Another UCLA Writer’s Extension course review this month. Aren’t you lucky!
So, Novel Planning: Bringing Order out of Chaos is one I finished a week ago, and it was good. Following up my character creation class with one that focused on creating a cohesive plot, seemed like the perfect thing to do. I’d also read a good review of the instructor, Lynn Hightower, so I was pretty excited about this class. It was a top quality course like the others and I learned a lot, but there were a couple of small things that irked me a bit.
Unlike my other courses, the weekly lectures were brief. However, they did contain good information. There was also a book for required reading Write Away by Elizabeth George. I thought it was just OK, but maybe that’s because I’d already read much of what the author covers elsewhere. Each week we were required to read the lectures, read sections from the book, complete the one or two assignments, and provide feedback to at least two of our fellow students. Curiously, there were no class discussions about the lectures or assigned readings.
Overall, I liked how the boards were setup with plenty of options to chat about different topics, or ask the instructor questions about the assignments or writing in general. Lynn is a published and well-respected author in her own right. She’s highly knowledgeable, energetic, fun, and clearly loves teaching people how to put all their ideas into a workable plan. A lot of people give up writing novels because they feel overwhelmed, and Lynn does a great job of providing tips and a solid framework to get past that block. She went out of her way to encourage us to take some risks and be ok with making mistakes because it’s an important part of the process. I also really liked that she provided her feedback at the end of the week, because for the first time I didn’t feel pressured to post mine in the first couple of days. That said, her feedback wasn’t what I expected.
So what didn’t I like about it? Well, even though I never doubted she truly cared about us and our individual needs, her comments sometimes felt rushed and she occasionally referred to our characters by the wrong name. I guess I found it a little ironic that in her syllabus she asked us to proof read and spell check everything we submit, and yet her feedback often contained typos and mistakes. A petty complaint perhaps, but it bugged me. Just being honest.
This class involved a lot more writing than my last one, especially once we got to week seven, which makes sense given we were outlining a full story. As such, I’d expected to have more detailed feedback from the instructor not less, but to be fair, my expectations were just that…mine. What feedback Lynn did give us was good and to the point, and she didn’t shy away from being blunt when something did or didn’t work. She also encouraged us to discuss it if we wanted to, and she was kind and generous with the followup. Something else she excelled at was seeing the big picture in our synopses, and summarizing exactly what we meant even though we might not have been sure ourselves. I also loved how we dove right in the first week with writing a novel synopsis and flap copy, something I’d never tried before, but a very important skill with the bonus it helps keep the focus of the story clearly defined.
At the end of ten weeks, I felt like a “real” author for the first time since I started writing. I’d written a solid, succinct synopsis, a flap copy, a query letter, a solid novel outline broken into three sections with five key scenes drafted in each section, two drafts of chapter one, and one draft of chapter 2. WOW! I was thrilled. I also learned how to rate the suspense in each scene, and then plot it on a grid so I could see how it flows through all fifteen scenes. I love that I feel more confident about the whole process, but there was one thing I learned from all this that will likely prove invaluable: Lynn’s three section, fifteen scene outline is a fantastic way to find out if you even like the story. I started out this class in love with my story’s core idea, but after realizing how cringe worthy some elements would have to be to make it work like I imagined, I’m completely reworking it. In the past I’d just blindly start writing and waste a lot of time before realizing it’s total shite.
Even though I had a couple of small gripes due to my personal preferences, I can absolutely recommend this class without reservation. If you are at all intimidated or confused by the structure of a novel or how to plan the various stages, you’ll be amazed at how easy it can be. Lynn makes the class environment safe and fun and she gives students a terrific set of skills every writer would benefit from having in their toolbox.