80. More things I learned from the Iowa Writers’ Programme

This year I did a second course with the Iowa Writers’ Programme. What I learned last year is here.

This year’s course was called “Storied Women” but, curiously, there was little instruction on how to write women characters, something that doesn’t always come easily to men. Since all the exercises involved writing women, I could practice and I’m now much more comfortable with them. I was pleased that peers described my women characters as “authentic”.

Writing the “other”

From AZ Magazine

How we write the “other” (how men write women, how whites write people of colour etc.) was one of the most interesting discussions of the course. Can we write a character who is not like us? Of course. Otherwise we’d never write at all. But we need to deploy respect, care and research. And recognise there will be some characters we can never write, owing to our social position and lived experience.

And there are ethical issues too. Cate Dicharry offered a thoughtful discussion of the thorny problem of cultural appropriation. She said “we, the creators must think hard about questions of racism, misogyny, homophobia, stereotypes of all kinds as well as question our history and integration. If you’re going to include a character who is wildly different from yourself, you the writer, then you are taking on a responsibility to think about those things carefully and to be attentive to what you are doing and how you are doing it.”

Characters don’t have to be likeable

Dicharry also made interesting comments on character and gender. She argued that characters don’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting. That was music to my ears as someone who enjoys writing difficult characters. She also noted that readers are often much less tolerant of unlikeable women characters than they are of male characters.

Character, plot and structure

Most of the course dealt with character and plot. The two are closely connected. Amy Hassinger said “If you have a character with a desire, you have a plot”.


Rebecca Makkai said that every character must have something they want or fear, and every character must emerge from a scene changed, even if only in superficial ways (otherwise, what’s the point of the scene]. Margot Livesey talked about plot being when something enters a story and upsets a previous balance.

Plot and structure are not quite the same thing. Plot is what happens in a story, structure is the way you reveal the plot, according to Cate Rambo.

The hierarchy of characters: round and flat characters

Characters are different. There are major characters and secondary characters. Angele Flournoy explained that major characters’ problems needed to be introduced in the first quarter of the book and play out in the rest of the work. Secondary characters’ problems can be resolved in a couple of scenes. Secondary characters can be differentiated in the readers’ mind by simple devices like dialect, distinctive clothing and how they treat the main characters.

E.M. Forster talked about round and flat characters. This is about the role the characters play in the story, not how well-written they are. A round character, in Forster’s definition, is a character who’s capable of convincingly surprising us. A flat character ” is a convenience for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere. Little luminous disks of a prearranged size pushed hither and thither like counters across the void, or between the stars. Most satisfactory.” A flat character can be summed up in a single sentence, but a bad sentence isn’t going to become a little luminous disk – it has to be a very nice sentence.

World-building: connecting the physical world and the emotional world

From Anna Butler

World-building is about connecting a physical world and an emotional world. According to Lesley Jamison, it doesn’t need to be “a world that is completely outlandish and defies every law of physics … You can create that kind of singularity simply by overlaying an emotional reality over that physical reality in a way that’s never been done before in quite that sense.”

That connection between the physical world and the emotional world is also at the heart of structure.  Both Margot Livesey and Bruce Elgin talked about this. Good structure includes an exterior narrative in which events are happening, and an interior narrative in which we’re learning more about the characters and their hopes and fears. The external events reveal the inner landscape, and at the climax or turning point, both come together.

Experimental writing

Call me old-fashioned, but I like a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The last session of the course was on experimental narratives. It covered techniques like fragmentation and stream of consciousness. Priya Dala reminded us that Indian and African story-telling traditions are often non-linear. Suzanne Scanlon talked about how fragmentation of timelines can be useful for capturing memory and loss and the way we link our present moment to the past.

Some tips and tricks

Margot Livesey advised about how to progress when you’re blocked in a story

  • Raise the stakes: what comes next may be exactly what the character doesn’t expect
  • Introduce a new character and point of view
  • Go deeper into your character

Alisa Ganieva talked about the difficulty of political writing in a globalised world where everything is known. She suggested using irony and comic characters, mingling big political issues and small personal things. Gossip and rumour are devices she favours.

Fatima Mirza drew attention to the power of repetition and involving the reader’s memory. “Every page of a story becomes a part of the reader’s memory. If, on page fifty, a novel subtly references an event that occurred on page 30, the reader will not only remember it, but they will also be pleased, knowing that they have paid attention to the story and are now being rewarded. Writers can take advantage of this.”


Shenaz Patel pointed out that the writer is god of their world. They don’t need to create something that mirrors reality so long as it’s real in the space of the book

Karen Novak reminded us of a great exercise from John Gardner –


An exciting writer

One of the real pleasures of doing a course is finding other writers I like, some in the readings and some as course participants. A fantastic new writer I discovered in this course was Lesley Nneka Arimah. Her extraordinary story Who Will Greet You at Home was published in the New Yorker You can read it by clicking the link.

10 thoughts on “80. More things I learned from the Iowa Writers’ Programme

  1. Good summary of the MOOC; you reminded me of what I liked best about it, which was the opening class that discussed writing about “the other.” I don’t like to think that there’s any experience I can’t immerse myself in, however different from my own. So I don’t agree that “there will be some characters we can never write, owing to our social position and lived experience.” For me, that’s what writing achieves, a bridging of differences and a cracking open of what’s essentially human. But I definitely agree that it must be done with care and insight, after serious research: “If you’re going to include a character who is wildly different from yourself, you the writer, then you are taking on a responsibility to think about those things carefully and to be attentive to what you are doing and how you are doing it.” Thanks for reinforcing what I learned and reminding me of its value. Also like the “barn” exercise idea a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paula. I do think that with research you can put yourself into the mind of the “other”. But some “otherness” is too alien to my experience for me to be confident of writing it authentically, rather than appropriating it to a stereotype. A concentration camp prisoner is a character I would probably never attempt, for example


      1. Never say never! I for one would like to read what you wrote from that perspective. Why not? (Aside from the fact that it would be painful for you the author, which is a daunting prospect, of course.) In such cases, I imagine I would choose to have the main character empathize or clash with the concentration camp prisoner character. Would he or she be round or flat? Would it be possible to make them round, if someone without that experience did attempt it?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The broader question, of course, is the one of cultural appropriation. Even if I could (and I think I can’t) write ANY character, there are probably some that as a white male heterosexual British man, I shouldn’t


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