The Story Course: A Review

The-Story-Course-Sarah-Selecky-Writing-School-review.jpg

Please note this post contains affiliate links. As a Story Ambassador for the Sarah Selecky Writing School, if you sign up for The Story Course through the links here, I will earn a small commission.

Some Background

For the longest time, probably longer than most, I enjoyed a picture book. I still have a thin volume of fairytales I treasured as a child. I remember how I gazed at the pictures sometimes copying them with an unsteady hand. I remember all the stories. They were nothing special, the usual fairytales adapted by an anonymous writer. I loved the way the pictures would lead me right the way into the story where I could make images of my own.

Stories and Pictures

Somewhere along the way, the pictures took over. I studied art then photography attempting to refine a story into a single image. Then I tried a series of images. Then I tried video. Looking back I see there was always someone along the way who offered me praise for the essays I wrote or the assignments I submitted. Even the articles I wrote for my website.

I thanked these kind people but never thought anything more about it. I was creating an identity as a visually creative person, not a writer. And yet. And yet.

I tend to write by ear. And by that I mean I write by listening. Once I’ve written my piece I read my words out loud. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. At school, I would read my words back to myself muttering them under my breath listening for stumbles, awkward phrases and sentences that made no sense at all.

Words to me are like music. There is a rhythm, a pattern to beautiful sentences. But you can only hear it when you send the words out loud into the air. Because I didn’t write silently in my head I figured I wasn’t a ‘proper writer’. I told myself that photography was a way for me to tell my stories. But I was forever looking for the words. The sounds to make the story. I knew something was missing in my photographic projects. What I felt was missing was a story.

The Story Course

When I stumbled across The Story Course from the Sarah Selecky Writing School I was curious. I hadn’t written anything fictional since I was about 12 years old. I wasn’t sure I even had one in me as an adult. I didn’t have an inkling of an idea or a muse tapping me on the shoulder or a genius trying to lead the way. All I had was a thought. I wanted to see if I could learn to write a story. Was that even possible?

The Story Course was created for writers whose self-doubt, absent muse or lack of discipline has driven them from their craft. No matter what wall you’ve hit, this program is designed to work alongside and within that resistance, to make the task of writing not just enjoyable, but simply irresistible.
— Sarah Selecky

This sounded good. I definitely had self-doubt and an absent muse. I liked the idea of writing becoming irresistible. I also liked that I could work my way through the course taking my own time, fitting it around the busy schedule of my kids and family work. I signed up.

Who is Sarah Selecky?

In her own words: Sarah Selecky is the author of Radiant Shimmering Light, This Cake Is for the Party, and the founder of the Sarah Selecky Writing School, est. 2011, which is now a creative community for more than 18,000 writers from around the world. She is an alumna of Hedgebrook, the Humber School for Writers and The Banff Centre, and graduated from the University of British Columbia with an MFA in Creative Writing.

How does The Story Course work?

The Story Course is an online fiction writing course. It can be completed in two ways: Guided Flow or Self-Guided.

If you decide to go the Self-Guided route you can download all the lesson material and work through it yourself assuming you are motivated and understand fully the assignments.

If, however, you’re anything like me then the Guided Flow is probably best. Here you have access to the audio and video files presented by the lovely Sarah herself. It’s a bit like having a personal tutor take you by the hand through every part of each lesson.

As I was starting from a complete lack of knowledge I found this guidance invaluable. Every single piece of advice was like finding a piece of gold.

The Lessons

There are seven lessons that you can study at your own pace. I found it helpful to try to do something each day whether it was ten minutes or an hour. The beauty of it is is that you can fit it around your own schedule.

Lesson One: Freewriting

This lesson on freewriting has become one of my favourites. In fact, the inspiration for this website is based pretty much on this one thing. I give you a photograph. From there you can take your story anywhere you wish.

At first, I found freewriting really hard. Oh, so hard. Trying to keep my pen moving, trying not to cross out at all (I still struggle with that), trying to allow images to come to me rather than thinking them up. Yet once I got the hang of it there was something liberating about it. Freewriting warms up your writing muscles, allows your mind to find interesting images, gives you space to be creative. And amazingly words come. Stories are formed.

Lesson Two: What Starts a Story?

How do you begin a story? In this lesson, you learn how to write some story starters. Reading how the pros do this, as always, is helpful. You’re encouraged to look along your own bookshelf. Read the first sentence of your favourite stories. Just the first. Let it sit for a while. Then write some of your own.

I discovered that I often start a story with a run-up. Then I learned that I could get rid of the run-up and write from the point at which the action starts. And when I say ‘action’ I mean from the point that’s in your head.

The whole point, actually, is to start with something that sticks out in your mind because
you don’t fully understand it yet. That’s the very best place to start.
Start with something you’re curious about, but don’t bother trying to explain the
background of the thing. If you saw a green apple by the side of the road, start bydescribing
the apple. Fight the impulse to start with your character waking up, getting dressed, and then
walking down the street to where she eventually sees an apple.
Just write the apple.
— Sarah Selecky, Lesson Two

There’s also a great video in by Sarah in this lesson where she reflects on Memory & Imagination and the points where they meet and intersect.

Lesson Three: Character

This lesson is not for the faint of heart. Working on character takes an enormous amount of work and practice. There are different questionnaires in this lesson to help you uncover the details about your character that may or may not be important for your story.

Don’t skip this lesson because you think it might be boring or will just take too much time. Creating a character, a believable character does take time. And care. In fact, Sarah has a video about ‘feeling interested in what you’re writing about’. It’s a good’un.

Lesson Four: Dialogue

I’m working through the dialogue lesson again as I write this. See? You get all these lessons forever. There’s so much information here you’ll never remember it all in one read through.

I’ll admit when I got to this lesson I thought I was done. Writing stories is HARD. I thought there was no way I could write dialogue with any success.

And yet, you will see with this lesson how fascinating writing dialogue can be. You are introduced to the importance of subtext. You will read different examples of conversation in the chosen readings. You will be given a Dialogue Manifesto. Print that out and stick it on your wall. Do it though. It will help immensely. After all, dialogue is how you reveal your characters. And everyone loves reading good dialogue.

Lesson Five: Plot & Drift

Mmm. Plot & Drift. Previous to this lesson, I understood plot to be something that needed to be planned and finalised before even putting pen to paper. And then I learned, as will you, that there is another way. Plot can be uncovered using drift. Stay with me here.

Say you’re writing about a character making a pot of tea. Then, for some reason, a random
memory or image floats into your head. You see those long grasses that grew by the river
when you were little. Interesting. So you write that down, because you trust the image, and
you’re not trying to figure out what it means—you’re practicing what it feels like to write
without knowing.
— Sarah Selecky, Lesson Five

So drifting is a lot like freewriting. You’re allowing images to come to you instead of trying to ‘think stuff up’. You have to trust yourself here. It’s a bit like feeling along a wall in a dark room. You begin to make out shapes with your fingers. These shapes become tangible and solid. Does that make sense?

There’s no need to be afraid of plot or worried if you think you don’t have one. In the lesson you are encouraged to keep writing, to keep drifting. Your plot will come.

When you write the first draft of your new short story, I advise you to do this: forget about
plot. Just for now. Forget about having any certainty about your story’s beginning, middle
and end. Forget about writing a story outline. You don’t know what your story is yet, and
you aren’t supposed to know. You can’t know your story until it has been written. After you
write it, then you can examine it for plot.
— Sarah Selecky, Lesson Five

Lesson Six: Consciousness

Here we get into some of the structural nuts and bolts of writing. Point of view or consciousness.

Who are you writing this story from? Is it First Person, Second Person, Third Person (omniscient or limited)? What even is an omniscient third person narrator? Fortunately you don’t need to remember as much as understand the point of view you choose and stick with it. Nothing reveals newbie writing more than switching the consciousness of your characters. I’m sure there are many skilful writers who do just that. But know that it takes some skill to maintain just the one point of view.

Lesson Seven: Influence

Writers with strong voices and unusual styles aren’t born writing that way. They don’t just start writing distinct, individualistic stories all of a sudden because they somehow intuitively know what their voice was always meant to be! The sooner you understand this — that influence has a very important role in your work as a writer — the sooner you will learn how to find your own voice.
— Sarah Selecky, Lesson Seven

I’ve read somewhere, maybe on Sarah’s blog, how important it is to read widely. To read all sorts of writing: fiction, non-fiction, young adult, horror, thriller, romance, classics, poetry, memoir, biography, all of it. Only then will you find your own voice, where you want to be.

Included in this lesson is a fun Writing Style Diagnosis Quiz. Not to be taken too seriously, however, you may be surprised by the results. You may even find new stories to read and a greater understanding of your own personal tastes and style of writing.

And then. You get to write your own story. The one you’ve been uncovering all along the way. Don’t freak out! You can do this.

The moment you move from practice exercises and assignments to writing a short story all of a sudden is a dangerous spot where the critic can just slip in there and create all sorts of problems for you. Because now it’s not just an exercise anymore, right? Now it has to be something real. Now it’s a story. The exercise part is over and now it’s the story writing part. Relax. You don’t have to start writing differently all of a sudden because this is the time that you write a story and all the other stuff is practice. The practice is the story.
— Sarah Selecky, Lesson Seven

Final Thoughts

There is something quite magical about The Story Course. You are led along a path where if you put in enough effort you will be rewarded with a way of creating stories all of your own. And you do this through the practice of writing. Inside all of us are unique stories and characters waiting to be uncovered. There is no need to wait for sudden inspiration. It’s all in there anyway. If you have any desire to write, this may be the best way forward for you.