Welcome aboard the insanely dangerous Howdunnit Machine
(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.
Is there a Nifty Course Handbook?
Indeed there is. In parallel with the construction of the narrative, you get a load of explanatory material provided by me in a rather nifty handbook that accompanies the course. The material in the Nifty Handbook covers four aspects of the craft that, over the years, I have come to consider as central to the art of novel writing. These are:
Acquiring the correct mindset (often the biggest battle is with yourself and the saboteur inside your head).
The principles of storytelling.
Something called ‘Thisness’.
The central notion of the Fictive Dream.
The method ensures that we always know what we are supposed to be doing next, and an understanding of the notion of ‘Thisness’ and the Fictive Dream will help us understands why we are doing what we do.
Meet your captain, the most merciless
Oxford University Creative Writing Tutor
ever to serve afore the mast!
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 have been teaching it ever since.
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. You can find out about the Oxford course here.
You can’t tame the wild, unfettered
stallion of creativity
and turn it into a ready-meal like this
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
symbolic spiritual death. This is followe 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.
Last year’s class, seen on the left, are responding well to treatment, and some are even back on solids.
If you are interested to find out more, I wrote three linked articles on the course and curriculum for the Writers & Artists website. You can find them at the following links:
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.
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 early autumn. Places are limited so email me early to secure your berth, or to find out more. Click on the big red ‘Help!’ button below.
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 this autumn.
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