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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.
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.
‘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.