Instagram Live: The New and Improved Novel Writing Course

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In case you missed it, last week Head of Content and Senior Teacher Tom discussed the new and improved Novel Writing Course and shared some of his own work with us in an Instagram Live. ✍🏼 📖 📚

Read the full transcript below. The recording is also available on YouTube.

Resources mentioned

Connect with Intrepid English on Instagram.

Connect with Tom on Instagram or Twitter.

Study the Novel Writing Course.

Buy Tom’s Empire of Dirt Poetry Pamphlet.

Visit Tom’s website.

Tom’s TV/Film/Book Recommendations


Watch the series on Apple TV+

After Love

Louise Glück Poet

Buy Louise Glück’s poetry collection here


Okay, I’m now live. Hello, people who are there and soon to be there. Okay, I’m just gonna give it a moment to just wait for some people to join before I get started. In the meantime you can watch me have a sip of wine. So I’m going to get started anyway. For those who are late, you’ll catch up, it’s fine. I just wanted to say hello. My name is Tom. I’m Head of Content. And I’m one of the senior teachers here at Intrepid English. I want to welcome you to my… to my? to our Instagram Live. It’s just me today, a little bit of a solo act. But I’m going to discuss our revamped Novel Writing Course. I’m going to start by telling you a little bit about the course and then I’ll read a bit of my writing. And then if there’s some questions, we can do that. But first, I want to discuss, just want to tell you a little bit about myself. I’m a Welsh writer based in Edinburgh, where I currently am, and it’s very, very cold. I have an MA in Creative Writing and a BA which was a mix of Language, Literature and Writing. In 2021, I was awarded a New Writers Award from Scottish Book Trust, and I’m currently being mentored by the absolutely fantastic Claire Askew. Empire of Dirt, my poetry pamphlet, was a poetry book society selection, and published by Red Squirrel Press in 2019. I was highly commended in The Verve 2020 poetry competition, and my work has featured in Butcher’s Dog, Fourteen Poems, Best Scottish Poems 2019, The Amsterdam Quarterly and Other Poems, Glasgow Review of Books, among others. And I was a writer in residence at Artele’s in Finland, which actually was much colder than Edinburgh, but I loved it. Now, yeah, just wanted to briefly discuss the revamped Novel Writing Course, which began last year as a 30-day writing challenge. And we had such a great response from everyone that we thought, well, why don’t we turn it into a course? And it launched last year, but I’ve had time to go back in and add new bits of material, and especially in the month of November, which is a very special month for writing as it’s National Novel Writing Month, or as it goes on the internet, NaNoWriMo, apparently. So, some people have had really great success and completed their whole novel within a month. At Intrepid English we don’t really believe in putting extra stress on yourself. We want to empower you, our students, our future students, to develop personally and professionally, and to feel more confident to make a positive impact. So therefore our Novel Writing Course is not about you completing your novel in a month. It’s really about experimentation. I would personally rather see you perfecting your writing skills than finishing an enormous novel that you’ll eventually have to rewrite. So the important lesson here is to write at your own pace. And that’s what the Novel Writing Course is all about. Over the past few months, as I’ve gone back in and added to the course, there are lots of new things that you can find. Among those are three new topics, which include ‘How to plan your novel’, ‘The rhythm of language’, and ‘How to create conflict’. There are more prompts and more examples throughout the course. So you can find those in the different lessons and the different topics. And there’s an exclusive personal essay by myself, which is about teachers. About the teachers that I’ve had through my education, and the influence that they’ve had on me. So I thought that would be prudent to the course. So that’s the Novel Writing Course, in a sense of what’s been added to it, and why it’s the ‘revamped’ Novel Writing Course. So I hope you’ll go in and enjoy it. And, of course, if there’s any questions you can post in the comments or just message us, of course. So now is the part where we sort of sit back and I’m going to read a little bit to you. I realise we’ve only been here for four minutes but it’s flown by. But basically, I’m going to read from a section of my novel, which is a political fantasy novel. Back in February, I read a chapter from this novel, which featured the character of Alice from Wonderland. And if anyone was watching Bake Off last night, you’ll know that Wonderland was featured in the showstopper so, you know. But the novel features places and characters that we know from novels that we’ve read, Alice from Wonderland being an example. So the character that I’m going to read from tonight is a character from The Secret Garden. Here I have my really detailed, notey copy, which was actually my sister’s copy. There’s her name, there’s mine, from when she was about 12 and I must have nicked it off her, stolen it from her. And now it’s mine and I have all of my notes in it for the research from writing this. And basically the thinking behind this came from when I was at college and I was studying Hard Times by Charles Dickens, and in the opening of that book, Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster of the school is lecturing his students, and telling them not to wonder. He’s telling them that facts are the only way to live. And I found that a really interesting idea and it created this seed that sprouted and has been sprouting since. I mean, that was back in 2010, that lesson took place, and here we are 11 years later, and the first novel, this has been finished. I imagine it as a series, there’s more to come. But the first one is done. And as I say, it features these characters, and it brings them together in the same world. And the only other thing you have to know is it’s in close third person. So this is from Mary’s point of view, Mary is the main character from The Secret Garden. If you haven’t read it, you’ll understand this. If you have read it, then you’ll double understand this. That’s hopefully how the story works. But this is from Mary’s point of view, very close third person. And what that means is we see it through her eyes. But when we read it, we’re not reading it as the ‘I’, we’re reading it as ‘she’ and whatever she thinks and feels and sees, we think and feel and see. We’re not able to jump out of her. It was a really interesting way to write and I thought it was the more true way to write this story because obviously over 11 years, it’s gone through many iterations. And it’s grown, especially going back to the source material. I mean, I was just rereading it before I started this live and there was something new that sprouted out to me. So there’s a lot when it comes to using characters that have already been written, that are in the public domain. So I’m going to read. So this is Mary, The Secret Garden. This is the first time we meet Mary in the novel. This is her introductory chapter. 

The secret garden is rotten.

            Is a place of chaos. Of crumbling trees sprouting fat insects. Of lilies that fight one another as bitter chrysalises implode. It is a place of unknown noises where twigs snap and trees whisper. It is a place of desperation, where the cries of dead poets and runaways reverberate. It is a place of death.

            The robin redbreast is dead. The grass is dead. The roses are dead in Pomponella Rot and the Ranunculus Radiant is dead in the Deadwood. Dead dead and dead again, that is all this place knows. And yet, in its death it has become somewhat alive. Alive with despair. Free, without rules. Among it, at first, she felt scared. But there is always fear in the unknown, in the darkness, these are things she has become used to. She, the keeper of the garden.

            This is not The Secret Garden Mary Lennox grew to know. This garden she planted when she was a girl has changed beyond her control. Now, at the age of thirty-three, she has learnt its strange new customs. She has spent years here, searching. From Campanula in the east, where the laboratory resides like a great fortress, to the choking Driftwoods in the north. To the South there’s Lily Foote and other realms she dare not go. The heart of the garden is big enough without venturing elsewhere. It rests between two places she calls Lilium Loch and Delphinium Plot. She stays away from the Silver Forest; for she knows it leads to the top hats. One day, she thinks, I will gut your city like you did my garden, one day. She is as patient as a shark smelling blood.

The skies are rarely blue here. They’re sticky, like sheets left out in grease, grey and congealed, with flecks of growling black cloud. Clumps of grey snow comes down in ugly thick envelopes. Mary used to hold out her hand and gather the flakes in her palm. That was when she didn’t realise what it was. Dust. The death of imagination. The children stopped believing, the fairies died and the dust came sprouting from the heavens, choking all the trees and plants of the garden.

The garden was not always this way. The rosebushes would bloom and the crocuses and snowdrops reigned down. This was her kingdom, her escaped land, her private space. Now it’s a labyrinth-metropolis, splintering, sprawling, cobwebbed – a kingdom of death that has grown and keeps growing.

She looks to the east. In the distance she can see the Moorland where fires still rage from years before. Black smoke puffs out of Misselthwaite Manor’s broken mouth, clinging to the air above. This is another place she dare not go. Misselthwaite is full of memories and it’s miles away anyway, she can’t see it, just that smouldering that never goes out.

I’m haunted enough already, she thinks, angrily.

The Secret Garden is her only true home because it is the home she has chosen. Before that it was India. Her experience of that place has clouded her overall view – she despises India. For it reminds her of big silent rooms that not even her imagination could fill. It reminds her of her parents. Her slutty father who was too drunk to even know he had a daughter and her mother, who always threw parties so she wouldn’t have to be alone with her daughter. Mary knew from a very young age that her mother simply didn’t like her. So, Mary thought of her mother as a bitch and even though she died over two decades ago Mary is glad of her death. She still hates. She does not forget.

 A nasty spoilt pig, that’s what they called her, and what Mary grew to know of herself. Tyrannical. Ugly. Disagreeable. Selfish. [1]She thinks of four-poster beds but tries to wipe the image from her mind. It makes her think of the cholera that broke out in India and the way people panicked and screamed and suddenly there was no panic and there were no screams and that was far more frightening. That silence, again. She hid in her room for a month. Nobody knew she was there because she was never really there to begin with, apart from her servants, but they were the first to die. No, she doesn’t like India, the first place she knew as home but never was.

 Then came the dreary Misselthwaite. The Yorkshire moors of all places, what could be bleaker. And the first person she met was that prune-faced Medlock with her stern eyes and her jangling keys. Medlock, the housekeeper, was hard to pin down. In the early days, Mary spent little time thinking of her but as the years went by, as her cousin, Colin, grew stronger; as her uncle seemed to fall back into his old ways, hiding in his study, she would wonder about Medlock. Who are you? She would ask herself. This keeper of keys, this woman so concerned with order, always shouting. Button up your shirt, don’t get up to mischief, tie your shoelaces properly, don’t think too hard, make your bed properly, never wonder. Mary has always hated being told what to do. And yet, she seemed to admire this woman. There was a time Mary can remember, in that dusty memory of hers, that she even sought Medlock’s approval.

She looks into the distance where Misselthwaite surely stands.

Her uncle’s home, not hers, and not her uncle’s any longer.

He’s dead. Martha is dead. Dr Craven is dead, Mary saw his head caved in on the front lawn as she escaped. And the others, she doesn’t want to think about them. She doesn’t want to think about any of it. So, she breaks into a sprint. She hurtles herself through daffodils that turn to powder, weeds that rip up their roots, skeleton trees that croak and shudder. She is hunting. She enjoys it. It gives her a sense of purpose; it stops her from going mad. She’s doesn’t just hunt for food – although if she could find a rabbit or a lost pig she would eat properly for the first time in months – she hunts the Phantasms, beasts from the Other Lands, a gang of shapeshifters – one minute a serpent, the next a dragon – created (or so Mary thinks) to terrify the runaways. The top hats prefer this place to be abandoned, she thinks, they prefer the world to live in fear. But I am not the world.

She goes on. In her hand she holds the spear she fashioned from a piece of bark. Attached to her belt are the three blades she took from corpses. Mary wears a pair of trousers and a shirt; over her shoulder she carries a bow and arrow. Her dirty brown hair is tied back in a bun. She is a tall, stocky woman. Her eyes are dark brown, quick, furious, like a leopard.

She comes to a passing in the trees. Ahead lie the cornfields. Watching the pieces of straw sway she is reminded of that one boy, running from the laboratory, that was taken out by a Phantasm. He died in Mary’s arms. Beyond that lie The Driftwoods, a place of swampy waters swarming with insects, of confused deformed lizards, of poisonous snakes that whisper sweet nothings in your ear. The garden has become a jungle or maybe it was always a jungle. In the clearing, she stops and takes a breath. Death is all around her. It follows her and she follows it. She grieves. For her chosen family back at Misselthwaite, and for him. She grieves for the trees, for they have something in common. They did not ask for this. They did not deserve this.

She is reminded of the Count of Monte Cristo, her favourite book. She has read it over a dozen times. The copy she kept beside her bed was bound with the finest leather. It was a gift and inside lay an inscription. It read, for adventure, and it was signed, Dickon.

She remembers this book. The Count whose life is changed by circumstances unbeknownst to him. And when he finally takes his life into his hands, when he is faced with the people that have wronged him, who do not see him, he is blinded by revenge. She shares his spirit. The Count that was once Edmond Dantes.

            Dantes dies, she thinks, just like Mary.

Suddenly, and only for a moment she thinks she sees a man. She thinks she sees broad shoulders, olive skin and a wave of brown hair, moving quickly. Mary blinks. The sight is gone before it ever really started. Or maybe it was never there. But when she walks away she looks over her shoulder just to be sure.

What if –

No, he’s dead.

He’s dead, along with all the rest. Like poor Martha, and her mother, Susan. Mothers. The word leaves a bitter taste in her mouth. There had been a time when Mary wanted to hear about mothers. She’d wanted to hear The Mother of Misselthwaite’s pearls of wisdom, her belief in the secrets of children, her enjoyment of their mischief. The Mother was Susan Sowerby, Dickon and Susan’s mother by blood, Mary’s by spirit.

When Mary and Dickon were young and would run in the walled garden and would talk to the robin redbreast and plant bulbs for spring, Susan would weave tales of magic and fairies. She always asked Mary about India, probed her to remember something good, to spin her own stories. She wanted her to be a storyteller. Mary doesn’t know what happened to Susan – presumably she was murdered in the raid of Misselthwaite, slaughtered with her children and left to rot. But Mary didn’t see her body before she left.

Mary stands at The Medlock Tree – a curved piece of pine that refuses to crumble. It is covered in a grey foam, the twigs sprout dust, the campanulas rot at its feet.  Mary clenches her fists and looks up at its stubbornness – just like Medlock.

From behind her, in the distance Mary hears someone singing. It’s a song she’s heard before, too many times and it annoyed her then, “Mistress Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” She withdraws an arrow and nocks it against the bowstring. She waits beside the Medlock Tree, listening hard. Is it real? She is part of the grass and the bushes, she is a carving in the garden, just as Dickon told her to be. Then, the voice again, a slight slithery hiss, “With silver bells, and cockle shells, and marigolds all in a row.”

            She peers into the bushes. A hare belts its way out of the ruffle.

Hares can’t sing, she thinks.

            No, they can’t, comes the voice.

            Mary spins around. She hears it but doesn’t see it. The snap of a tongue. A hiss. A rattle. Something rising in the air. She brings her sword down. She cuts the bushes. Dust vomits in her face. She wipes her eyes clean. She looks again – nothing. She pulls away from the clearing, she’s had enough for one day.

            That voice, though. She knows it. It sounded like hers.

            Mistress Mary, the voice will say again.

            And she will reply, I am not that girl anymore.

[1] The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett


So I’ll stop there. I mean, the chapter goes on to stay with Mary because each chapter, as I say, focuses on a specific character and stays with them for a little while and tells it from their point of view. And very much the opening chapters of all of the main characters are sort of nods to the actual books they came from. So this novel in a way is a sequel to all of those books, it’s a sequel to The Secret Garden, and a spin-off in the same way. It directly references things that happened. And even in the process of writing I was taking words and phrases from the original book and putting them into this, to almost make them sort of like Easter eggs. Where you have that in TV shows, where, you know, I think of something like Watchmen that came out recently, in 2019, I think it was, which was an amazing TV show with HBO. And that’s based on the graphic novel, and that worked as a sequel to it, and a spin-off at the same time. And throughout the show, you would see nods to the original comic book, which were these Easter eggs. So throughout the story that I’m writing, or have written, you see these nods to the original source, to the original books. So yeah, I mean, that’s exciting. It’s exciting to do. And, yeah, I hope you enjoyed Mary. I mean, she’s definitely one of my favourite characters. She was always my favourite, and then someone new kind of came along and shoved her to the side. But Mary is close to my heart, and as you probably gathered from death being mentioned so many times, death is a huge theme in the novel, and grief is a huge theme, especially for these characters who have come on a journey beforehand. When you think about Mary in the original book, The Secret Garden, she doesn’t know how to connect with people at the beginning of the book, and she goes on this journey, and finally does connect. And I thought, well, what happens if all those people were taken away from her? What would happen to Mary? And the only thing she knows how to do is to revert back to her older self, and she’s very angry. That’s the only thing she knows how to feel really, to deal with what’s happened to her. And that’s a theme, as I say, for all of the main characters. Everyone’s lost someone. And that drives them all, in different ways. So yes, that’s what I’m working on, and I’m very, very privileged to work for Intrepid English, who champion me and support me when it comes to my writing. and have given me this time to give you the Novel Writing Course. I mean, it’s a privilege to have put it together and to have added new material to it after this time as well. Yeah, I hope you enjoy it. So I’m gonna wrap up and I thought… I was doing a podcast with my friend Sybella a while ago now, but I really enjoyed doing it and at the end of the podcast, she asked me for some recommendations, so I thought I would kind of nab that from her, I’m sure she won’t mind, to just recommend some things I’ve been watching and reading at the moment. So my TV recommendation is Dickinson, which is an amazing TV show about the poet Emily Dickinson, and it’s very modern. They speak in a very, kind of, modern dialect, and it’s very funny and comedic and joyous and very queer as well because she was a lesbian, and they really play around with that in the show so great, great fun, really enjoy it, I would highly recommend it. A film that I really love that I watched recently was called After Love. It’s a British film about a woman who loses her husband, and they live… Oh God, where do they live? Dover. Think they live in Dover, which is like, so just you can take the ferry over to France and it’s not that long. So her husband used to work on the ferry and he would go over to France, and when he dies, she discovers that he had another family in France, and it takes a very interesting turn. I don’t really want to say any more, but it’s a really beautiful, sad, excellent film. I watched it on the train when I was on my way back from my friend’s wedding. Yeah, really good film. And what I’m reading at the moment, I’m working my way through this beautiful tomb Louise Glück’s poems, all of her Collected Poems, and there’s just so many for me to choose here to read. I don’t even know which one to read, because there’s just so many to choose from. I’d really recommend looking at some of her work. You don’t have to tackle the big tomb if it daunts you. But buying a collection or looking at stuff on the Poetry Foundation highly recommended. So yeah, that’s what I recommend and that’s what I’ve been consuming in the past couple of weeks and months. So that’s all from me today. I really enjoyed like reading and just, I love talking about books and language, and yeah, I really enjoyed doing this. This year, we’ve had a live event every month. So watch out for December, where there will be another live event. You can check the study planner on our homepage for more information about that. At Intrepid English, we love to hear from you, so requests for future live events, what areas of English you’re struggling with… all ideas are welcome. So you can just send us a message about that. And links to all of the resources that I’ve mentioned during the live will be available in the comments when I’ve posted this video. And yeah, so that’s everything really. That’s all from me. So thanks very much again. Tom. That’s me, I’m Tom, one of the teachers here at Intrepid English and I hope you have a good evening.

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