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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
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.
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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
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.
|From E-Learning V|
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.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.1 Moon phases in May 1917
Studying with the OU for the last four years it soon become natural to conduct online niche searches for books and papers related to course work. You learn also how to tag, store and gather the information and ideas that you find: this is one answer to that, a blog that serves several purposes, not least as a learning journal and e-portfolio.
Searching for the obscure, that essential detail that forms such a vital part of the sensory palette used by the writer, is as easy to find and just as necessary. This morning I stepped out one May evening in 1917 and wanted some hint of what I’d see, hear and feel: a few searches and I can see a waxing moon at 10.00pm on a cooling evening as the temperature dips below 12 degree C, and the noise, in this instance of thousands of men in Nissen huts around a camp soon giving way to a robin trilling and burbling in the trees and the sound of the sea washing against the Channel Coast.
These details are far more than accessories that overlay character and plot; they are what gives it credibility. Writing on and as the Great War rages requires significant care. The wrong detail will throw a reader, worse I’ll end up in a conversation about my claims. Posting a piece of fiction some years ago an irate reader told me what I’d said was rot and went on to correct me – I had been writing fiction. I’d said that a character called Gustav Hemmel changed his name to George Hepple and fakes his own death – the reality is that he went missing over the English Channel in his plane.
THREE HOURS working on writing fiction, five days a week, is the goal . The OU will have me for TWO hours a day (averaged with longer stints at the weekend). That’s the plan.
This are me thoughts from reading:
An empirically grounded framework to guide blogging for digital scholarship
Heap & Minocha (2012),
Fig.1. Digital Scholarship with a nod to Martin Weller‘s book of the same name. (Created in 2011)
By stripping back the paper what do I learn from this paper:
- about blogging and digital scholarship
- about devising the research question(s) and method of research.
This quote from Axcel Bruns is wrong in relation to blogging.
‘Were originally more popular amongst journalism and business context’ Bruns (2007)
In fact, from my experience from 1999 onwards, journalists were highly dismissive and didn’t cotton on to blogging as a valid way to share their opinions for several years. The exception being financial journalism where breaking views on markets were fed, blog like, to subscribers,
Fig.2. An excerpt from my own early blog.
I was reading blogs in 1998, did some Dreamweaver training and if I’d got my head around FTP uploads I may have been up an away in 98 rather than 99 when I heard of Diaryland and joined the platform soon after it started.
Fig.3. An excerpt from a blog created by Claire Z Warnes in 1998
Over the next 4 to 5 years I saw a massive growth and influx of what by modern terms would have been described as journals, creative writing, fantasy, role play and social networking.
Fig.4. How I saw blogging in 1999/2000
I question why bloggers are defined by the institution they are at – the blog is more personal, like the noticeboard at someone’s desk in the bedroom or study, or a diary or journal they carry about with them, whether electronic or paper.
Fig. 5. We should stop seeing blogging in isolation – forms of ‘keeping a journa’, for whatever purposes, is as old a writing itself.
Little is ever mention of a history of keeping diaries, a writer’s journal or other kind of daily record for reflection or in scholarly circles to record the iterative process of a learning journey or a piece of research. John Evelyn was a diarist. Was he scholarly? What about Pepy’s he was keeping an historic record? For whom did Lady Anne Clifford keep a diary if not for an historic, even a legal record, of her rights to her father’s estates? (Lady Anne Clifford kept at a diary late 1500s into the 17th century).
Was Virginia Woolf using herself as the subject of an internal discussion?
What did Anais Nin learn and share about her writing as well as her personal journey, a journey that was shared with Henry Miller and that a couple of decades was taken by the filmmaker Francois Truffaut. As someone who had kept a diary since he was thirteen and had been typing it up and putting on disc for nearly a decade, the move to the web was a natural one.
- for personal reflection (e.g. Xie, Fengfeng, and Sharma 2008)
- collaborative working (e.g. McLoughlin and Lee 2008)
- developing writing skills (e.g. Warschauer 2010)
- flexible usage of blogs to suit the individual blogger’s needs, such as
- a space for reflection, to seek peer support, or both (e.g. Kerawalla et al. 2008).
I read blogs and corresponded with writers who were using the format to try out chapters of fantasy novels, to share poetry, to test webdesigns even to meet and indulge in intimate chat, role play and even cybersex. (Early blogs were the forerunners of a lot to come).
Whilst some of this activity isn’t within the parameters of ‘scholarly’ practice, certainly from a creative writing point of view self-publishing was.
From personal experience there were those exploring their personality, who were lonely, depressed or bi-polar. Most studies in English speaking countries … yet it was presumably going on elsewhere. And where does someone who is using writing in English in a blog to learn English stand in terms of being a student and a scholar?
Defining scholarship in the digital age
Boyer (1990) developed a conceptual framework which defines ‘‘scholarship’’ as a combination of teaching and research activities. In particular, he suggests four dimensions to define scholarship: discovery, integration, application and teaching.
Fig.6. Another excerpt from a blog for young writers created by Claire Z Warnes in 1998 when she was 17 herself. (I think she went off to study Computer Sciences)
The earliest bloggers played a teaching role, for example Claire Z Warnes set up a series of web pages to encourage and support young writers in 1998. She was teaching, they were exploring through reading, writing and sharing just as if they were meeting face to face in a classroom.
Boyer’s dimensions constitute an appropriate starting point for researching digital scholarship (Weller 2011).
Pearce et al. (2010) elaborated on Boyer’s (1990) model to theorise a form of digital/open scholarship, arguing that it is:
- more than just using information and communication technologies to research,
- teach and collaborate,
- embracing the open values, ideology and potential of technologies born of peer-to-peer networking wiki ways of working in order to benefit both the academy and society.
Which is exactly what Claire Z Warnes (1998) was doing, indeed, as some remaining posts that can be viewed show, it was as if she were becoming the Dean of one of the first online creative writing classes.
In relation to the research here’s the problem that needs to be addressed:
There is a lack of empirical evidence on how the openness and sharing manifested in blogging can influence academia, research and scholarship. (Minocha, p. 178. 2012)
‘We have found that blogs seem to occupy an intermediate space among established writing forms such as peer-reviewed academic papers, newspaper articles, diaries, blurring the private public and formal informal divide ‘. (Heap and Minocha 2011).
There is a growing awareness of blogging as a writing or communicative genre in academia and research and as a new form of scholarship (e.g. Halavais 2007).
- to ensure validity of work through established forms of publishing,
- to integrate blogs so that research findings reach more readers
- to enable sharing information without time lags involved in formal publications.
The next steps in our research (according to the authors of this paper) are to validate the effectiveness of the framework (they developed) as a thinking tool about digital scholarship, and for guiding the practice of blogging in academia and research.
Heap, Tania and Minocha, Shailey (2012). An empirically grounded framework to guide blogging for digital scholarship. Research in Learning Technology, 20(Supp.), pp. 176–188. (Accessed 28th February 2013 http://www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/view/19195 )
Weller, M (2011) The Digital Scholar
- All you need to know about blogging that you can’t be bothered to research for yourself because you’re too busy blogging … (mymindbursts.com)
- Scholarly Blogging (malmsy.net)
- What my pink highlighter taught me. (dfbierbrauer.wordpress.com)
- Essay on placing academic work in the right scholarly context (insidehighered.com)
- Driving learning through blogging: Students’ perceptions of a reading journal blog assessment task. (mymindbursts.com)
- Exploring students’ understanding of how blogs and blogging can support distance learning in Higher Education (mymindbursts.com)
- Digital Curation Bibliography: Preservation and Stewardship of Scholarly Works XHTML Version (digital-scholarship.org)
- Blogging Inspiration, Where Does it Come From? (prefs.zemanta.com)