that lasts, literally, for years. You may even catch yourself purring. Mad to write a novel? Not at all. You’d be mad not to. Book your seat on the Howdunnit Machine without delay. Click the ‘contact’ button below to express interest and or reserve a berth. Spaces will be limited.

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