Have you ever taken a writing course?
Have you considered creating a course yourself?
As I’ve now written two online courses and have started work on my third, I thought that some students and teachers of writing might be interested in the way I approach designing and writing my writing courses. I hope that this post can give you inspiration with your own course creation, or if you’re a student at the Lady Writers League, that it can help you understand why the courses are structured the way that they are.
I can’t quite remember when I came up with my creative writing trivium…
Plot (The One Page Novel),
Character (How to Be the Heroine of Your Own Story),
and World (How to Lose Yourself in a World of Your Invention).
… but I must have been really tuned in that day, because over the past couple of years these titles and the approach that they represent have become my life’s curriculum (a future CV?) and really helped to give me a sense of purpose and direction.
I think there’s great value in outlining, not only what topics you need to cover, but also the ways in which the process of creating your courses can enrich your life, widen your fields of discourse, and help you grow. The structure that I alighted upon has led me to research topics and learn techniques that would never have occurred to me or landed on my path if I hadn’t taken a deep interest in its exploration.
This sort of holistic approach will probably evolve unconsciously, but here are a few worksheets that may help you with the bigger picture:
How about creating a course that changes the course of your life, or your career?
My Course Creation Process
01 | I begin, as I recommend in The One Page Novel, at the end. I ask myself what I would like to learn from a course, how I would like to learn it, how I would like it to make me feel, etc. And at this stage, I really don’t worry about what is practically possible. I write down all of the wildly outrageous topic titles that come to me, like: “how to create the entire cast for your story on one page”. This not only gives me a list of questions to answer, it also gets me really excited about finding the answers!
I’m also lucky in being able to draw from years of correspondence with writers on forums and via email and social media, to inform me of the problems that most people struggle with, and to which they have trouble finding elegant solutions.
02 | I start reading and researching. For The One Page Novel, I read every book on the subject of plotting that my library had to offer, beginning with manuals written for authors, then moving on to narratology, and then to mythic and spiritual stories.
For Heroine, I actually started out with literary criticism (my favourite subject at university!), but I also turned to mnemotechnics, and to scientific studies in psychology and cognitive science.
For How to Lose Yourself… who knows where it will take me? I’m currently reading up on cognitive poetics, pathworking, astral projection, and Daemon Voices.
03 | I start arranging everything together into a cohesive framework, and doing a lot of experimentation to make sure that the method works in practice. This means putting the method through its paces by using it to create stories in various genres. Because of my challenge of fitting everything on one page, it also involves trying out different layouts and paper-folding techniques. My favourite aspect of The One Page Novel layout is that it represents both the cyclical nature of the story, and the linear narrative in the form of the codex. With Heroine, I love that the layout forms an “H”, and that the pages can be stacked up to form a ladder.
These might seem gimmicky or superficial, but in my personal practice I’ve found that the layouts not only help me remember the methodology, they also help me visualise the big picture.
04 | I write and record the lessons. I have a few technical objectives for the lessons:
They should make sense with or without the visuals, so that you can listen to them when you’re away from your computer, when you’re working offline, or when you’re just sitting at your desk with your notebook.
It should be possible to work as you listen, so that learning and practice aren’t separate, and so that you get results as quickly as possible.
They should be focused and concise, including only the most essential information required at that moment – there’s always the course textbook for more in-depth guidance.
They should progress a little faster than is comfortable. Of course, it’s always possible to pause the recording, but I think that working quicker helps to release mental blocks, increase reliance on the unconscious, and create a pleasurable feeling of eustress. That’s why word sprints are my favourite writing exercise!
05 | I write the course textbook. The purpose of the textbook is to be a reference work that you can consult when you run into a problem. It isn’t meant to be read from cover to cover as a procrastination tactic! As such, I focus on making the articles as actionable and to-the-point as possible, and I try to include lots of exercises and worksheets to encourage you to work through problems rather than just think about them.
06 | I create bonus materials such as templates, cheatsheets, and supplementary lessons that can help support your learning once you’ve mastered the core methodology taught in the course.
My Course Creation Guidelines
Here are some of the tenets that I use to guide me in making decisions:
01 | As little preamble as possible. I think we can all agree that to be writers we need to love reading. But I remember many occasions on which I picked up a technical book on writing only to be dismayed when I discovered that before the author would teach me anything practicable, I would need to wade through several chapters about their own personal journey of discovery. I know, I’m sure they’re making an important point, and I certainly agree that there’s value in explaining why the method works, and in setting the tone… but with everything I create, I’m always hyper-aware that every minute the writer spends reading my textbook is a minute they spend not writing.
For me, the promise of an online course is that it can get you results faster than you can read the first chapter of a book.
02 | Unique. Part of this comes from taking a novel approach to the subject, but I think an even larger part is challenging yourself to deliver content that is miles better than anything else you’ve seen on the subject. After all, if what was already available satisfied you, you wouldn’t have started writing your own course!
03 | Simple enough to fit on one page. I’ve heard Rian Johnson talk about one-page storyboards in this interview, and Chris Hadfield recommends them for all areas of life in his Masterclass(affiliate link). The idea of fitting something as complex as the plot of a novel, the entire cast of a story, or the details of a story world onto one page is an extremely alluring idea, and the blank page is really the best tool I could have stumbled upon to help in simplifying a subject.
In my opinion, simplifying and systematising a complicated process is the whole point of creating online courses. I find that when I need to simplify an idea I often turn to some form of data presentation, and I would cite Edward Tufte’s Envisioning Information* as one of the biggest influences on my work. Whether you’re creating a simple table, schedule, or worksheet, I guarantee there will be something you can learn from this book about improving its effectiveness.
* Amazon affiliate link.
04 | Integrated. I think it’s essential that my courses build upon each other, but can also stand alone. Obviously, the plot, the characters, and the world need to work together seamlessly to create the story, but on a more practical level, I feel this structure also gives students more flexibility to choose which subjects to study. Sort of like a fiction series made up of stand-alone novels that interweave in a larger narrative.
05 | Memorable. One of the biggest advantages of the single-page framework is that it’s easy to remember. I try to enhance memorising as much as possible by using the page layout, by simplifying the method as much as I can, and by giving the various sections simple (and cohesive) titles.
I love the idea that I can close my eyes and visualise an entire story, even if I don’t have a piece of paper to hand!
06 | Aesthetics. I think aesthetics helps a lot with making the material memorable, both visually and symbolically. With Heroine, I particularly enjoyed exploring the symbolism of the apple, using images of blossoms, fruit, and espaliers. To me, personally, the apple recalls a long string of associations, beginning with my name, Eva, Eve, Paradise Lost, His Dark Materials, knowledge, wisdom, Snow White, nourishment, cultivation, grafting, training, and on and on…
07 | Applications for life. This was something I learned from Brendon Burchard – the idea of going beyond your chosen subject to teach your students something about life. Not a difficult task for stories, considering how deeply they’re embedded into our psyche!
08 | Ever-evolving. The beauty of an online course is that it isn’t static like a printed book or ephemeral like an in-person workshop (not that those aren’t worthwhile, by any means!). Self-paced online courses also have the advantage of being available to re-take over and over again. As such, I think it’s important to design courses to be ever-green, so that the information is as timeless as possible, but also to plan to continue updating the course as new information or insights become available.
I’ve been watching many “altar tours” on Youtube recently, and I’ve become fascinated by the ways in which people organise their sacred spaces. I don’t identify with any religion or spiritual practice, although as a teenager I was particularly obsessed with all things Celtic – paganism, Arthurian legend, this album by Excalibur, Turlough O’Carolan, Ireland, fairies, the dolls-house in FairyTale & Dancing at Lughnasad – which is perhaps what drew me to these witchy channels in the first place. That, and Joseph Campbell…
“A ritual is an opportunity to participate in a myth.”
An altar is a space, usually a raised platform, that is used to aid in performing rituals. There are a few themes that run through the altar creation processes that I’ve watched:
The literal and figurative cleansing of the space.
A ritual of imbuing (often symbolic) objects with meaning.
The placement of meaningful objects in a meaningful and/or aesthetically pleasing arrangement.
Regular interaction with the space in the form of rituals.
I think considered in this way, the parallels with any work space become more apparent. If you are working consciously to make your desk a more pleasing and productive environment, you may:
Literally clean and tidy it on a regular basis, but also “clear the air” around it, by coming to it with a fresh and rested mind.
Place something like a mascot, motivational quote, or candle on your desk to remind you of the meaning and importance of your work.
Arrange the objects on your desk so that they are more convenient, inspiring to look at, and energising.
Come to work at your desk at a particular time each day, and follow a certain ritual to help you get in flow (such as reading yesterday’s words, sharpening your pencils, or daydreaming).
Of course, a spiritual altar has different requirements (of tools, materials, etc.) to a workspace, but I think it’s important (and fun!) to explore the boundaries we draw between the sacred and the profane. Sanctifying our entire home probably requires too much mental and physical effort, and there might be an argument that by definition everything can’t be sacred, and that an altar is about focusing thought.
However, many of the altar-makers I watched mentioned that they kept a free “working space” on their altar, for writing and journalling as well as for (other) magical rituals. As someone who already spends a lot of time at their desk, I like the idea of inverting this relationship, letting the principles of altar-work subsume the mess of daily objects and maybe even bringing to bear the sacred geometry of flatlays and knolling.
Many of us feel that we have a sacred calling to do the work we do, and a sacred duty to reach our readers…
If you treated your desk as a sacred space, how would that affect your writing practice?
Language, Ideology and Point of View by Paul Simpson
Cognitive Poetics: an introduction by Peter Stockwell (some of which is covered in the course, How to Read a Mind)
Style in Fiction by Geoffrey N. Leech & Michael H. Short
And a few books on memory. If you’re enrolled in Heroine, you can see the synthesis of this reading in the chapter, How to Make Characters Memorable.
The Art of Memory by Francis Yates – I love this book! Not only for its insights into mnemotechnics, but also for giving a broader understanding of medieval culture. I feel like I’m finally beginning to get a feel for those strange morality plays…
The Book of Memory by Mary Carruthers – not as readable as Yates, but still very interesting.
You Can Have an Amazing Memory by Dominic O’Brien – a good book to skim through for the basics.
Things I’ve Been Loving
THE NEW ARCTIC MONKEYS ALBUM!
The sound reminds me a lot of Roger Waters & Bowie, and I love the lunar culture that Turner’s created. A few of my favourite lines:
“It took the light forever to get to your eyes.”
“I lost the money, lost the keys
But I’m still handcuffed to the briefcase”
“I want to stay with you, my love
The way some science fiction does.”
“The exotic sound of data storage
Nothing like it, first thing in the morning”
“It’s the big night in Tinsel City
Life became a spectator sport
I launch my fragrance called ‘Integrity’
I sell the fact that I can’t be bought”
I know I’m late to the game, but I recently discovered Doki Doki Literature Club. You can download it for free here, but if you aren’t a gamer, here’s the walkthrough that I watched.
I feel like I’ve been taking the A-series for granted all these years. This Numberphile video explains why it’s so special, but I think it was learning about US sizes that made me appreciate it more. As it turns out, an irrational ratio is the most rational choice.
I’ve learnt that the strange hat worn by the Page of Pentacles is called a chaperon. It’s common in medieval paintings, and you may have seen Chaucer sporting one. This piece of headgear began as a simple hood and short cape worn by peasants around the 13th century. A century later it underwent a magnificent sartorial paradigm shift, and began to be worn upside down by the fashionable wealthy. As I understand, the long scarf slung over the Page’s shoulder is the liripipe (or cornette) in a later (15th century?) form, while the cockscomb on the right-hand side of his head is actually the trim of the dagged cape (or patte). The round ring is called a bourrelet, and I assume it was used to secure the floppy cape. This portrait by Botticelli shows an identical style.
Looking through the Rider-Waite deck, you can see the right-side-up “peasant” style in the Six of Cups & Three of Pentacles, and the upside-down “intellectual” style in the Page of Cups & Six of Pentacles.
According to Wikipedia, the word for the hat, probably through metonymy, came to be the word, “chaperone”.
What a wonderful time to be alive! Here are some free online courses that are starting soon, that you might be interested in:
I could listen to this until the cows come home. :)
I’ve been enjoying our write-alongs so much. A few obstacles have sprung up: lack of sunlight, lack of hard drive space, and lack of bandwidth. Once I overcome these problems I’m eager to start filming again. :)
The cut-up technique is a fun, aleatory writing exercise that can help you push the boundaries of your use of syntax and vocabulary.
There are a few ways you can use this worksheet…
Crease the page along the vertical lines. Fold so that the edges meet and write a text across columns 4 and 1. You can use found words, or write your own. Repeat for the other side (columns 2 and 3). Now fold the page down the centre and read the resulting text. What new ideas emerge?
Write a separate text in each of the 4 columns. You might like to insert some poetry and experiment with different styles and eras for more “dynamic range” in your cut-up writing. Then either read across the lines, or cut up the page along the vertical folds and rearrange the columns.
For more variety, you can also fold or cut the page horizontally, or cut vertically down the middle of each column.
Cut out your favourite words and paste them into other portions of the text.
Print on both sides of the page for even more cut-up or fold-in options!
What’s your favourite poem?
Do you know it by heart?
Have you studied it?
How does it work?
Does it have a rhyme scheme?
What creates the rhythm?
Does it use alliteration?
Does it use assonance?
Where are the line breaks?
What are the themes woven into it?
List the metaphors & similes.
What does the title tell you?
Why do you love this poem?
What makes it memorable?
Have you tried imitating it? What has it taught you?