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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.

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What’s a MOOC from FutureLearn life? It’s as easy as turning the pages of a book

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.

Rosetta Stone – iPad App

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.

iTunesU – The History of English in One Minute.

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.

FutureLearn – the entire platform.

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:

How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham

Shakespeare’s Hamlet: From the University of Birmingham

Web Science: How the Web is changing: From the University of Southampton

 

Start Writing Fiction: More free resources from The Open University – OpenLearn – Open University

Start Writing Fiction: More free resources from The Open University – OpenLearn – Open University.

Some great ideas on getting started and seeing it through to a completed novel.

Is Google translate teaching me written French or am I teaching ‘it’ to translate French into English?

It’s 21 years since I lived in France.

Amongst other things I translated kids TV cartoons from French into English! I’m now trying, once and for all, to get my written French in order courtesy of:

  • Duolinguo
  • Qstream
  • OpenLearn French
  • Google Translate
  • A MOOC in French (ABC of business start ups if I have understood what is going on!!)
  • And the threat of legal action from the owners of my late Father’s timeshare flat in the French alps (he died 11 years ago … ). Only this week have they finally acknowledge my letters – probably because I chose to write in pidgin French rather than bolshy English.

When I want to write in French I give it a stab, stick it through Google Translate then  jig my English around until I get what I would have said in French out of the other end. (I can speak French – like a Belgian I am told).

When I read any tricky French I paste it into Google Translate and adjust until, once again, it has the sense of what I would have understood had I simply heard it spoken to me.

The test is how quickly will I be found out in an all French MOOC.

The only issue is that hopping around computers in our house (My teenage son has a couple of huge screens which I particularly enjoy using while he is at school) – I found one viewing of the MOOC was being automatically translated – which can in itself be quite a laugh. But at what point will such translation be seamless, at least to the non-linguists? At what point will it suffice as an adequate stab at what is being said and meant by what is being said?

Will be have a Babel Fish in our ear along with the Google Glass(es)?

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