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Reflect, Review, Rethink, Redo … the power of repetition

Fig.1. My mash-up from the Start Writing Fiction, OU and FutureLearn MOOC. 

Many weeks after the Open University MOOC on Future Learn closed ‘Start Writing Fiction’ I find I am returning to the many activities across the eight weeks to refresh, reflect, and build on my knowledge. As well as doing my bit for that ‘community’ by doing a few reviews (all assignments are peer reviewed). I completed the course in early December.

I return to reflect, to develop ideas, to be reminded of the excellent lessons I have learnt there, and in particular on how we use fact and fiction, whether consciously or not. In pure fantasy writing I find, inevitably, that I ground events in places I know from my youth, or have since researched. I use the hook of reality and my experiences on which to build the fiction. While currently I am embedded in what started as 90/10 fiction to fact I find it is increasingly looking like 95/5 in favour of fact as my imagination is close to the truth about a particular character and his experience of the First World War. All this from a simple exercise in week one called ‘Fact or Fiction?’ where we are asked first of all two write something that contains three factual elements and one fiction, and then to write something that contains three fictional elements and one factual. There are thousands of these now, many very funny, original or captivating. In week one, I’m guessing that around 10,000 got through the week. How many posted? There are 967 comments. This happens. It is an open course. The same applies for most web content: 95:5 is the ratio of readers to writers. Many people prefer not to do what they feel is ‘exposing themselves’ online. Why should they.

Anyway, this gives me reason to argue that it is an excellent idea to keep a blog of your OU studies. All of this can remain private, but at least, as I know have in this blog, when the doors close behind a module you can, months, even years later, return to key activities and assignments and build on the lessons you learnt. More importantly, as we all forget with such ease, we can keep the memory of the lessons fresh.

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Why online you should ‘start writing fiction’ with The Open University on FutureLearn

Start Writing Fiction : The Open University [Eight Weeks]

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. Over eight weeks I baulked at pen and paper, sticking to digital on iPad, laptop and desktop though in time turning to  A6 and A4 hardback notebooks. 

100% This is designed to need three hours a week over eight weeks. The depth and breadth of contributions may have had me spending two or three hours on a signal activity, possibly this much each week, perhaps averaging 12 hours a week. Each week has 8 – 12 activities. In scope it looks like a fully fledged Open University undergraduate BA course. Many fellow students commented on this. Enough have stuck through to keep it vibrant and very worthwhile. Looking at early notes on hopes and final notes on reflection I feel as if I’ve gone further than I might have expected in a year of committed part-time participation.

Fig.2. Norman Mailer. Whose last book was on writing and with whom I exchanged ideas when I blogged at length about the book. A decade late on this MOOC I end with over 100 followers and find 87 of my own whose ideas, advice and take on life I relate to.

#FLfiction14

Completed ‘Start Writing Fiction’ with The Open University on FutureLearn

From E-Learning V

Fig.1 Start Writing Fiction

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.

Reflecting on writing on The OU FutureLearn MOOC ‘Start Writing Fiction’ 8.9

Further adventures in learning to write fiction with the Open University

How did you go about the rewrite and why?

Some copy editing errors and for someone not familiar with British history the significance of what takes place may have had no relevance. I fixed the inconsistency and wrote in an appropriate style a summary that establishes that the two characters are the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII and HRH Edward, Prince of Wales age 68 and Arthur Minty, a comedian and household name age 64. The two met during the First War 1914-18 when they were 22 and 18 respectively.

What editorial criticisms did you reject and why?

I can keep, edit or rewrite anything – so why not give it all a shot and reserve judgment for later. In this instance I want someone to enjoy the story wherever they may be from in the world and whether or not they know some British history.

Did you agree with all of the recommendations? Sometimes the most difficult thing to do is to cut an apparently successful aspect of a story because it jars with the rest of the story. It might be good but doesn’t fit.

The only issue I have with rewrites and editing is how quickly I can lose the sense of flow, or fear abandoning important chunks. It therefore becomes a matter of filing which I am dreadful at. I have numerous deposits for words online, and a couple of notebooks on the go – some of which I lose for months years.

What do you consider to be working well in the story?

The relationship between two friends who can never be rivals or get into conflict; it is where or from whom the conflict will come that is my problem now. I know who and where this is, from a nebulous lot known as ‘the establishment’. What staggers and pleases me is the serendipity of the research that suggests I am far closer to the true character of the non-fictional character, Edward, Prince of Wales. He was, as a young man, ‘physically courageous’ loving to steeplechase for example, and coming off once in days when hard hats were not worn. He itched to go into action on the front line like all other hot blooded young men of the time.

What in the story still needs work?

This point of conflict is crucial, but ‘the establishment’ is a cultural modus operandi, not a cult, but a sensibility felt by those with power and influence: aristocracy, lords, MPs, leading lawyers, journalists, academics and senior religious figures. Fictionalising the lot of them as the bad guys ala J K Rowling would be easier than having to work with the facts. Maybe I will have to invent a bogie man?

How did the editorial comments compare to your own earlier reflection on the story – the one you wrote in Being your own critic?

This was very interesting. And some of the same problems still apply. My confidence in the relationship between these two has grown: I am thinking of them as ‘Laurel and Hardy’, rather than ‘Ant and Dec’ or ’Morecombe and Wise’ – though herein lies a solution to my problem. What conflict have, or did such ‘acts’ face and how did the overcome the barriers to success, together or individually. Further research paints a far better picture of Edward, and his devotion and love to ‘Duch’ as I hear him call her in a 1968 interview. They are more Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton than we may think from impressions we have from news coverage.

ACTION

The revised and developed piece now runs to 2,600 words and will eventually embrace another 60,000 words in due course using a variety of approaches I’ve experimented with courtesy of Start Writing Fiction. I happened to have to look at how to write jokes and found some lessons that are just as valid here: information is everything, the audience must know what you are talking about. I will therefore not take for granted that people around the world know anything about the British royal family, or the First World War. I fear losing track or losing the flow if I cut around, so will rewrite all the way through in this new style rather than cut and paste. i.e. remain closer to the experience a reader might have. My two characters have become a double act – so the conflict has to be one they face together and that is something I need to develop as a matter of urgency.

Learning how to learn online with FutureLearn and The OU

From E-Learning V

Fig.1 My progress on The OU MOOC on FutureLearn ‘Start Writing Fiction’ (c) FutureLearn 2014

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.

As in sport, so in fiction

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. Start Writing Fiction FutureLearn MOOC from The OU

I’ve struggled on two and three week MOOCs but like hundreds, even thousands of others I am entering the penultimate week of eight weeks studying with The OU on the FutureLearn platform. I’ve said here often that I wished I’d done the Creative Writing BA and if this taster is anything to go by I would certainly have done so … but money has run out, if not the time I give to these things.

Besides writing fiction this has been the best example of many of how collaborative learning online has a significant future. It makes much else redundant; some courses here at The OU need a shake up now, not in five years time. The ‘presentation cycle’ of 8 to 12 years will need to be halved to keep up. I no longer want the traditional distance learning course of text books and DVD, even if the text and the DVD is put online. It has to be designed and written again onto a blank canvas: migrating books and video, even interactive DVD to the WEB completely misses the most valuable part of being online – interaction with others. Putting content online simply saves someone on distribution costs – not a saving that is passed onto the student.

In 1999 I was expected as a Producer to migrate DVD content to the web. It didn’t bandwidth for images, let alone video, made it redundant, let alone the spread and layout of content. It’s the kind of transitionary phase all industries go through. Suddenly the old way we learn is looking like the cart and horse, with first e-learning efforts looking like the horseless carriage. In due course hybrids will give way to something new.

Week 7 ‘Start Writing Fiction’ The OU @ FutureLearn

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. My mashup from the FutureLearn App using Studio

I continue to wonder what impact FutureLearn will have on future models for e-learning platforms. I turn screengrabs into aide memoires like the one above.

Comments on the ‘Start Writing Fiction’ threads are now down from 3000 per thread to a few hundred … a fall out of 95% is usual for a myriad of reasons. It’ll be interesting to find out how many make it to the end … and in due course who ends up a published author, and most especially how many migrate from a FREE MOOC to a paid-for course with The OU. I have a sense that most on the module are over 60 and broke.

We’ve just listened to a handful of authors talking about the importance of reading.

I found this insightful and helpful across the board. I relate to Louis de Bernieres in terms of reading habits – different authors, same approach entering and re-entering writing/reading modes in months … something I need to change i.e. write, edit and read a daily pattern. Patricia Duncker says she read and views everything – a philosophy of Francois Truffaut who I was a fan of, especially trashy novels in his case. And from Alex Garner I see the value of seeing a novel as a screenplay, even as a director setting scenes, something incidentally Hilary Mantel talks about in an OU / BBC interview – write in scenes. Succinct. No messing. It relates to her understanding of how we reader in the 21st century – that we are used to and know the snappiness of the movie and TV. She says that the lengthy descriptions of Victorian novels are no longer palatable. I take from this that we have far too great a vivid view of the world. We know what slums, jungles and places globally look like. We see through time in documentaries, and film and now online. You mention the mud of Passchendaele and most people can picture it from commonly shared photographs and documentaries. An editing exercise reduced 500 words to 50. Most novice writers grossly overwrite. This OU MOOC favours pithy craft.

Charting Progress to ‘Write a Novel in a Month’

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. Write a novel in a month

Not blogging, not on Facebook, but first thing I write, or plan writing. Then get down anything between 500 and 3000 words. 500 words can be a better day, these are good words.

As an OU student we are guided through our learning on our Student Homepage. These are like railway tracks, or climbing down a ladder. Whilst you can tick off your progress, it is not being measured.  I wonder if a tool such as the above would be handy for preparing a lengthy assignment, say from 4000 words up? Something that you need to build up over a few weeks?

It is ‘Start Writing Fiction’, an OU FutureLearn MOOC that sees me using ‘Write a novel in a month’ to complement the course. This makes the MOOC more closely applied to the current task (amongst several). Of all the FutureLearn MOOCs I have done, this, I am sure, must bring students to The OU to do the degree course in ‘Creative Writing’. It has weight, there is gravitas and a clear expertise in distance and online learning that is lacking in many others.

There’s a word for everything

From E-Learning V

Fig.1 Adventures in describing teeth types

‘Start Writing Fiction’ on FutureLearn courtesy of The OU is brilliant: I have no doubt thousands will sign up for a BA. Meanwhile I’ve taken the hint about the value of ‘peripheral detail’ to offer in a line what no paragraphs of description can do.

Several hours ago I had in mind a person as a character and began to describe their face. It all came down to their teeth. This is drawing on a teenage crush of mine and I find images and drawings to back up my idea then plunge through some weighty papers, not least, courtesy of The OU Library, a research paper on the incidence of something called ‘dental agenesis’ or ‘retention of baby teeth’ (which might be just one or two), to ‘oligontontia’ which means the rare retention of many baby teeth (0.14%) due probably to inheritance, reduction in the size and form of teeth, or reduction in the size and shape of the ‘alveolar process’ (the thickness of the bon retaining the teeth).

This will do for me, though coming away with one word, ‘retruded’ which may describe the teeth, but still fails to capture what I want to say. Teeth are either smaller, retained baby teeth, or because of the retrusion they appear smaller. Kirsten Dunst shows a touch of this prior to orthodentic treatment.

From E-Learning V

Fig.2 Post orthodentics for retruded teeth

Orthodentists prefer to adjust the way baby teeth appear in an adult mouth rather than removing them. It depends on how many there are. One is not rare (36%).

The look on the person is of a smaller jaw, the teeth like a row of pegs, the smile of a 9 year old … though, as I have found, you wouldn’t know it.

It is genetic, clusters have be found in Sweden. It can be caused by trauma and illness in childhood.

I am left wondering why one character is studying the mouth of another which such precision.

REFERENCE

Polder B J, van’t H of M A, Van der Linden F P, Kuijpers-Jagtman A M. A meta analysis of the prevalence of dental agenesis of permanent teeth. Community Dent Oral Epidemiol 2004; 32: 217–226.

Turn on the radio and take note of the first thing that is mentioned

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. Week 2, ‘Start Writing Fiction’ with The OU on FutureLearn

As exercises in ‘getting the writing juices going’ for an OU FutureLearn MOOC on ‘Start Writing Fiction’ I felt that this exercise was immediately doomed to fail. I’d put on the radio and have a familar presenter, talking about familar topic in a familiar way and feel about as inspired as realising that I’ve always used white Abdrex toilet paper. It didn’t work out that way at all.

From E-Learning V

Fig. 2. Alex Salmond coming up Lewes High Street – Putin was coming the over way on a tank

On an iPad I went to BBC iPlayer which was fatal; I’d followed national news on our local town exploding effigies as part of our celebrations of 5th November (Lewes) and listened to Alex Salmond making gross false assumptions on the people of this town who he erroneously cobbled in with all of East Sussex, not even that, but that percentage of the population and subsequent councillors who are Conservatives forgetting as he always does that in any population there is a spread of views – anyway, this just makes me feel that they have his character spot in so this Spitting Image caricature deserves the infamy. I then watched Film 2014 on the latest movie releases before finally clicking to the radio and realising what a cheat this was because I could select the programme.

FiveLive Extra caught my eye, because I never listen to it, but there is a lot of talking. So I opened that, only to curse because sports news has just started and that bores me even more than politics but I decided I had to trust The OU tutors and go along with this exercise anyway : that was nearly 90 minutes ago. A player in … was it tennis or rugby or football, does it matter? The player was described as ‘menacing’.  At first I couldn’t see how a current or new character would ever be ‘menacing’ so I tried the antonym: ‘remote’, ‘unthreatening’ – which describes one of my lead characters perfectly.

From E-Learning V

Fig.3. Wonderous word tools – thesaurus.com

What would make him ‘menacing’ though?

This cracked open his mind and early life experiences like magic and I have been tapping away on my iPad ever since as if my left hand is doing an impersonation of Michael Flately across the glassy QWERTY keyboard. Is that someone who has been a Lewes Bonfire Society effigy?

P.S. If the radio is on, then turn it off and count to TEN, or switch to another channel. Then jot down the first thing that is said. I’m running with the results for the rest of the evening so its achieved beautifully at what it aimed to do.

A really magic course, so yes, if I hadn’t so much other OU baggage I’d be signing up to the creative writing BA programme. One for the wish list if I can ever save up enough.

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