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23 ways to an e-learning fix

Fig.1 Grab from a BBC Horizon programme on the brain. 2014.

The courses I’ve done with FutureLearn over the last 18 months.

  1. World War 1: A history in 100 Stories: Monash University
  2. Medicine and the Arts: The University of Cape Town 
  3. The Mind is Flat: University of Warwick 
  4. Understanding Drugs and Addiction. King’s College, London 
  5. World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism. University of Leeds
  6. Explore Filmmaking: National Film and Television School 
  7. How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham
  8. Start Writing Fiction: Fall 2014. The Open University
  9. Word War 1: Trauma and Memory: The Open University 
  10. World War 1: Aviation Comes of Age: University of Birmingham 
  11. World War 1: Paris 1919 – A New World: University of Glasgow 
  12. How to Succeed at: Writing Applications: The University of Sheffield 
  13. Introduction to Forensic Science: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow 
  14. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: University of Birmingham
  15. Climate Change: Challenges and Solution. University of Exeter
  16. Managing my Money: The Open University
  17. Community Journalism: Cardiff University
  18. Developing Your Research Project: University of Southampton

Those I’m on or have pending

  1. World War 1: A 100 Stories: Monash University
  2. Start Writing Fiction: Spring 2015: The Open University
  3. Monitoring Climate From Space: European Space Agency
  4. Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum: University of Leicester
  5. Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales:  The Hans Christian Andersen Centre
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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.

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.

Seeking inspiration from ‘The Thorn Birds’

From Writing

Fig.1. The Thorn Birds. From my iPad

Every few weeks my writing output collapses as I wonder where on earth I am going with it. A few weeks ago I thought 30,000 words along the lines of ‘Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging’ would be good enough and about the standard and tone of what I was producing as I wrote up the antics of a 15/16 year old with his eye on any pretty girl.

A second character appeared and grew. She took over the lives of two others and developed a life of her own.

I have both these two age six or so onwards.

Somewhere I got a whiff of ‘The Thorn Birds’ and so have had a couple of days reading what I vaguely remember as a TV series of Rachel Ward. It was on in 1983. I picked up bits of it. I had assumed it had been on far earlier than that, more like the mid 1970s.

Anyway, this story told over sixty years has its appeal as a model. There is more sense to it as the lives of the immediate family around the central characters are brought to life than my determined efforts to thread together a group of girls from a Form Photograph.

1,783,027 words, 1,879 entries over 5,091 pages if printed off. 

This how I left my first blog. Jonathan.Diaryland.com

It barely scratches the surface of the memories a brain can recreate. I tried. I have in there repeated efforts to recall the very first things I could ever feasibly have formed as viable memories: or were they words and images put into my head by my mother much later? I also noticed that in the comments I have two years of conversations with the now published author Catherine Valente and, would that I could verify it, a short exchange with Norman Mailer.

This diary is on ‘Diaryland;’ started in September 1999, finally ended in March 2006.

It feels like landfill: there’s so much stuff in there rotting away. Though it doesn’t, it’s digital. Closed because while I don’t give a monkey’s about writing on everything I have done, thought about or think where people can be identified it could cause embarrassment and offence. It took me a few years to realise that if I was receiving 200+ views an hour some of these people might know me.

No one I knew ever, ever said they were there. Not for a long time.

Perhaps they knew I’d close it down if they let on? I tried to obscure names and locations but that just got very confusing. I held a mirror along the Pennines and set everything that had taken place in Northumberland in Cumbria and vice versa. For people’s names I tried initials, so taking  ‘JV,’ for me is a giveaway, so I ‘cleverly’ decided to change names by one letter in the alphabet, so ‘JV’ became ‘KW’ and I’d go by he name ‘Ken,’ for example. I knew a lot of Sallys who all became ‘Tamsin’ or ‘Tabatha’ which threw my head as it immediately had me constructing different fictional personas for them – just as well? That’s what writing fiction is about, embellishment? ‘Ken and Tabatha’ sounds like the relationship between a Barbie doll and a Sasha doll.

There were a lot of ‘Js’ too for both boys and girls from the 1970s and there is a limited choice of ‘Ks’ to go with.

Only a few years later bumping into old friends from home and school have they said they knew all about ‘X’, and ‘Y’ or looked at the drawings I did of ‘K’ and the photo of ‘T.’ The greatest shock was getting into a conversation with my ‘petite amie’ from my school French Exchange when I was 17 – 33 years after we’d last seen each other (two years ago). I’d posted a teen sketch I did of her and wrote up in detail how we had behaved.

This content is of far greater value to me not ‘cleaned up.’ I keep it closed though I’m drawing upon it constantly as it contains a substantial part of the diary, verbatim, that I kept from the age of 13 to 28 and a great deal of stories that I wrote drawing on some of those experiences. These are finding life once again thanks to the OU’s FutureLearn course ‘Start Writing Fiction’ and, once again, a close writer/editor relationship that has formed. It is, should I ever get published, a sound example of the value of keeping a ‘notebook’ as that diary, even as I conceived it age 13 is a substantial ‘writer’s journal’ that follows life through the eyes of a boy growing into manhood, taking an healthy interest in the opposite sex and after some pain and love, finding and marrying ‘the one’ – and now celebrating 20 years married and soon to celebrate 25 years together.

What I find touching, then and again today, is that supportive friendships form with fellow writers or readers or editors that is enormously encouraging and guiding; people want my words. I feel like a stand up comic who loses his audience from time to time, then gets hit by a soft  ‘carrot’ or a bendy ‘stick’ and subsequently re-adjusts his ‘voice’ to the one they want to hear. 

Marking five years since I started my OU degree and an OU Student blog almost coincided with a logical, deserving step into the legitimate world of e-learning as I completed an ‘in-tray’ exercise ahead of a second interview. As I prepared to mark this ‘Five Years’ (a totemic time period for any David Bowie fan) I thought I could be announcing this literal step onto a ‘platform’.

Though I also had in mind my response to it not happening:

  • no more job applications
  • no more OU courses
  • back to writing with a renewed vengeance and determination. (I feel the Start Writing Fiction course on FutureLearn has refuelled me. I’ve been a petrol engine trying to run on diesel all y life and they fixed that)
  • once again give a substantial body of unpublished work (manuscripts for novels, screenplays, TV series, radio plays) their chance. (I have made and found the time and was for a couple of years indulged by an agent and producers enough to get interviews to discuss treatments and first scenes. On reflection I was a chef who appeared to promise something delicious but kept serving the thing up either cold or over spiced. SWF has been like a short course in Cordon Blue cookery; I may not be there yet, but at least what I’m now producing is edible).
  • and commit to a two month sailing trip later in the year: the Atlantic via the Canaries and Cape Verde to Bermuda.
  • Meanwhile I have picked out one manuscript, something I dated March 2006 when I boxed it away, that runs to around 100,000 words and 42 chapters. I am revisiting, rewriting and posting this in little bits. It’ll take at least six months working 14 hours+ a day.
  • eight hours a week ‘work’ fails to keep the wolf from the door. I could do with at least 20. 

I didn’t get the job.

Life has moved on.

I am writing with fury and loving it. My only regret? The need to sleep. 

Writing fiction at:

http://www.startwritingfiction.wordpress.com = password protected

Diaryland at:

http://www.jonathan.diaryland.com = password protected

The Oxbridge tutorial is open to all online in a MOOC from FutureLearn

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:

Start Writing Fiction

How to read a mind

Climate Change

World War One: Trauma and Memory

World War One: Aviation Comes of Age

World War One: Paris 1919

How to succeed at: writing applications

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.

On rewriting fiction – again

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.

What else?!

‘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.

On verra

 

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.

An exploration of the MOOC

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. My mash-up of a correct answer to a quiz in the FutureLearn course from the University of Nottingham ‘How to read a mind’ that ties in directly to The OU course on the same platform ‘Start Writing Fiction’.

As these MOOCs complete I have a few weeks over Christmas to reflect on a busy year of Moocing about and to catch up with regular coursework on L120, assisted with a necessary business visit to France.

My MOOCing is enjoyed all the more while reading Martin Weller’s new book that covers MOOCs, ‘The Battle for Open’. These are interesting times indeed.

With friends yesterday I evangelised about MOOCs on FutureLearn and found that what worked was to describe a MOOC in layman’s terms as the equivalent of a hefty, hardback, coffee-table book you buy because you have an interest in a thing. Let’s say it is architecture. The book is written by an expert with engaging photographs, charts and maps. From time to time you indulge yourself. A good MOOC is similar, different and better. Online you have an expert who leads the course. The introduce themselves, the course and perhaps the team. And then over the weeks they drop in to say something with a pre-recorded video piece or text. They may even appear from time to time to contribute to the discussion: though you may miss them if the thread is running into the hundreds.

I explained how threaded discussions work: that there can be thousands of comments, but you know everyone is talking about the same thing. That if you don’t get a point you can ask and someone offers a response. You may still not get it. So you ask again. Once again, there is a response. You may do this a few times. Even come back to it a day or so later, but you are likely, eventually to see something that says it for you – your fellow students have fulfilled the role of the tutor that a tutor could never manage: they only have one voice and they can’t give up the huge number of hours – there is one thread in ‘Start Writing Fiction’ that runs to 7400 posts.

These are filtered in three useful ways: activity, following and your comments. In this way you either look only at the lates posts, the posts of those you are following: say 10 out of 23,000 or, of course, you look back at your comments.

It works.

As for my graphic? Does obscuring the writing assist with anything? By making an effort to read the question are you any more likely to remember it?

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.

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