Fig.1. Philip Pirrip is confronted by the ‘fearful man, all in course gray … ‘
Start Writing Fiction is a FutureLearn Course. Its content makes up part of an OpenLearn Course. It is a thread in the Creative Writing Course here at the OU.Three months on having completed the course it is about to repeat. I’ll be there.
|From E-Learning IV|
Fig.2. How we learn in the 21st century. J F Vernon E-learning (2011)
We learn through repetition; not simply learning by rote.
We learn through passing through the same loop over and over again. There is nothing so special about graduation, gaining an MA, a PhD or achieving the lofty status of ‘professor’ so long as you are willing to climb, as if on a thermal, one focused ever ascending loop seeing the same thing over and over again in new light, until, through insight or height from the ground you see something new and have something new to say.
There are some key lessons to learn from ‘Start Writing Fiction; (SWF)’ though it is never the whole story – for that you need to sign up to a graduate course on Creative Writing. There’s plenty to work with though. I look forward to being reminded what matters. It kicks off again on 27th April and runs for three months.
Reading matters as much as writing.
The precocious child who read copious volumes and gets into literature in their early teens has an advantage. I was slow to read and reluctant to read. The only novels I may have read as a child were forced on me through school. Even in my teens as I read ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Silas Marner’ for O’ Levels and ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ for A’ Levels I did say like a parrot: If I picked up an ‘B’ grade at both levels it was only because I regurgitated precisely what I had been tutored to put down.
Over three decades later, 33/35 years later to be exact if I check my diary from that time, I am reading Dickens with fresh eyes.
My late mother bought me a second hand edition of all the Dickens novels. I never read one. I now have ‘Great Expectations’ for free courtesy of ‘Project Guttenberg’ on my Kindle. I am reading it with lessons from ‘Start Writing Fiction’ in the front of my mind. SWF concentrates on the key, though not only component, of good writing: character. I am chewing over every line of Dickens with a rye smile on my face: I see what he’s doing with Pip, with the escaped convict from the hulk, his older sister and her husband Joe the Blacksmith, with Miss Haversham and Estella. If ‘character is plot’ then the plot moves, in a series of steps, over the heads of each character. We are carried by Pip with repeated moments of laugh out loud insights to a child’s perception and feelings for the world. How had I not see this before?
For the umpteenth time I am doing what doesn’t come naturally to me: I should be painting, not writing.
Intellectually I feel like the child who is left handed who had than arm tied behind his back as a child to force him to write against his will with his right. I have managed well enough, but it is against character and it is too late to correct? I need to work with words as the text that describes what I see. Text has other values too of course. It can carry a story beyond a single canvas.
A creative writing tutor, editor and author – former opera singer and opera director – Susannah Waters in reviewing my writing on a retreat last September gave me more than SWF can do on its own. An A4 sheet torn in half offers the following tips on ‘Scene Building:’
- Who am I?
- Stay in the person’s head
- Put me in the place
She expands on these.
Every line of ‘Great Expectations’ is in Pip’s voice, written as autobiography much later in life, in the moment, capturing for now, his wonder, fear, feelings and hopes. It helps me enormously as I try to construct a story of my own set in the couple of decades 1966 to 1986, rather than 1820 to 1860. Characters don’t change, technology and society does. It helps me to contain my imagination and fears as I feel it falling apart. Character will hold it together; each character needs to surprise.
I wish I could find the link to the BBC Radio 4 programme in which an author, Michael Morpurgo or Alexander McCall Smith talks about writing; it was on over the last three weeks. Or was it on TV?! Tips and devices were spoken of, but what had most resonance for me was the idea that an authors wonder at even the most mundane creates interest for the reader.
I used to discount Dickens as old fashioned; I now feel that I am reading Dickens with the same wonder of someone who has broken through the fog of a new language and is becoming fluent. Can I now translate this into my own writing? For now the juggling game I am playing is my writing in one hand, Dickens in the other.
Sharing where I stand matters hugely. Knowing that others are following my journey and are supportive matters: it keeps me going. Being online matters. It is the next best thing to standing on a soapbox in the local park and reading passages from my efforts. Feedback matters as it guides you.
On this retreat last September we read out our work, actually Susannah read my piece for me as I wanted to hear it from a different voice. We were around an open fire in a cottage in Devon. Telling stories around a fire takes you back to the origins of storytelling; what must you say to hold their attention, to keep them entertained, to make them cry (I did with that one), to make them laugh, fear, hope, clap, get angry … and ponder, even panic over the outcome. In that story I had a soldier in the First World War slowly sinking into mud, up to his chest and neck … screaming for life.
Fig.1 The intimate qualities of the Oxbridge tutorial are now experience in massive open online courses
I have been studying full-time for a year – an MA in a traditional university with lectures, book lists and online completing eight MOOCs and even trying to start a module with the OU.
My goal hasn’t been simply to gain yet further qualifications in subjects I love, but to experience first hand the variety of approaches to learning that exist.
Back to the classroom while learning online.
The MOOCs I’ve done on FutureLearn are highly ‘connected’ – I believe the way huge threaded discussions are managed and can be managed successfully recreates what some consider to be the Holy Grail of learning in HE, the ‘Oxbridge tutorial’ where a subject expert sits one to one or at most one to three to discuss a topic, set each other straight, and then return every week, or twice a week to do the same.
MOOCS completed or underway include:
Experience and research shows that even in a MOOC with 25,000 starters, in a threaded discussion that has 3000 posts, that groups of learners form – typically a mix of experts, keen learners with some knowledge and complete beginners. These groups can last the duration of a two month course and spill out into other platforms and meeting up face to face. John Seely Brown called this a couple of decades ago ‘learning from the periphery’, where new, keen learners gravitate from the edges to the centre. It is learning vicariously, as we do in our day to day lives. But it is more intimate than a community of practice: two or three people learning together in real-time or in a quasi-synchronous platform is like an Oxbridge tutorial. I had the privilege of attending these as an undergraduate and my father in law is one of these career Oxford fellows who taught in this way for several decades and has gone to great lengths to explain the unique qualities of the method, how and why it works. It now works online. You don’t have to be communicating directly with the lead academics – though you may do in a MOOC, but you can gravitate, with ease, if you like to the many experts who are in and contributing to these forums. I can cite examples of both types: the extraordinary care and fluency of the PhD contributors to WW1: Aviation for example, or in the massive (25,000 participants) threads of Start Writing Fiction.
This is ‘transitional education.’ Not a revolution, just building on the best of what has gone before and gradually taking others along with it.
I like that after 700 years of keeping the approach to themselves that the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’ as a way to learn is, online at least, open to anyone.
Fig.1. One box from the garage: Five/Six project to work on here 🙁
Thank you SWF Fall 14. [Start Writing Fiction. An Open University ‘Massive Open Online Course’ or MOOC that run from October to December 2014 on the FutureLearn platform]
A MOOC on writing fiction has rekindled my desire to be a published writer for the eighth or ninth time in four decades.
Writing in 1991/2 with a further burst of activity from 1996/8 and another from 2001/2006 and abandoned since 2008 I am glad, though daunted to be looking at drafts of novels and of screenplays that I just dug out of a lock up garage over 10 miles away. There’d be more if I could read floppy disks and ZIP drives.
These piles are stacked carefully enough, though some were tipped out of arch-level files when I started my OU MA in Open and Distance Education in February 2010. Here I am back again, as if these last five years have been something squeezed from me like the last teaspoon of paste from a tube of tomato purée.
I am thrilled to see a TV play called ‘Sardines’ – a farce in which some eight characters all end up hidden in the cupboards or under the bed of the same man in a penthouse flat in central London. I am gobsmacked to find variations something called ‘Form Photo’ which charts the relationships of one man from the age of 17 to 57 … mostly teens, with some first loves in his early teens. This is, I think, the one I am now turning to.
Also in front of me is the manuscript I may have given 18 months to – a typical time span, 18 months and 300 pages and 100,000 words. Working title ‘Journey To Work’ because the premise in 1996 was that a character wanted a car that would drive him to work … i.e. a self-driving car. It is not about the motor industry (although I was doing a lot of work for Land Rover at the time). It also has the title ‘Fifteen Roads to Nowhere’ about this guy who sets out on this mad quests: the car thing, a relationship with such enthusiasm … eventually he takes a bet to drive, or be driven by this homemade car across 100 miles of English rural and urban landscape. So there’s that one.
‘The Contents of My Mind’ was an effort to explore how a person’s mind is stored digitally after their death and in this instance is put into the brain of someone who had been in a coma. You end up with a hybrid horror of a person trapped in a body that isn’t theirs that also enforces a new way of thinking and doing on them. Toss! It went to the BBC, was read and returned. 2004 or so?
Hardly a novice writer then?
Always a novice writer. Even should I have the good fortune to be published eventually I will doubt what it is that I do or have done. My sincere hope, as I return to a commitment to writing fiction after a long break is that I now have a better idea of what it is I do, what makes this ‘chef’ how it is that I toss the ingredients down and pull out a meal that is enjoyable. A short film broadcast on Channel 4 that I wrote, directed and produced is my only broadcast credit; I have not been published outside a school magazine.
Editing that destroys what I write isn’t the way to write – it becomes like writing by numbers. I have plenty of examples of that too, where I have tried to write as I believe I am required to write. I did this with a 12 part historical TV series that I read today and it is about as thrilling as a telephone directory – there is nothing of me in it. ‘The Little Duke’ could be retuned wearing my new head.
Far better the outrageous, Tom Sharpe meets Henry Miller, of things like ‘Sardines,’ even ‘Exchange with a Frenchmen’ … the treatment of which I have seen kicking around somewhere. I cut and pasted hundreds of strips of papers into a long scroll. I think, as I am now doing with other work, that I am starting to know how to construct that prose.
I also found the proposal, in French, for a series of false news stories.
I was on the team writing, directing and producing these things for Antenne 2 in 1991. Outrageous. One story even ended up on the news. We told some lie about the French Prime Minister owning a Honda even though she claimed to be wedded to supporting output from French car manufacturers Renault and Peugot. At this time I also spent six weeks on the road documenting the lives of those in the HLMs outside major towns and cities where immigrants had been put. And I wrote a story about an Algerian boy who when stressed turned into sand … All this and I was translating from French to English a kids cartoon series called ‘Chip and Charlie’ from France Animation.
The funniest read is something I typed up in the Christmas Holidays when I was 13 1/2 I now look at it’s nonsense and think ‘Blue Lagoon … only in space’ 🙂
Still in the garage there is the manuscript for a kid’s adventure story called ‘The Time Telescope’, a kids TV series about a time shift device called after the main characters, brother and sister ‘CC and Susie’ and some kids’ stories written when my own children were six and four. ‘Hapless Harry’ comes to mind … a small boy who ‘transmogrified’ into everyday objects whenever he did something naughty. He turned into his dad’s brief case and got taken to the office in one adventure, I remember.
For the last 13 years regular walks on the South Downs, first with the children as they grew up – in better weather, and since with the dog in all weathers, I’ve taken photographs of the same views, and the same parts of the cliff much of which has now gone with the greatest collapses in the last 18 months.
Fig.1 The path and steps down to the beach at Hope Gap. 13th January 2015
Fig.3. Erosion between Hope Gap and the mouth of the River Cuckmere, East Sussex. 9th March 2014
Loess blown here by Arctic winds during the Ice Ages. Water passing through becomes acid. This trickles into joints in the chalk, widening them to form solution pipes.
Fig.5 Solution pipe at Hope Gap
Fig. 6. Cliff erosion and collapse by the Lifeguard Cottages, Cuckmere.
For years not much happened. 2000-2007 was benign. Regular trips to the beach to picnic and swim and the summer found on on the same platforms and rocks. Over the last two years the severity of the weather, the amount and intensity of the rain and the enduring strength of the wind from the south west has seen considerable cliff collapse: loess washed out from the top of the cliffs, as well as catastrophic breaks in the cliff itself leading to falls of boulders and rocks.
Walkers will see how the signs warning of the cliff edge have been moved further inland by several meters, while the wooden fence at the top of the concrete steps at Hope Gape have fallen into the sea. The Environment Agency has already already sections of seawall protection (concrete and netted boulders) succumb to the sea and in due course the steps will go to, eventually to be replaced once some stability can be seen in the cliff further back.
I want my ashes scattered here. Where my wife asked. What if it’s windy. I said down a rabbit hole would be fine. That or in the brambles, or into the sea at low tide.
Fig.1 Alice in Wonderland pOp-Up.
FutureLearn MOOCs are as easy and as pleasurable to do as a child turning the pages of pop-up book on Christmas morning surrounded by friends and family.
Engaging. Puts a smile on your face. Teaches you something. Leaves you wanting more. What content is presented and the way it plays out changes things. The interaction with others matters massively.
My interest is e-learning. A decade ago it was web-based learning and before that it was online learning … as compared to ‘offline’ learning on an intranet or in a computer learning centre. Across this period, whether on Laser disc, CD-rom, DVD, or online the key words to describe a successful piece of learning might include: easy to use, intuitive, effective, measurable results, gamified and impressive. ‘Impressive’ for a corporate client has always been important – they want to see how their money is spent. It matters to jazz a thing up, to find a way to deliver exception creative qualities in both the ideas and the execution of these ideas. In H.E. this ‘impressiveness’ has been thin on the ground the experience and view of H.E. that someone talking to camera with a slide show or whiteboard will do the job; it doesn’t, not any more.
At the risk of writing a list I want to think about the ‘enhanced learning’ experiences that have impressed over the last 15 years:
Audi Shop DVD – Gold Award Winner at the IVCA awards. Stunning animated 3D animations of the engine. Like a 3D animated Dorling Kindersley
What are you like? – Gold Award Winner at the IVCA awards. An interactive life and career guide for teenagers done in the style of ‘In Betweeners’ and ‘Some Girls’ – nailed the audience with creative tone and visual effects. This won BAFTAs, the IVCA Grand Prix and NMA Effectiveness Awards.
Ideafisher – first on floppy discs, then a CD. It did in the 1990s what various websites do today by linking vast collections of aggregated ideas and concepts that it filters out and offers up. The closest I’ve felt to AI for creativity.
MMC – online marketing courses. These were, for me, in 2010, an early example of stringing the face to camera lecture together with course notes to create a course. Still more like a self-directed traditional lecture series but the volume of content was admirable and some of the tools to control the viewing and reading experience were innovative.
TED Lectures. Are they learning? Or are they TV? Are they modelled on the BBC’s Annual Reith Lecture series? Top of the Pops for the lecture circuit so tasters and Open Education Resources for grander things.
Pure simplicity. I love these. I gave a year to an intermediate course in French, learnt some grammar and fixed several problems with my pronunciation. Like that game ‘Pairs’ you play as a child: a pack of cards with pairs of images on one side that you pair up. With considered, only sometimes over art-directed photography. Repetitive, always in the language you are learning. The next best thing to being dropped in amongst native speakers as an infant. It just works.
Not so much a course as a series of stunning and memorable cartoon pieces that galvanise your interest. The next step is to follow through with a free trial course through OpenLearn and perhaps a nudge then towards a formal course with the Open University proper.
As easy as reading a book. I’ve done eight of these and have another three on the go (two for review rather than as a participant). Across the myriad of subjects and offerings there are differences, all gems, but some are more outstanding than others. It is no surprise that those MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) produced by the Open University are some of the very best; it’s what you’d expect with their experience. Other university’s shine through for their confidence with the the platform too, for example, ‘How to read a mind’ from the University of Nottingham.
MOOCs I love enough to repeat:
Start Writing Fiction: From the Open University
I may have been through this a couple of times in full and now dip back into it as I get my head into gear. I’ll do this as often as it takes to get the thinking to stick. It’s working. I read as a writer. I will interrupt a story to pick out how a succinct character description works. I’m also chasing up a myriad of links into further Open University courses and support on creative writing. For example: next steps, creative writing tasters, and audio tasters on iTunes.
MOOCs I may repeat next year … or follow similar topics from these providers:
Word War 1: Trauma and Memory: From the Open University with the BBC
World War 1: Paris 1919 – A New World: From the University of Glasgow with the BBC
MOOCs I admire that target their academic audiences with precision:
Shakespeare’s Hamlet: From the University of Birmingham
Web Science: How the Web is changing: From the University of Southampton
World War 1: Paris 1919 – A New World: University of Glasgow [Three Weeks]
100% Coming out of the MA in British Military History with a Postgraduate Certificate and 60 credits after one year it was good to take part in something carried by a leading academic. A challenge is worth taking on when there is something new to learn and understand. The WW1 theme hooked the interest and most students expected to stay there. Even if off my brief I was nonetheless happy to go the distances stretching out through WW2 and the creation and early history of the United Nations.
Four activities remaining to complete. A touch more academic than some. I guess this is undergraduate English Literature, but third year. Or is it pitched at postgraduate level. I have had to spend more time with the reading than I expected in order to grasp the main thesis relating to ‘Theory of Mind’. It is proving complementary to ‘Start Writing Fiction’ as it shows how we conceive of, and follow imagined and real characters in a world, in our heads, that is always part factual, part fictional.
|From E-Learning V|
I’ve been blown away, shaken up, put back together, slapped on the behind, smacked on the back and learnt a huge amount. All I need to do now is spend less time online, and more time writing … and reading.
My blogging days aren’t over, but the time devoted to it will be.
24 hours later I’m joining the alumni community of ‘SWF 14’ on Facebook and posting my work from the eight week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) here. Historically I’ve been very bad at taking advice from fellow bloggers – stop blogging, go write! So if it looks like my self-discipline of keeping this to 40 minutes or so a day then give me an electronic kick up the hooter 🙂
With thanks to ‘Start Writing Fiction Autumn 2014,’ and The Open University, to ‘National Write a Novel in a Month’ and to author and writing tutor Susannah Waters who have over the last three months put me back where I want to be: on a creative path with ‘published and produced’ in the SatNav.
|From E-Learning V|
More than any module or exercise I have done over my four years with The OU, it is a MOOC in FutureLearn that is giving me the most thorough experience of where the future or learning lies. I’m in week seven of eight weeks of ‘Start Writing Fiction’ from The OU, on the FutureLearn platform. Just in these few weeks I’ve seen the site change to solve problems or to enhance the experience. Subtle lifts and adjustments that make a positive out of constant adjustment. Those tabs along the top: activity, replies where under a tab. I think ‘to do’ is new while ‘progress’ was elsewhere. This is a responsive platform that listens to its students.
In the final week we submit our third piece of work.
As assessments go these are far less nerve racking than a TMA. The first piece was 300, the second 500 and the last will be 1000. These are assessed by fellow students. In my case I had one, then two reviews. Most people seem to get at least two sometimes three. The system is designed, I’m sure, to try and ensure that everyone’s work is reviewed at least once. Tens of thousands, certainly thousands of people are on the course.
We’re here to the 19th of December or so … if you follow the tracks as laid.
I hazard a guess that between 20-100 have posted there final piece already. Some, I know, got to the end of the entire course a few weeks ago; I looked ahead to see out of curiosity. There have always been 20 who post comments one, two even three weeks ahead. If 20 are posting I hazard a guess knowing my stats on these things that another couple of hundred could be clicking through the pages to read and observe. They may, like me, be coming back later. They may only be following the course, but not participating. Often, it is like standing on a stage looking into the gloom of the auditorium. Someone probably out there. One or two let you know. The rest don’t.
I hope those that race ahead come back …
I find that if I get ahead then I slow down and retrace my steps. To learn in this connected and collaborative way you are far better off in the pack … it is not a race to get to the end first. In fact, those who do this have already lost. They’ve missed the point. I’d suggest to people that if they have the time to do the week over. That’s been my approach anyway – the beauty of these things is everyone can come and go as they please, at a pace that suits them. Skip a bit. Go back. Follow it week by week, day by day … or not. Whatever works works?
There’s another very good reason to stay with the ‘pack’ or to come back and do a week over – the platform depends not on tutors and moderators commenting and assessing work, but us students doing a kind of amateur, though smart, peer review. This is what make a MOOC particularly vibrant, memorable and effective. Not listening to an educator telling us what’s what, but the contributors sharing, figuring it out, answering each other’s problems in multiple ways. We all learn in different ways and at a pace that shifts too. I find that often a point I don’t get first time round, on the second, or third, or even the fourth visit to an activity someone, somewhere puts it in a way that suddenly brings complete clarity – their way of seeing a thing, or expressing it, makes more sense than the writes of the course could manage. Because they can only write one version, not the ‘tartan’ that comes from an intelligent, threaded online conversation.