Welcome aboard the insanely, not very
(Learn to write a novel the way pilots learn to fly: in a simulator!)
Twelve would-be novelists, all in search of an epiphany
The core idea behind the Howdunnit Machine derives from my wilderness years when I sat for months at the keyboard, tormented by the sound of the party from Mount Olympus, desperate to write my novel, but held back by…by what? Talent? No, I was pretty sure I had some of that. Guts? No, I would have sat there to the heat death of the universe if necessary. No, it was something else. I kept getting stuck. Sometimes I would set sail with the wind in my sails and get becalmed after 3,000 words. At other times, I would be stuck in harbour, too intimidated to weigh anchor. In short, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. And then one day, I managed to complete a writing project. It was a radio play. It wasn’t a success, but it didn’t matter because in the process of completing it I had acquired an intuitive understanding of the task that no book could teach.
How it works
A group of around twelve people are strapped into the Howdunnit Machine. Over a period of eight weeks we collaboratively think up a novel. From scratch. We don’t write out long passages or reams of words, I hasten to add. That is not the point. We write a few key passages, but more importantly participate in the process, going through each stage in the order a novelist would, encountering the various difficulties and problems and conjuring up solutions. 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. As a Howdunnonaut you are invited to join a password-protected online ‘school house’. The activity takes place on forums inside this ‘school’, and generally you respond to simple questions that prompt, coax and draw you through the process. Some questions require a few sentences by way of answer, and others require you to write a short passage. 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. What such people need more than anything, is a method. This is what the Howdunnit Machine aims to provide.
Meet your captain, the most merciless
Oxford University Creative Writing Tutor
ever to serve afore the mast!
You can’t tame the wild, unfettered
stallion of creativity
and turn it into a ready-meal like this …can you?
Good question. I think the answer is that you can, for a number of reasons. Firstly, we are dealing here with novels constructed according to traditional storytelling patterns. The sort the vast majority of people like to read, or go to the cinema to see. 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
Is it true one of the last students ended up trapped in the body of a dog?
Who told you that?! Who said it was a dog?!
It was a rabbit.
This is too good to be true, what’s the catch?
Oh I know! I can’t afford it.
Can you afford a cappuccino a day? Of course you can. Wouldn’t you rather spend the money on an epiphany that could transfigure your life? The fee for the 8 week course is £195. This compares very favourably to the Oxford course I teach, which costs £375. There are also fewer students in the Howdunnit class – around 8 – 12 as opposed to 20 – so you get more contact with the tutor. There is a contact form somewhere on this page. If you are interested, get in touch to reserve a seat, or ask a question. Next voyage is scheduled for sometime in early 2018.
Seriously, will I go mad?
Who can say? After centuries of intense medical investigation madness is still a barely understood phenomenon. But why worry? You’d have to be mad to want to write a novel these days wouldn’t you? I mean you could strike it big. You could end up at the party on Mount Olympus going ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ with all the other arrogant swine in their silk-tasselled smoking jackets. A lilac plaque above your door when you die. But alternatively…you know that bloke walking down the street in his pyjamas, drinking from a brown paper bag and shouting at an invisible companion? You could be him. That’s the beauty of it, there’s just no way of knowing. It’s in the lap of the gods. One thing’s for sure. If one day you see your novel in a real book shop—take my word for it—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.
To secure a berth on the next voyage, or to ask me a question, click the button on the left. It should open an email to me. That’s the theory. I’d stand back though.
Work first: wash later—W. H. Auden