So You Think You Can Write A Guest Post by Sherry Howard

Every week, one of the members of 10 Minute Novelists shares their insight and experience in their writing journey. This week, Sherry Howard shares what she learned through an online writing course. 

So, You Think

So You Think You Can Write

If you voluntarily took a course, did homework, and subjected yourself to massive critique. You must have been enrolled in Iowa University’s MOOC, Massive Open Online Course. It doesn’t matter where you are in your writer’s journey, there’s a spot for you in this online course.

The current course How Writers Write Fiction,, is still open and the instructional portion will be available to view for a while. I have a couple of degrees, and I’m learning so much from this course.

The course is broken down into sections, with university instructors and published authors opening each session with a “lecture” on the chosen topic. The topics are very basic, yet explored in great depth. You’ll be challenged to consider setting, characterization, and conflict in your own work and the work of others. The published authors leading the opening sessions share their tips for getting the most out of your time, your writing, and your worldview.

After each session introduction, you’ll be invited to post your writing on the assignment. Then you critique others, while visitors critique your work, which is limited to 400 words on the assigned challenge. I’ve had as many as 40 different people offer feedback within a week on my work. Where else can you get that much quick and meaningful feedback?  The participants have varying degrees of writing experience, which creates a broad  audience who critique  your work from lots of different perspectives. The calibre of feedback has been high. The format is very user friendly, making it easy to get and give feedback and explore discussions.

The course has over 8000 people from all over the world registered. There seems to be a smaller core of active participants. I’ve interacted with people from all over the globe.

The 400 word limit at first seemed overwhelming, but I quickly learned that this requirement forces you to examine your work for those fluffy, unnecessary words. You dig a little deeper, creating subtext that provides more meaning with less verbiage.

This is an example of an assignment mid-way through the course:

Session 5 assignment

Bring 3 characters (or more) together in a scene where something is wrong. Create a situation that feels confusing, or alarming, or chaotic, or unfamiliar to your characters. Something is not right! Then let them figure out what is wrong — and use the dialogue to establish who they are, to show your reader their personalities. As they deal with the situation, what can their words and actions tell us about their desires, their fears, their histories?

As Clifton suggested, let misunderstanding be your friend. Meaning — resist the urge to let your characters figure things out quickly. If Character A says something that Characters B and C misunderstand, let their confusion create new confusion for A. Or perhaps A’s statement is wrong; perhaps B and C know that his response to the situation is wrong, but he won’t let them convince him that he is wrong. Or perhaps A is lying.

When things go wrong, we turn to each other for answers, to figure out what we should do. See what happens when your characters turn to each other and find that the solutions are not easy to figure out.

The postings in response to this assignment were amazing! It’s a testimony to the plasticity of the human brain. Just for fun, see what you can do with this!

This is the specific information on the course. I hope some of you can take advantage of parts of it. I can’t recommend it highly enough. You can still sign up and watch the lectures. I read that the course will probably be offered again in the spring or summer.

In Fall 2014 the IWP will continue its new MOOC series How Writers Write: Talks on Craft and Commitment. An interactive study of the practice of creative writing, How Writers Write presents a curated collection of short, intimate talks created by fifty authors of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and plays.

How Writers Write Fiction, a six-week course, will begin in September 2014. The MOOC will be co-taught by Christopher Merrill, IWP Director and University of Iowa Professor of English, and R. Clifton Spargo, author of Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and Dixon Professor of Creative Writing at Wittenberg University. Professors Merrill and Spargo will contextualize the contributing authors’ video talks, encourage online discussion, and offer writing assignments. A team of fiction moderators will join the instructors in leading discussion and hosting live online fiction workshops.

Contributing authors, in order of appearance, will include Michelle Huneven, Shandana Minhas, Amber Dermont, Robert Siegel, Susanna Daniel, Marcus Burke, Leslie Jamison, Elizabeth Graver, Mahsa Mohebali, Margot Livesey, Andrew Sean Greer, Jonathan Lethem, Alan Cherchesov, Kevin Brockmeier, Anthony Marra, Chandrahas Choudhury, and Mona Simpson. How Writers Write Fiction will offer a diversity of answers to the question of how a writer develops and refines the lifelong practice of his/her craft.

I’d be happy to share any specific information or any of my assignments. Just contact me  if you’d like any more info. It’s been so much fun!


Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.