Creative Writing professors go global with a course for aspiring novelists

Best-selling authors Annabel Lyon and Nancy Lee are professors in UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program, entry to which has long been recognized as highly competitive, in no small part due to its world-renowned faculty and rigorous standards for admission. The program’s unique approach to the craft of writing (in 11 genres) has shaped the Canadian literary landscape for 50 years. The resulting student publication credits are too numerous to list here.

This year, Lyon and Lee teamed up to do something new outside their busy ‘day’ jobs teaching fiction. They went global with a new course aimed at anyone who has ever dreamed of writing a novel. It may sound like an impossibly broad audience but with the help of Harvard and MIT’s innovative edX learning platform, it made it accessible to anyone with a decent Internet connection and a healthy desire to get their novel out into the world.

The authors brought everything they’ve learned in their illustrious careers to a series of six-week non-credit online courses designed to take your novel from concept to completion. It was a unique teaching experience for both writers and gave would-be novel writers from around the world an opportunity to tap into their expertise and experience. The next edX session of “How to Write a Novel” starts on January 10, 2017 and is open for registration.

Discover what motivated Lyon and Lee to create the course and what the experience has brought to their own writing practice.

What made you both decide to offer a novel writing course online? Why edX?

Annabel Lyon is an Assistant Professor of Fiction in UBC's Creative Writing Program.

Annabel Lyon is the author of The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl.

Annabel Lyon: We were excited at the reach edX offered, their proven track record in providing high-quality professional education offerings and reaching students around the world.  We know we’re a competitive program and turn many students away every year, and felt this would be a way to offer those students (and many more) a bit of the UBC Creative Writing experience.

Nancy Lee: Novel writing is a long journey. This really is the course both of us wish had been available to us when we first started writing. We wanted to create a course that was both rigorous and accessible.

Who is this course for?

A: This course is for anyone who’s ever wanted to write a novel!  We don’t discriminate: bring us your speculative fiction, your fantasy, your literary fiction, your thrillers, your horror, your crime… we like it all! We believe that the tools we’re teaching are relevant to any kind of novel.

N: It’s for people who’ve dreamed of writing a novel, who’ve tried writing a novel and perhaps stalled or who have a complete novel draft in a drawer that they’re not yet happy with. We’ve had professionals in other fields who’ve always wanted to write a novel, people who have a life story they want to turn into a novel, writers with MFAs who are hoping to approach publishers and everything in between.

How does the course effectively break down such an enormously complex subject?

A: One step at a time. Each week is structured around a key concept (plot, dialogue, etc.), and we provide exercises and prompts to get

Nancy Lee is the author of Dead Girls and The Age.

Nancy Lee is the author of Dead Girls and The Age.

you focusing consciously on those elements of craft but always in the context of your project; all the writing you do for this course will feed directly back into your novel project. We use a combination of text, audio, video, assignments, author interviews, and discussions to keep the course lively and engaging, and convey concepts as effectively as possible.

We also interview well known authors for this course including Miriam Toews, Paula Hawkins, Sarah Dunant, Jeff Vandermeer, Lauren Groff, Kelley Link, Esi Edugyan, Lawrence Hill, and many more.

N: We also use concrete examples from literature to illustrate the craft techniques we’re teaching.

Has teaching this course taught you anything about your own writing process?

A: It’s reinforced the immense value of making conscious craft choices, rather than trusting blindly to some elusive (read: non-existent) “muse”.  Like any craftsperson, you get better at what you do by practicing, learning techniques, and articulating what you need to work on.

N: The great thing about teaching this course with Annabel is that we’re constantly throwing new ideas at each other, questioning and working out how to concretize the things we sometimes do by instinct or habit. Because of this, I feel that I can view my own process with a lot more clarity.

Is there any credential you would receive by taking this course?

A: Yes, students will receive an edX-issued Professional Education Certificate of Achievement for completing the course successfully.

N: Our undying admiration. And the certificate of course.


What are you reading at the moment?

A: Susan Juby’s The Truth Commission.

N: The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl by Sue Goyette (sorry, I moonlight as a poet!).

Can anyone write a novel?

N: I absolutely believe that if you have the desire to write a novel, if it’s something you feel inexplicably compelled to do, you can do it! It will take time, it will involve a steep learning curve and periods of intense frustration and self-doubt, but it will also be fun, rewarding, and you’ll get to inhabit a world of your own creation. It’s definitely an accomplishable goal.

For more information visit UBC Creative Writing programs.

An earlier version of this story appeared on