Course Review: Starting to Write Your Novel by Curtis Brown Creative

So you want to write a novel. Where do you start? Not all of us have the time and resources to torture ourselves through an MFA in Creative Writing.

In May this year, I took the plunge and enrolled in an online novel writing course from Curtis Brown Creative. It’s a six-week course, and it was the first time they offered it to public. You can find more details on their website: Staring to write your novel. No application or submission of work is needed to enroll in the course. You can just pay the fee online and reserve your spot.

I was nervous when I enrolled in this course. The idea of sharing my writing with strangers and instructors sounded horrible. The fee was around USD280, so money wasn’t a big concern.

(I think a few quick lines about my background will set the stage for this review. I am a non-native speaker born and brought up in India. I started reading novels very late in my life; in mid-twenties, to be exact. So I am not a born bookworm like some of the blessed, and neither did I know I wanted to be a writer in my second grade or in any other grade for that matter. With that context, now let’s talk about the course.)

First, this is a beginner level course, though many of the peers in my group were experienced writers. And some of them either already had self-published books or had completed novels in hand. But I would say the course is best suited for beginners trying to start writing their first novel.

This online course contains six modules, and each module takes one week to complete. Though you can follow the course at your own pace, no module starts before its assigned starting date in that week. I think this made us stay more focused to complete the tasks in each module every week instead of jumping between them randomly. But once a module is available, it continues to remain so.

The focus of the course is to get you started writing the novel and finish the first 3000 words of it. For beginners, it’s also a good place to get an answer to that eternal question: Can I write? Though I realized it’s a question that probably haunts writers for eternity.

Each of the six modules focuses on one of the fundamental aspects of writing good fiction:

Week 1: Introduction and Reading as a Writer
Week 2: Inspiration and Ideas
Week 3: Plotting, Planning and Story
Week 4: Voice, Narration and Point of View
Week 5: Questions of Character
Week 6: Writing Your Opening

Each module will open up on the pre-assigned date. Teaching material contains a mixture of videos and written instructions on that week’s topic. There are also additional resources provided for each week with tips, recommended reading, task notes, etc. from Anna Davis(our instructor).

Then there are a couple of writing assignments for that week. You can post your writing for these tasks in the online forums. Peers from your course group can read each others’ work and share comments/feedback. The peer feedback in our group was invaluable. Our group size was around thirty. You have the freedom not to share your writing in the forums if you aren’t comfortable doing that.

At the end of each week, the instructor(for our group it was Anna Davis) for the course will read the assignments submitted in the forum and select one of them as the winning entry for that week. And also, each week CBC team sends out a surprise book to the winner.

But the most important part here is the peer feedback you receive for each of these tasks. My peer group had so many amazing writers from different countries. (Most of us are still interacting in a Google group after the course completion.) You will learn not only by receiving feedback on your work but also by reading others’ work and giving them feedback as well.

Unfortunately, that’s also one of the important drawbacks of this course as well: no personal feedback from instructors on any assignments. Except if you are a winner or your name is special-mentioned. So don’t expect any individual critique from the instructors; if that’s what you want, this isn’t the right course for you.

In the last module, you are encouraged to submit a one-page synopsis and first 3000 words of your novel. You can read others’ submissions as well and share your feedback. This turns out to be invaluable as we receive feedback from many people on our work-in-progress. In this week, the CBC team will also choose one submission as the winning entry and offer that writer a thirty minute individual tutorial from one of the instructors or literary agents from Curtis Brown over Skype/phone. You can find more about this on their website.

Now, what’s the time commitment to finish this course? I know most of us have to juggle multiple hats and finding time to write is often challenging. But with this course, you have structured weekly assignments and some subtle peer pressure to submit your assignments. For the first five weeks, it’s good if you can dedicate eight to ten hours for each module every week. If you have more time, you can always read everyone else’s work on the forum and share your thoughts. It’s also very useful to learn from reading the feedback others get for their writing.

That’s for the first five weeks. But the last module/week is the trickiest and the most demanding of all. You have at least three tasks to submit: one for the regular assignment for that week, then a one-page synopsis of your novel, and then the first 3000 words of your novel. I strongly recommend you start to think about the synopsis and first 3000 words from the beginning of the course and probably write bits and pieces of it unless you have already written this down before the course. In that case, you can rewrite based on what you will learn in the course.

Talking a bit more about the content itself, though you would find most of the ideas taught in the course are readily available in a lot of writing books, I liked the structure of the course and how it progressed with assignments each week. So don’t expect to learn the secret magic that helps you start writing your novel right after you finish this course.

If you have read a few good books on the craft, you already know much of what’s in this course. There is definitely solid content complemented by writing assignments. But I wouldn’t recommend this course solely based on the merit of the content itself if it’s not for their online forums and structured learning.

Is it useful for a non-beginner who has already published and taken many courses? Honestly, I don’t think you will learn a lot of new things if you aren’t a beginner. Unless you are trying to validate the synopsis of your novel from an amazing peer group, it wouldn’t be very useful.

Personally, now I see this course more of a turning point for me. I always daydreamed from the past seven or eight years about a novel idea I had in my head. And I was a total beginner when I enrolled in the course. So I was nervous to begin with, but I came out more confident after I completed the course.

Now the best part for me was that my submission for first 3000 words was chosen as the winning entry in the last module. So I was offered an individual tutorial by Curtis Brown team. I was more than shocked when I saw my name in the announcement as the quality of submissions was of exceptionally high standard. Maybe this is called the beginner’s luck that Paulo Coelho writes about in The Alchemist. As part of this free tutorial, I had a chance to talk to one of their amazing literary agents this week for almost forty minutes. So you can imagine I wouldn’t be more happier to have enrolled in this course. Now it’s all about persevering for a few hard years and see where this journey takes me if there is a destination at all.

Overall, it’s a fantastic course for beginners and also for some intermediate writers trying to validate their ideas with larger peer group without putting a huge dent in the wallet.

My primary complaint is, as I said before, there is no instructor feedback except if you manage to get selected for the individual tutorial.

Another problem was with the group size. Having submissions from more than twenty amazing writers every week made it impossible for the participants to read all the submissions and share feedback.

To enjoy this online course, you just need a decent, modern web browser, preferably a laptop, and more important, lots of commitment to stick with the deadlines. You don’t need to buy any course books.

All of this reminds me of George Orwell’s quote from his famous essay “Why I Write.”

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

Still millions of us aspire to be novelists and are willing to torture ourselves through the struggle and be consumed by that demon. If it was a horrible struggle even for Orwell, imagine someone starting out for the first time.

Wish you all the good luck if you are a co-passenger with me on this rollercoaster journey of writing your first novel.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments below, and I would love to answer. Thank you for reading, and I hope this was helpful if you are deciding to enroll in the course.

PS: This isn’t a paid review. When I was trying to enroll in the course, I had no reviews to help me decide. So I put this up hoping it helps anyone like me trying to listen to first hand experience before they enroll.

For my day job @Salesforce, I write code for machines; But in my free time, I pursue this wild hobby of writing for humans. {Learn | Code | Read | Write}

For my day job @Salesforce, I write code for machines; But in my free time, I pursue this wild hobby of writing for humans. {Learn | Code | Read | Write}