Like many others, Karen Edmonds began writing a novel in the midst of the pandemic. But she wrote it with the assistance of award-winning authors teaching for Stanford University’s Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing. “I liked the fact that it was laser-focused on novel writing and geared towards debut authors,” Edmonds says. “I liked that it was all online, so you could do it around your schedule.”
Her novel is a fictionalized account of the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that took place near Burns, Oregon, in early 2016. She studied with one cohort her entire two years in the program, workshopping their novel chapters and receiving critiques on her own rough drafts. “You’re going through this experience with a whole group of people who are all working on the same project,” she explains.
The program accepts 60 students from all over the world. Instructors are published and accomplished novelists and current or former Wallace Stegner Fellows. Each class includes 15 students who study together with one instructor each term. Author Malena Watrous, the program lead, appreciates the range of student ages in the program – from 23 to 85 years old. “I love the wealth of life experience,” she says. “People come in, and they’ve lived. They’ve worked in different jobs and can bring that expertise to their characters. They’re eager for education and camaraderie and writing community – they’re a really delightful, appreciative, hard-working group of adults.”
How it works
The two-year program is asynchronous with an optional hour-long Zoom meeting once a week. Participants complete a full-length novel, working in contemporary fiction, mystery, thriller, science fiction, historical fiction, autobiographical fiction, and young adult fiction. Requirements differ from instructor to instructor, but in general, students submit approximately 1,000 words a week over a 10-week course.
Watrous, who holds an advanced degree in creative writing, notes that in a typical Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, students take a workshop class and a literature class each term. The Stanford program requires one class a term, in which instructors blend writing, workshopping, and reading.
“We’re working with working adults and super busy people who don’t have time to take two classes at once, so we’re creating classes that look at how novels are written by looking at really great published examples,” she explains. “There’s a majority component of writing and responding to each other, so a quarter of the course is reading, and three-quarters is devoted to writing.”
Edmonds wasn’t interested in pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing; the Stanford program gave her exactly what she needed. “It actually isn’t the certificate that I was after,” she says. “I was after the instruction about how to write a novel.”
What you’ll learn
Students in the program take five core courses in sequence. In their first year, they study novel forms and theories. Watrous teaches this course with an eye toward helping students to determine whether their novel needs an inciting incident, and if so, where in the story should it occur. “We look at different opening chapters of published novels each week and how those beginnings hook you,” she explains. “We study how the beginning of a novel needs to raise a question that interests readers enough that they’ll keep reading the book and how to do that.”
Writers also examine novel plot and structure in their first year. The following year, they examine theme, language, and subtext. The fourth course focuses on completion of the novel manuscript. Participants must also take one elective course – classes such as memoir, poetry, specific fiction genres, or craft elements.
Students may also opt for the One-on-One Tutorial after they complete their manuscript. They’re matched with an instructor in a similar genre who reads the novel in its entirety and makes line edits and developmental suggestions, and then they spend a term immersed in intense revision with that instructor’s support. Instructors in the certificate program include Samina Ali, Deborah Johnson, Nami Mun, Ron Nyren, Thomas McNeely, Jack Livings, and others.
Several writers have completed the certificate and gone on to publish their books. Alumnus Tracey Lange pitched her completed novel to an agent at a writer’s conference, and the agent signed her immediately. Her novel, We Are the Brennans, became a New York Times bestseller. Jessie Weaver finished the certificate and found an agent who sold her debut YA thriller, Live Your Best Lie. Other writers, Watrous notes, have gone on to publish independently or with a hybrid press.
How to join
Interested writers must fill out a formal application, which includes a writing sample of at least 3,000 words, along with a paragraph of constructive feedback for revision on the first page of a novel (supplied on the application). Applicants must explain their goals for the program and submit a description of themselves as a person and student, as well as a potential member of an educational cohort.
“In a program like this, the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out of it. It’s all about what the student brings to the experience and how much work they do,” Watrous explains. “You’re led by talented instructors, of course, but the class grows as a group based on students being excited about it and putting in the work.”
She notes that she and colleague Scott Hutchins created the certificate program for working adults who might not have the time or money to complete a traditional MFA program – adults who have taken writing classes, who have a basic understanding of novel structure and grammar. “You don’t have to have a perfectly-formed novel outline,” she says, “But we’re here for people who are ready to commit to a manuscript, people who are hungry for it. This kind of program is a real gift in the life of a writer.”
—Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author, most recently, of the middle-grade novel Daisy Woodworm Changes the World. melissahart.com