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Now you can start writing fiction …

Fig.1 The Open University Start Writing Fiction eight week course FREE on Future Learn

It surprises me all the time how facts and fiction weave in and out of each other. I love the merry little dance I’m learning to give people. It matters that only I know what is fact and what is fiction as too easily a person or an event is described with barely a twist. Increasingly the closer I get to the ‘truth’ about a feeling, person or event the more convincing it is … even if I’m describing a talking fish, or a combination of dead and living people sharing a car journey that’s as real any I do every week.

The FutureLearn online course Start Writing Fiction started on Monday. I loved it so much last year I’m back for more to refresh what I picked up and find what I missed.


Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap Method – prep on one sheet of paper

Fig.1 Steven Pressfield’s ‘Foolscap Method’ to write a novel

I’ve read Steven Pressfield, though not necessarily taken his advice, for over 12 years. I keep a copy of his “The War of Art’ by my side like a bible. I give copies away.

How to get over that first ‘hump’ and turn yourself into a published author 

How to break the back of a story before you write treatments or anything else.

He’s quite right about this. I’ve been told it many times before that you have to know your ending. I can remind myself here and see how it works for a number of writing projects.

I apply the ‘Creative Brief’ to all professional work: addressing a creative problem on a single sheet of paper, so why not apply something similar to an entire, lengthier writing project? Keep it simple. Keep it short.

Fig.2 Close up on Steven Pressfield’s ‘Foolscap Method’ used to write his first novel 

Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap Method : From his blog.

A bit more on the Foolscap Method from his blog.

The Foolscap Method – Video 1

The transcript

The Foolscap Method – Video 2

My notes:


Break it into three parts:

Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – Beginning, Middle and End. As simple as that.

Break your story down into something so simple that you feel you have a handle on it.


How do you tell the story? What is the narrative device? Who tells the story?


Theme. What is the story about? This will tell you climax and the antagonist and everything in between …


The inciting incident and the climax.

8 tips to improve your writing from Kurt Vonnegut

Fig. 1 “Be a sadist.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Which I interpret as conflict, as creating a mess and seeing how the characters behave and what lessons they learn or do not learn as a result.

Unable to retain more than one piece of advice in my head for long I’ve created this octahedron with the eight tips Kurt Vonnegut gives. This way I toss this over my desk as I write every so often, at least every time I reach for a sip of coffee. I can then check whether or not I am doing as required.

2) “Give your readers at least one character they can route for.” Kurt Vonnegut.

This is all about creating believable characters: the good, the bad and the ugly. With a mixture of traits, and most having something likeable.

3) “Don’t waste the time of a stranger.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Which I take to mean avoid the dull and the obvious in settings, choice of words and phraseology. Take risks. Surprise and thrill them. It can be how you see the every day in a quirky and original way, and not simply having wacky characters and locations.

4) “Every sentence must reveal character of advance the action.”

Kurt Vonnegut. No more indulgent ‘jazz writing.’ Think like a professional writer and make the words count towards something.

5. “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.” Kurt Vonnegut.  

Never play that game of ‘twist in a tail.’ Writing stories is not the same as telling a joke and writing a sketch. Hitchcock used to talk about telling the audience there’s a bomb, then spending the story waiting for it to go off.

6. “Every character should want something. Even if it’s just a drink of water.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Which I take to mean avoid having characters as props to the protagonist: they too want something from life. Show what it is and have it in conflict.

7. “Start as close as possible to the end.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Which I interpret as meaning getting as close to the climax. Don’t hang back, and certainly avoid constant backfill and back story that with each draft takes you away from the big idea and the big events of the story.

From 2BlogI

8) “Write to please just one person.” Kurt Vonnegut.

Please one and you please many. Try to write for many and you’ll either get in a terrible tangle or produce mud.

4 ways to create characters who have impact on your protagonist’s life

Fig.1 How to think of characters in a book. 

I’m writing and taking advice on my writing. Against common sense I’m fixated on a fictional relationship between a character and 22 others. His serial relationship with each of these could be a short story each, a novel in the case of a couple of them. It looked like the main character was coming out of these relationships or encounters unchanged – that will change. This offers a way forward.

Each of the characters I am developed, or have developed, must have this effect, giving him:

  1. Happiness
  2. Experience
  3. Lessons
  4. Memories

And yes, the best ones do give him all of this. He doesn’t repeat the same mistakes, he learns for ill or for good and his attitude and therefore behaviour changes. It would be easier to being with a fool and a cad, like the Bill Murray character from Groundhog Day. I’m tempted: his traits as a child would therefore be aloof, alienating and anal. Sounds unpleasant. Things can only get better?

José Maria de Eça de Queirós in Newcastle – now there’s a story!

Eca in Newcastle

From Project Guttenberg

How to build a scene when writing fiction …

Fig.1 A ‘Block Reminder’ for scene building based on the ideas of author and writing coach Susannah Waters.

Last September I attended a writer’s retreat in Devon with Susannah Waters. On day one she introduced me to simple ideas on how to build a scene. For the last six months I have tried to keep this in mind as I write up first one, then a second novel.

Often, the comments I receive would have been addressed had I given these pointers some thought. Too often, I know, I upload a treatment, not a draft. I tell the story, but I don’t ‘show it’ in the sense of engaging the imagination of the reader.

This homemade die covers six key points:

W = who am I?

PH = stay in the person’s head

5S = refers to the five senses: see, hear, smell, touch and taste

D= asks what am I doing

SY=asks what am I saying


T=asks what am I thinking.

I used a seed box and my son created the fonts on a template, cut it out and stuck it to the box.

This morning, before I used this, I ran through eight episodes each more of a synopsis than a treatment. Each now is far longer, but this is good if I am now keeping the reader in my head.

Controlling plot is another issue; I never can. The very process of writing for me, like telling someone a dream I have head, means that new things come into my head and want my attention.

Story shapes that offer a way forward

From Writing

Kurt Vonnegut’s wanted to write an MA thesis on the common shapes of stories: he was told it was too simple. He can be found in various interviews and presentations waxing lyrical about the shape stories take.

His are: 1) Cinderella: needs no elaboration. Applies to incremental steps of progress, radical failure then absolute glory.

2) Boy Meets Girl similar: we know it. Applies to any story of desire for something, its loss, then recovery. Also rom-com territory.

3) Man in a Whole: things go bad, then you get out of your whole. Shawshank Redemption. Martian. Haruki Murakami wrote a novel in which the protagonist was really down a well much of the time. I feel I’m most inclined to relate to and to write this one.

4) New Testament: like Cinderella–gifted things, which are then taken away before being returned with interest.

5) Old Testament: gifted things that are taken away forever.

6) Creation Stories: God made Earth in seven days …

7) From Bad to Worse: And it never gets better. Says it all. Fallen.

8) Which Way Is Up: That ambiguity in life where we don’t know what is good or bad from actions and events. Probably the hardest to sustain. Hamlet.

What you get if you use a plot generator smile

Have a go with Plot Generator

Of far better use is TV Tropes, which is a cross-media analysis of story types, with examples and links to the authors.

Reading and writing with fresh eyes

From Writing

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.

Filming at Seaford Head, East Sussex

Fig. 1 Jeremy Irvine (War House) and Dakota Fanning (loads of films) on Seaford Head looking towards the Seven Sisters.

This gem of a film, ‘Now is Good’ is also from the director of “The Magnificent Marigold Hotel’ – it came out in 2012. Did you miss it? Get it on Amazon Prime for free right now. Dakota Fanning is a 17 year old dying of cancer with a wish list of things to do. Her performance is wonderful and she is totally credible as English girl. The list includes doing something illegal, and sex … which explains the boyfriend.

What’s odd in this image is that the bench is pointed away from the view towards some gorse bushes. The bench also lacks a dedication which all such chairs have up there. It also lacks a concrete base and a great deal of scuffed grass and mud, but that’s being pernickety isn’t it?

I walk the dog here often: I was down there this morning wishing I’d worn more.

Today I stumbled upon the largest camp of film lighting, catering, wardrobes and other support services I have yet seen. Are they filming ‘Iron Man IV’ down there? They use the concrete base, like a large roundabout, where there was once a Word War II searchlight and gun emplacement. There’s easy road access to the public car park. The ‘long hike’ Dakota Fanning complains of is a five minute walk.

Since moving down here in 2000 I have thus far stumbled upon the filming of a scenes for ‘Atonement’, what I was told was an East Enders special, a TV commercial and picking up shots for Harry Potter (It’s where the World Quidditch game is played). You will never be told what they are working on. Best to try and spot the actors and figure it out from there, or wait a year to 18 months to see what comes out in the cinema or on TV.

Do you live next to a regularly used film location?

As a boy growing up in Northumberland we had Alnwick Castle up the road. Long before Harry Potter they filmed something called ‘King Arthur and the Spaceman’ in which I was an extra all one summer. I was 16. I was the ‘King’s Guard Special’ to Kenneth Moor’s elderly King Arthur.

Much of Parade’s End was filmed in this part of East Sussex too. The laugh is to have shots along the River Cuckmere being used as scenes from the window of a train, the greatest error bring to have a coastal scene here doubling for Northumberland which is very different indeed, with sandy beaches and dunes, and sharp, low severe points of volcanic rock rather than the massive soft limestone cliffs we have down here.

I may go back to Hope Gap and have a look to see what they’re up to. Only three months ago there was a large film crew at Birling Gap. The cliffs here often double as ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ as they are more dramatic.

The mind is wobbly … Brain is flat? The brain is unstable? I love this. It’s better than the Thorn Birds.

From E-Learning VI

Fig.1. Grab from The mind is flat. 

Across FutureLearn videos the name caption always come up right of screen whether or not there are one, two or more people featured. Does this kind of thing bother you? There are no fewer than THREE opportunities to brand this as ‘The University of Warwick’ – one would do, none are necessary. We know that this entire course if from Warwick. See them: Branded watermark in the top right hand corner, on the strapline (the least necessary and most erroneous) and yet again in the video time line … there is a fourth if you include the page this grab came from.

Other amateur antics include surreptitiously reading off notes, glancing away at the camera operator, having a second camera or wobble cam as if this a Jamie Oliver cookery course, that’s before we have to think about the antics of the video editor who wants to prove that they should be cutting pop videos.

Otherwise I love the learning and discussions and the argument for multimedia being ‘good enough’ rather than of TV broadcast quality is largely right: overly produced is just as bad as amateurish. The thinking is gripping, engaging, thought-provoking, mind bend and even funny.

Anything that gets in the way of the message is wrong.

Otherwise the above is perfect: an authentic exchange and share. So, authenticity rules?

Mistakes and all. Speak the language of the fluid internet conversation. Keep it simple. Employ people with experience who know what they are doing.

From E-Learning VI

Fig.2. Nick Chater and Jess Whittlestone. Co-stars of ‘The Thorny Birds’.

Does the mind exist? Shouldn’t we be talking about the brain?

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