Start writing fiction 7-8: reading and reflecting

Weeks 5 and 6 were on character, which I skipped – OK I could have tried to translate some of it into place as character, but this didn’t feel like a hugely productive exercise.

Week 7 was on reading as a writer. How can reading help develop the ‘habit’ of writing? See read what you want to write, a bit of a truism, but which ties in with close reading techniques. Learning to read as a writer helps you to improve and learn regarding your own writing skills – for example book reviewing reveals how voicing text appreciation and learning text analysis skills can really help accelerate writing development.

Learning from reading

Your opinion about what you read is important and you now have the skills necessary to be more analytical in assessing why you prefer one story, or novel, over another. Choose one book you have read and liked, and one you have read and disliked. In 100 words, say why you think a particular book you have read works; again, in 100 words, say why you think another book does not. Note especially:

  • how effective the characterisation is in these books
  • whether these books make you want to read on – why or why not
  • how and why you consider a book or passage in a book ‘works’ or doesn’t ‘work’.

Are there any aspects in your own work that tally with elements you enjoyed reading in the published novels?
Are there any aspects that you noticed about published novels where the writing was seen to be ‘working’ that are relevant to your writing?

Reading as a writer

Noticing details about the construction of language, plot and story in what you read will help form your own writing taste and style.

  • How long is the short story or novel?
  • Are there chapters? Sections? Parts?
  • If it’s a short story, how is it structured?
  • When and where is it set, do/how do these things appear to matter, and how are they conveyed?
  • From whose point of view is the story being told? Is it the story of one, or more than one of the characters?
  • Is there dialogue? If so, what kind?
  • Is the language modern, plain, elaborate, colloquial?
  • Are there short or long sentences?
  • Are the sentences ‘properly formed’, or broken down? For example, ‘Get this. Bravery. That wasn’t even in it. Heroism? Maybe that was nearer the mark.’
  • Would you say that the story was a ‘page-turner’?
  • Is it full of ‘researched facts’?
  • Is there much ‘internal’ psychological or emotional detail, or is most of the novel or story taken up with ‘external’ events or description?
  • How do you learn of the main characters?
  • Are the minor characters sufficiently clear or too flat?
  • In your opinion, is it clearly aimed at a certain type of reader?

Identifying the techniques and methods of other writers will influence and help your own style.

Week 8 was on sharing and reflecting “on the main tools you’ve picked up during the course and how these helped you turn characters into short stories”.

The quiz:

  • What are the rules for using your writer’s notebook? – There are no rules.
  • How should you start writing? – Write every day, even if you don’t think you’ve got anything to say. Looking through your notebook is always a good idea.
  • Why should you read the work of other writers? – To help you to learn how to do it yourself.
  • Should you share your writing with fellow writers? – Yes, because they can help me to evaluate my work, and analysing their work will help me to evaluate my own.
  • Editing essentially means reflecting on what you have written and redrafting it as many times as you have to. See Waste Effect’s review of The work of revision for more on this.
  • What does ‘learn through writing’ mean? – Do as much writing as you can and learn by doing it. The only way you can learn to write is by doing it!

Not convinced the creative writing course model is for me unless I can find the ideal Venn diagram, but lessons learnt on keeping a journal/notebook (using a combination of Fargo and blogs for now), writing every day, the importance of editing/rewriting and research. Still stuck on establishing rituals, a place to write, moving from notes to narrative. New discovery: research notes!

Bumping three ideas:

  • keep ideas floating – find a possible story you might be able to draw out of your notes, research elements for this idea and develop your journal notes
  • develop ideas – imagine more detail, do research, ask some ‘what if?’ questions
  • note down a menu of your overall concerns that are likely to be your overall subject matter or material and develop this over time to include detailed descriptions; match your concerns with the ideas in your notebook

What of the MOOC itself? Still getting the impression that FutureLearn is less intellectually rigorous than it might be, and remain untempted by the discussion facilities. Activity tailed off as ever – 247 tweetsin last 30 days, 55 in the last seven, bloggage less as the weeks went on. Here’s a final thought from Clare Hooper in Experiencing a MOOC: “the sheer volume of people participating on the course made it difficult if not impossible to feel you were part of a real community”.


Start writing fiction 4: ideas and concerns

Your writer’s notebook is a secret space where you can try out your ideas – map them, interrogate them, collect them. A journal can also form a kind of personal ‘running commentary’ to yourself, on your thoughts about your own work.

Week 4 was officially about building a story, but the sections around developing a ‘notebook habit’ were helpful in inching things forward a little.

Your journal might include:

  • sensory observations
  • things you have seen or heard, felt or read – passages of other people’s writing, turns of phrase
  • words and word derivations that are new or interesting (particularly dansk?)
  • facts you want to remember
  • lines or phrases you might use
  • images: postcards, pictures, photo that are in some way significant, perhaps because they conjure up a scene or story
  • descriptions or sketches of characters and places you might wish to write about
  • notes about periods in recent or distant history that you are interested in
  • ideas and plot lines that might be useful in future, or that you are gathering for particular pieces of work

Over time, a writer’s notebook can act as an anchor to remind you how certain ideas originated, and where you initially meant to take them. It will also form a rich source book for you to draw on, to help to guide you through your work. Think of your notebook as being rather like an ongoing map of your writing’s progress. You add to it every day, so each day your map improves and becomes more useful to you.

Keep ideas ‘floating‘:

  • find three possible stories that you might be able to draw out of your notes and research at least one element for each idea
  • find one possible story that you might be able to draw out of your notes and research at least three elements for this idea
  • develop your journal notes on this idea/s, including this research and any relevant sensory details

How do you get from making notes in your journal to a narrative?

One way is by thinking up a suitable plot line. A plot is not simply a story. It’s a succession of events with causality highlighted. Making use of the handy question ‘What if?’, you will now be developing your own plots.

Readers are well tuned to guessing and imagining causes just from the details they perceive in the story. With this in mind, even the smallest recorded observations can be relevant.

Regularly reviewing past work and any ideas or observations listed in your notebook can help you generate new ideas.

Develop ideas by:

  • imagining more detail
  • doing research
  • asking some ‘what if?’ questions
  • imagining some of the reasons surrounding the character’s dress, behaviour, speech or actions

Sometimes your subject will suggest itself to you through a line that simply emerges in your consciousness as being in some way significant. Or perhaps a particular image, more than a line, presents itself to you in this way, as the key to a story. The more you immerse yourself in your subject and in what you want to write about, the more you will encounter these sorts of lines and images. Keep a note of any lines or images that present themselves to you in this way in your journal.

Also, note down a ‘menu’ of what you consider to be your overall ‘concerns’, building up a self portrait of who you are as a writer and helping you to become clearer about the kinds of things that matter to you, that are likely to be your overall subject matter or material when you write. Develop your list over time to include detailed descriptions of your concerns.

Review some of the ideas in your notebook and your menu of concerns. Are there any characters or story ideas that match up with any of the concerns listed on your menu? Don’t worry if there seems to be an incongruity between your menu of concerns and the type of characters and story ideas that you are coming up with.

Turns out the taking it further page is being updated with useful links each week – hmm these could have been integrated into the FutureLearn steps perhaps.

Start writing fiction 3: writing is editing

Reflecting on what you have written – Most writers spend as much, or more, time editing and redrafting as they do writing first drafts. But you can’t edit without first of all getting that first draft down. Once you have a first draft, you have something to improve on. This is where you can rethink what you’ve done. Change whatever you like. Say things differently, or clarify where necessary. You can improve your writing.

Editing practice

Edit the following passage down to no more than two lines:

The heavy black and blue winter sky groaned awfully with rain clouds that at any moment were really about to fall crashing heavily down upon the street where, because it was rush hour, so many people, wearing all manner of different clothes, hats, shoes, boots, some of them carrying bags, suitcases, briefcases, scampered and strolled about the place as though oblivious to what was just about to happen over their very heads. One of these people was called Hilary and concealed inside her voluminous coat she carried the loaded, snub-nosed gun, and she also seemed to be the only one looking upwards into the tempestuous thundery heavens.

Suggested version:

The winter sky was heavy with rain. It was rush hour. Hilary concealed the loaded gun inside her coat.

Dipped into the comments – mentions of being too short and sharp, lacking atmosphere and being stylistically different.

A video explaining the rewrite [sic] highlights the following points:

  • the passage is overwritten, with unnecessary information and is so cluttered that it loses sense
  • be wary of qualifying words and phrases, overstatement, repeated references and over-emphasis
  • do word choices contribute something to meaning, or are they superfluous or confusing?
  • characters should be active and the subject of sentences
  • strike out redundant bits and glue together any leftovers : D

According to the accompanying text the aim in editing is in many ways the aim in writing – clarity of expression. But maybe not quite so terse – why two lines? For alternative approaches, see how Smee Stories and Cat Lumb approached the task.

This is the best bit of the whole course for me so far. So what’s the lesson – stick to editing re-writing?

I’ve just revisited my post about a writing MOOC I vaguely audited last summer, Thinking like a writer from Michigan State, running again from 23 June. Maybe have another look, the content is still there. It used the Eli Review system, which has to be better than FutureLearn – according to comments as ever it’s not cutting it for dialogue.

There’s been some controversy about reproducing work from within FutureLearn – see Smee Stories’ brief intermission.

I’ve now caught up – week 4 started on Monday. Hurra!

Start writing fiction 2: the habit of writing

How do you write? What inspires you? Where do you like to write? Do you set aside a regular time to write? Find encouragement, tips and tricks to discover what works best for you.

Exploring and developing your own rituals. A journal is a resource for ideas, props, working methods…observation and imagination – the importance of detail. Developing your powers of observation and including a high level of detail can affect your writing style for the better. Make your observations as detailed as possible. (As a less is more type of writer/editor this is counter-intuitive for me.)

Using language:

  • Get into the habit of looking through your dictionary whenever you can, noting in your journal words you like and derivations that are interesting to you.
  • Start to keep a note of words you hear in conversation, and in everyday life – the phrases, words and speech patterns people use.
  • Think about words you particularly like and why. Keep a note of them, where they derive from, and why you like them. They needn’t be ‘exotic’ words, but perhaps ones you liked because you heard them used in a surprising context.
  • Be wary of using large, Latinate or multi-syllabic words gratuitously. Make sure that such words earn their place in your story. If in doubt, use the shorter, more commonly used word.
  • Be wary of using hackneyed terms or phrases, clichés and the types of phrases that are too familiar. Plain language, deeply understood, is ample to convey the most sophisticated and complex meanings. Often ‘ordinary’ words are made vivid and memorable by appearing in unexpected places, or by being used in surprising ways.
  • Try describing something familiar with one or two ordinary words that you wouldn’t normally use in that context.

Starting from a blank page – prepare by taking time to research and review your notebook:

  • Gather information or research – check that you know enough about a character or place or period before you begin to describe them or it.
  • Visualisation – perhaps your story stems from a single image? Focus on that; turn it over in your mind. You might not know where it came from or why, or even what it means. Composing a story around this image might be your way of ‘unpacking’ it, and discovering its significance through writing about it.
  • Regarding length – have in mind an approximate idea of the length you imagine your story will run to, before you write it.
  • Considering shape – will there be much dialogue or description? Will the story be divided up in any way, perhaps into sections or scenes?

Starting phrases:

  • finding a voice – write approximately three lines that follow on from the phrase ‘Emma said that …’. When you’ve finished, cut ‘Emma said that’. Notice how little has been lost: you’re still left with whatever Emma said.
  • begin with ‘I remember’, write three lines to follow on from that phrase

So set yourself a realistic goal each time you sit down to write. Find out how much you are comfortable writing each day. Achieve that. Then extend it and try to double your output.

Exercise: imagining writing spaces

Imagine two different venues for writing – one that seems most suited to you, and one that you would find bizarre or too difficult. Write a paragraph describing two writers at work, one in each of the venues.

Exercise: develop your character sketch 

  • Is there an opportunity to add the thoughts of your character?
  • Can you situate your character in relation to a particular location?
  • Does what your character says in their dialogue tally with what they think, or is there a discrepancy?
  • Can you smuggle in some details about your character’s back story, their life prior to when we meet them?
  • Can you try to infer how your character acts in the world – for instance, are they overwhelmed or in some sense out of control (like Spicer in the Greene extract) or are they hapless (like Victor in the Atkinson extract)?

From the quiz:

  • a way to convey a character – describe where they are walking as a way of reflecting thoughts and situation

According to the organisers, 46K postings in discussions and comments so far…feel the width! Not sure how much really useful feedback is being given as opposed to the usual FutureLearn staccato.

Extensive bloggage from Kristene Collins (@KristeneCollins), A work of fiction (David/(@Smee_Dyer) and Lucy Waterfall (@WaterLucyFall), but the most interesting to me was Cat Lumb (@Cat_Lumb):

The course isn’t really striking the right balance between creative license and creative guidance for me – they are guiding, but only down a particular route and it’s not one that I’m inclined to follow if I feel it is compromising my ability to be creative.

I’ve not added much to my Fargo ‘journal’ yet, but it is there, and I am compiling prompts and ideas. I’m here to find ways to increase my creativity and most of the exercises etc aren’t it, but still interesting to see how a writing course operates in practice. The difference a MOOC brings is less instructor feedback and more peer.

Start writing fiction: intro and week 1

Start writing fiction on FutureLearn, from the Open University, “helps you to get started with your own fiction writing, focusing on the central skill of creating characters”. Eight weeks starting on 28 April, 3 hours/week. Twitter: #FLfiction14 (790 in past 30 days, 152 in past 7) | Facebook group | another one | course map | taking it further.

Learning objectives:

  • listen to established writers talk about how they started writing
  • consider the rituals of writing and the importance of keeping a journal
  • learn how to develop your ideas and the importance of reflecting on writing and editing
  • hear other writers talking about their approaches to research
  • consider ways of turning events into a plot
  • have the opportunity to review and comment on the work of fellow writers, and receive peer feedback on your own story
  • learning the importance of reading as a writer and how to receive and respond to feedback

Two weeks behind. The fiction/character side may feel of less interest, however a place can also be a character…plus the rituals stuff may be helpful, as while I can blog well enough the space for sustained writing eludes me. We’ll see – an issue is probably that I’ve not yet established what it is I want to write within the experimental literary non-fiction/translation space (aka pseud’s corner…). Posts here are strictly about the MOOC, any writing etc will be over on A/drift in DK.

Notes from week 1 below. Vids don’t seem to be a key part of the course, but otherwise so much so FutureLearn – some pages have 6K+ comments (total comments of more than 20K in the first week), that’s not a discussion forum, doesn’t work for me. But there’s lots of bloggage, as you might expect (see below), and a rather different crowd, so other forms of interaction may be possible.

Week 1: starting to write fiction

Why do you want to write? What are your motivations and reasons for wanting to write? How much will you mix fact with fiction – what elements of your life experience and personal circumstance do you think might influence your writing?

Make the best of everything you already have and know – your unique ‘material’ and ‘equipment’:

  • your experiences (including your reading experiences)
  • your memories and personal history
  • your feelings and desires
  • your language, imagination, observations and ideas

You will develop best as a writer if you recognise that writing can’t usually be done quickly, it’s something you need to live with and return to again and again.

Start a writer’s notebook to collect facts and fictions, observations from everyday life, things you find fascinating or amusing and things you imagine. Start seeing the world as a writer. Your notebook, or journal, should be with you at all times so that you can jot down anything that strikes you as interesting or unusual, and anything you might want to remember to come back to later. Your notebook will become a secret testing ground, for trying out ideas, phrases, mini-stories and scenes, bits of dialogue.

Taking note of details of the appearance of people who take your interest should become a habit – people you see on the street, or in other venues.

It’s important to review the details and ideas you collect in your notebook. This should become a habit – a way of seeing the world. Always reflect on the notes you have taken in your journal. When reflecting on your notes, highlight any details you find especially interesting and to which you might want to return, to work on in more detail later.

While it’s not about tools or nice notebooks I do need something separate from my blogs and their haul of draft posts as a ‘notebook’ – time to check out Fargo. Flirted briefly with the idea of longhand, but it’s not going to happen.

Exercise: writing (and reading) fact and fiction

Trying to write both fact and fiction can help you realise the relationship between the two. Write a paragraph (50 to 100 words) containing one fact and three fictitious elements. You can write about yourself, about your interests, about history – about anything you like. Then try the reverse – write a paragraph containing three facts and one fictitious element.

Can you spot where the fictions are and where the facts are? Is there anything that distinguishes the fictitious elements? Are there common elements that you and your fellow writers write about as ‘facts’? Do any of these passages suggest stories to you?

Fiction thrives on elements that are factual or seem factual; it traditionally contains much information which appears real and normal. The fun thing is that the truthful things are often the elements that sound most invented. But common factual details are of use in stories too. The most mundane details from everyday lives can provide the most fruitful source for stories. And sometimes the mundane mixed with the fantastical can be amusing too.

Exercise: developing a character

Review what you’ve collected in your notebook to find a character and develop them further. Write a short character sketch – no more than 200 words – in which you concentrate on appearance and any particular mannerisms you noted.

Add any elements – for instance, details of appearance or behaviour – which you think might bring the character to life for your reader.

  • consider the ways in which your reader might be getting involved in the invention and imagining of your characters
  • check whether you are using third or first person narration
  • your reader will always have to participate in the imagining of your characters

From the quiz: investigating characters:

  • What does George Orwell use to convey the character of Flory in the passage from Burmese Days? – a description of his personality | a physical description | gets other characters to talk about him
  • In the extract from Burmese Days, is there any insight into Flory’s psychology? – some insight | no insight | more insight into the narrator |  insight into both narrator and character

Week 1 bloggage: