Tim Clare's Couch to 80K writing podcast is a delightful, intense, encouraging eight-week journey towards writing a novel. For the best experience, go into it blind; all you need to know is that it's good and it's appropriate for any experience level. If you want to know more, keep reading, but be aware that here be spoilers.
OK, just us? I won't give away the specific writing exercises, but I'll provide a rough map of where the course will take you. It's an adventure!
At first I thought I'd listen to a few episodes to see if it was worth recommending. Instead, it drew me in and I completed the whole course. Ever since I finished, I miss hearing Tim Clare's encouraging and slightly angry voice every day. But that pleasure can now be yours.
What to Expect
This podcast provides eight weeks of daily writing exercises, aiming to get you — whether you're a beginner or a burned-out published author — well on your way to finishing a novel. Each episode is about 20 minutes long and includes 10 minutes of silence during which you do the day's exercise. (The final week has a slightly different structure, but the episodes are still about the same length.)
By the way, 80K represents the concept of a novel, not the number of words you'll actually write during the course. That's not possible at the speed of human typing, nor longhand, which he recommends.
I asked Clare about this and he said: "80k is smack bang in the middle of your mainstream novel length. 60-100k is probably a more representative range. I picked 80k because I wanted to use the language of those Couch to 5k programmes and 80 is a nice target. Oh and I guess it was slightly a reaction to NaNoWriMo calling a novel 50k. If you really want to do your book justice, you need to be thinking in terms of almost double."
The episodes are mixed into the feed of Clare's Death of 1000 Cuts podcast, so to keep track of them you may want to create playlists for each week in your podcast app. Some weeks have an optional "reflections" episode at the end.
What You'll Learn
Clare drops some hints in the first episode: "We're going to visit a graveyard, and channel demons. You'll be journeying into your past, and plagiarizing classic works of literature and mutating them." This is all true.
Don't think of each day's writing as a chapter or scene in your novel. Instead, it's an experiment. Some days you'll be brainstorming lists of possibilities, or relating a mundane happening from your life in some deliberately ridiculous literary style. Even when you do write actual scenes in the course's final weeks, Clare advises: "You're not writing a final draft. You're just testing a few possibilities for a first draft."
It's totally normal if some of the resulting writing is crap, but you'll also likely find some gems in there and learn something about your own brain in the process.
Here's a road map of the themes for each week:
- Week one: Lists. "Lists are the creative mind's best friend," Clare says. Sometimes it's easier to come up with a dozen ideas rather than just one. Later in the course, you'll pluck story elements from these lists.
- Week two: Freewriting. In this week you practice the skill of writing literally anything until time is up. If you do morning pages, this is old news. Clare keeps it interesting, though. I promise. He also talks about when freewriting is useful, and how you can use it to produce more than just garbage.
- Week three: Mask work, or letting another person's words flow through you. Amazingly enough, you can start with a name or an image and pretty soon you're writing a character's story without ever having planned it. It's sort of like magic.
- Week four: Style. In this week you'll write in different styles and from different perspectives. It's not about teaching you particular styles, but about how giving yourself weird constraints can distance you from the story just enough to approach it as a puzzle.
- Week five: Psych eval. This one is about you and your brain. You'll explore why you write, how you feel about it and what kind of issues are lingering in the back of your mind, bothering you. Some of the exercises ask you to think about past trauma in your life, but you have permission to do a different exercise or to skip these entirely, if you feel focusing on trauma will do more harm than good for you.
- Week six: Metaphors. You'll get specific and creative about how you describe things.
- Week seven: Generating and fleshing out ideas. The first exercise this week is an amazing one for figuring out what kind of story you're going to write. By the end of this week, you'll have the very rough outline of a novel.
- Week eight: Self-directed writing time. You'll build on what you did in week seven, but with the freedom to decide what you're writing about and how. These sessions are longer, with 20 minutes of writing time and a sound effect at the halfway point that will scare the bejeebers out of you.
Along the way, Clare provides plenty of sage advice: Your creativity is like a shy puppy, but if you coax it out into the open to play, it can become a joyous companion. You can't guilt yourself into writing, because distraction relieves that guilt more easily than writing does. (Oof, I feel that one.)
You should carry a notebook around everywhere, like artists carry a sketchbook and fill it with lists and ideas that run the full range from silly to serious. (Clare recently tweeted pages from his Bad Ideas Notebook.)
I appreciated not just the instruction and the practice time, but also Clare's musings on how to cultivate a healthy attitude toward writing. This is hard! Writers commiserate all the time about the difficulties of the process, but he points out that this can get out of control. He notes in week five that "the [publishing] industry has a shameful hard-on for normalising destructive working practices."
You can write without hating yourself. And this podcast can help you do it.