Creative writing MOOC: failure to launch

The wonderful International Writers’ Program has a new MOOC running: we’re already on Week 4 of “Power of the Pen: Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction” (a similar themed course follows straight after for poetry and plays). I get excited about these courses because I have had so much fun on their previous MOOCs (documented on this blog). However, this time, I have to report failure to launch. I feel really sad about it. The reasons for this are varied, in increasing order of magnitude and containing, it’s fair to say, a decent amount of pathetic on my part:

  • I find the learning platform hard work: particularly the discussion groups. It’s a real effort navigating around. I still persist with the writer videos because I love them but I’ve abandoned the rest. Bad design + my laziness = fatal combo!
  • I’m not getting a sense of community like before: the groups I joined seem to be people just posting up work seeking comments, nobody was doing any other discussing or chatting or just hanging out. I got lonely! Why didn’t I join different groups? Good question.
  • There’s a mix with non-fiction: nothing against this as a genre – I read plenty – but right now I don’t feel it’s a genre I’m suited to. Having said that, some of the author videos are interesting and inspirational so I’m still watching all those but it almost feels like a distraction, something that can lure me off-course if I let it.
  • My writing is going well: I’m still happily working on my NaNoWriMo novel and it’s coming along nicely. I’m revising and I want to go with that flow…
  • The assignments are too long: not to write, but to read. I won’t submit unless I’m going to review a decent number of other writers’ work but I’ve had enough of slogging through great chunks of work to try to come up with something constructive to say other than bland encouragement with a few hasty recommendations. Of course I want to do more than that – but to review something properly (for me) means printing it out, reading it at least twice, carefully, making notes and formulating a reply. Can I do that for even 3 submissions each week? No. Another key factor for me is not knowing who the writers are – we have no connection. If I know you and you ask me to read your work, I’ll do a damn fine job, but complete strangers? With the best will in the world, it all ends up being a bit superficial.
  • The biggie: the theme of this MOOC is social justice and I am really hopeless at tackling that! Do not mistake this for not caring – I care, I rant, I rave and I protest all I can in real life – but it’s absolutely not what I write about. I write for light relief, for entertainment, for escapism. It’s incompatible with writing about social justice. Of course, social themes will creep into my work but it’s never centre stage. So I’ve stalled on all the assignments and felt ashamed it. Maybe I *ought* to be writing with a social justice angle – this is a call to arms – but I just get paralysed at the idea stage. I do have some themes that are personal to me (write what you know) but I don’t want to explore them or dwell on them. I have a massive sense of being unworthy, over-privileged, blah blah poor me in my little white middle class world…the end of this negative thought trail is complete writing paralysis.

The world is already full of wonderful writers doing all of this WAY BETTER than I ever could or would ever aspire to. Nobody’s going to cry that I’ve given up on the MOOC (still watching the videos, mind) but I feel this time it really wasn’t for me.

Having said all that, I’m DEFINITELY looking forward to the poetry/plays version which follows on – that’s a whole different kettle of fish and I’m going to explore that with fresh hope!


#NaNoWriMo2016 – what I’ll do differently next time

NaNoWriMo was an experimental, learning experience for me – never really attempted it before and wanted badly to just let rip on a new novel, one I haven’t stewed and stressed too much about. My stats are below – the massive jump at the very end was because when I pasted it from Scrivener into the validator, it seemed to find a whole load more words? Not sure what that was about.


Having done it once, I’ll definitely be doing it again so here I’m reminding myself of the good and the bad of the experience:


  • I have a story that I really like!
  • I started planning in October and dreamed up a completely new story from scratch. I loved this and I stopped myself being too precious about it.
  • Planning worked well for me: apart from being fun (I’m a plotter…), it meant I started November with a good road map, but also with room to manoeuvre. I had scene outlines but nothing too specific.
  • HWWF2016: the MOOC clashed with Nanowrimo which wasn’t ideal in terms of workload but meant I had a ready-made community to egg me on and share experiences. I appreciated this. I also was able to use the MOOC content and assignments to help limber up for Nanowrimo. Having said that, it would be better if they didn’t overlap.
  • It made me write – I had a focus all through the month and a commitment that is sadly lacking at other times! It was just easier to say ‘no, I have to do this’ regardless of what else was going on or carving out time where there seemed to be none.
  • I took advantage of the extended free trial for Scrivener which kept me well organised. Having said that, I didn’t warm to it enough to buy it. It was good, but not good enough to make up for the shortcomings (i.e. lack of portability across devices unless I pay for multiple versions).


  • I made some of the same mistakes with this novel as with the last one: I didn’t work enough on my protagonist at the start and even now I’m still feeling my way into her personality. More work on characters up front! I’d hoped I’d find her voice as I wrote and to some extent I did, but not enough to sparkle.
  • I paced myself all wrong, due to word count fears. As it turned out, it was easy to hit that word count. When the story was going well, I could fly – knocked out well over the daily target. So I ended up finishing the whole thing well under 50k and then having to scrabble around padding it out at the end. I should have measured out roughly how many words each bit needed and done more work on the earlier sections.
  • I’m not sure writing from start to finish worked for me? With my last novel I wrote key scenes first and I think that suits me better. It may have solved my pacing problem.
  • Some of my writing was REALLY BAD. I know it’s all about quantity but I’m still ashamed of it…
  • I’m left with something of a monumental muddle to sort out!


Week 4 of #NaNoWriMo2016

The month seems to have flown by and the end of NaNoWriMo is waiting just around the corner. I’ve just re-read my last post and wanted to update my reflections on how it’s going as I can see that my mood and feelings have changed quite a lot as the days go by…

  • I’m going to miss it. It’s been so much fun! I’ve loved the challenge, the having to just bloody get on with it, however you’re feeling or no matter how little time there is. I’m not sure I can maintain quite the same level of motivation once it’s over, but it has shown me, quite clearly, how much I can write in a week if I put my mind to carving out the time.
  • I got to the end too fast – I’ve been spending the last 5 days or so just adding bits and bobs, worrying at the edges. I can see where it needs bits padding out but at this point it’s quite hard to work over what I’ve written in any meaningful way so I’m just splurging extra bits out to be fitted in later. This isn’t ideal.
  • I took the time yesterday to re-read the whole thing. Even though, as I said in the last post, the writing is Not Good, I really enjoyed it! This was a huge relief as I had days where I just questioned the whole thing. I think it’s got a future and I need to commit fully to working it over and over to make it better.
  • Some of the characters have surprised me by coming to life in a really good way. There’s a couple I’m really fond of which I would not have predicted at the start. Unfortunately I’m still needing to do more thinking on some major ones but I don’t think that will change the story fundamentally.
  • I started in 1st person and very quickly reverted to my more familiar 3rd person limited. However when I read it back I actually found the 1st person much more fun and engaging. This really surprised me as I remember so clearly feeling it absolutely wasn’t working. So there’s more work to do, perhaps trying to rewrite a couple of key chapters in 1st person and see how that goes.
  • I need to go back to Orkney! That’s where it’s set. Even though I’ve made a few trips there and feel like I know it quite well, you can’t beat actually being in a place for authenticity. Just have to convince my family…

Tomorrow I’m going to print out the whole thing and see how it looks on paper. I’m currently at 44,189 tonight so I’m feeling confident I’m going to do it this year! Picture me standing beating my chest on top of my laptop, it’s gonna happen…


How’s #nanowrimo2016 going?


10 days into NaNoWriMo and my word count is doing well (23k and counting) but what’s the real story? Here are my 10 observations on NaNoWriMo so far…

  1. The word count isn’t the problem. Even on the days when I only have about an hour at most, I can churn out enough words. I had a plan for my novel so each scene has rough notes. This is enough to keep me powering through a writing session. The planning worked well for me.
  2. I have never written such terrible writing! I’m going with the concept and just writing and writing but that’s not how I do it best. I write a splurge then need to go back immediately and edit and edit to get it into something decent. A bit like a sculptor hacking off a block and then doing some fine tuning. I’m not going back over anything yet and it’s absolute drivel. Not drivel in the sense that things aren’t happening and the plot isn’t moving in the right direction, but absolutely abysmal writing.
  3. I’m missing stuff out. Although I have quite good notes to work from, I’m skipping important things and moments.
  4. I didn’t do enough work on my characters before I started – I think a lot of the issues I’m feeling are around the fact that I don’t have quite the right voice for my main character, nor the male lead / romantic interest. They aren’t awful, just not quite right yet.
  5. Writing in a linear way doesn’t work so well for me. For my previous novel I started writing key scenes and then joined them up. This time I have started at the beginning and am writing to the end. It just doesn’t work so well for me but it’s been useful to experiment.
  6. I’m worried that I’m writing the heart out of my novel. I had a really good concept of what I wanted it to be like and was happy with the plot. Now I feel like it’s deflated into a pile of nothingness but I think that relates a lot to (2) and the quality of my writing.
  7. I am, at Day 10, full of self doubt and the pointlessness of what I’m doing. You can probably tell!
  8. I’m still committed to it. I’m not a quitter. You will see me hit that word count.
  9. I’m on course to get to 50k well before the end of the month so that will be my cue to stop and take stock and try to kick some shape into the monster I’ve created.
  10. If I look deep into my heart, I still believe in the story I’m writing. I believe it should be told, I believe I’d like to read it if I can ever get it to reflect my aspirations for it. At least I’ve started.

How’s it working out for you?

Ready for #NaNoWriMo?


Mmm croissant…

This is my first serious attempt at NaNoWriMo and, given that I am not a quitter, it IS serious. I have warned my family. I have installed the trial version of Scrivener and filled it up with planning notes. I am carving out time, even on the most difficult days. Above all, I am REALLY looking forward to it!

I’m doing NaNoWriMo first and foremost because I am just not doing enough actual writing. I read about writing, I worry at the edges of my 1st novel which is still in revision, I do some daily pages when I can but I am not putting enough actual words on page. The MOOC has helped with that already but NaNoWriMo is my full immersion test.

I decided to come up with a completely new idea, not the 2nd novel I have had in mind for the last year or so. This is because this is an experiment for me and I wanted to generate something entirely fresh for it, also to see how that works out! The idea I have is based (again) on Orkney so I can use all the research I did for my first novel. It also has music at its core, something that is a massive part of my life. I’ve worked my idea up into characters, themes and finally chapters. In these last few days I am going to:

  1. Double-check my plot against the key plot milestones = I think I’m hitting them pretty much but perhaps a tweak here and there may help. I also want to estimate my word count.
  2. Check I know the main facts about my characters, key descriptions and facts are in place = I think I’m shakiest here but they are developed in my head!
  3. Check my timeline = wishing Scrivener had something fancy to handle this. I have mapped out past years for key back story milestones but I also need to check the actual days when the action takes place.
  4. Run through my notes for each scene and make sure it a) has a purpose and b) that I know what is going to be great about it. I have to start each one with a buzz about writing it, otherwise who is going to buzz reading it?

As you can tell, I’m into planning! I enjoy it, so I didn’t want to miss out with this novel but I have done all this in October so it has been an accelerated process. Having said that, it feels like enough time before I just start faffing around rather than doing things that are constructive..

Best thing of all, I’m very excited about my story and can’t wait to write it out. Roll on November!

HWWF16 – the MOOC so far…


I’m into the 2nd week of “How Writers Write Fiction 2016” and enjoying it as much as ever. The community is great, the content is great, it’s not too overwhelming time-wise. Every week you have an assignment to complete: so far this has been to write a 1000-2000 word story with emphasis on the aspect of craft that has been covered in the week’s video and readings. So this week it’s “Desire and Point of View”. You then get feedback from fellow course participants on your story.

Although it’s always good to get feedback, I don’t find this aspect of the MOOC to be much help. Most people tend to be too nice, which reflects I think our common difficulty to spend enough time with any one story to give really constructive feedback. I know I can’t – I’d have to print it off, read it a few times, make notes, then formulate a response. None of this is going to happen while I’m trying to keep up with the MOOC and life and work and kids. The best I can do is try to pick out what resonated with me most in the piece. Knowing that readers were able to follow and understand the story is about all I can hope for.

The real challenge of the MOOC, for me, is to come up with a story in a week. I’m not really a short story writer, for starters. I tend to think in the scope of longer works by default. So isolating an idea for a story is something I really have to work at and this inevitably takes longer than a day or two. I can’t start till I’ve watched the video and processed the instructions, then I have to let it all simmer for a while. I’ve started mind mapping (using MindMup) for ideas as I find this is the best way to focus my thoughts. For the first assignment, I decided to spin something off my NaNoWriMo prep. It’s not any of the actual characters but a situation that might happen off-stage in that tale. That worked really well as I adapted a few characters in my head that were quite well rounded.

This week has been much harder. I couldn’t come up with anything but a walk today inspired me to some historical fiction, something I’d normally stay well clear of. I’ve written it out tonight but it’s bad…so bad…because the characters are not well formed. So I will now be working with it, revising, rewriting, for a day or two before I have to let it go. I’m normally a slow writer and reviser, so this is particularly hard.

The pain is well worth the gain – I have short stories! A couple from last time around I was particularly proud of and I think may be worth working up into something I could submit to a magazine or competition if the right one came along. It’s also teaching me that – duh! – short stories can be fun and have a value and that I CAN write them if I just make myself get on with it. So I’ll stop blogging and GET ON WITH IT.


Writing Prompts

I followed a recommendation and purchased Judy Reeves’ “A Writer’s Book of Days”:


Amidst a lot of other text which I haven’t read yet, there is a simple prompt for every day of the year. So today it was just “write what came first”. These are really working for me. Short and sweet and wide enough that I can launch off for 10 minutes and produce a stream of writing that, so far, has had at least a few sentences of worth in it each day.

It has also got me writing, filling a notebook longhand with actual words and sentences. This has been lacking in my life! I did write online one day and I’m still not quite sure which works best for me. The book recommends writing longhand but I can type quicker than I can write and I find that a little frustrating. Then again, maybe that enforced slower pace is useful?

When I write I usually play around with the prompt a little, try to stretch it in different directions. Sometimes I will write memories, or play word associations. It’s rare that I will find a story from it but that did happen one day and it’s something I’d like to come back to develop.