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!


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.


Fresh Autumn Shoots


Times have not been easy. For all sorts of reasons I have had to put the writing on hold. I never lost interest, I thought about it a lot, but my head has been full of other things. There were big plans for this autumn but they were plans that in the end did not materialise. The down-side of this is that I missed the chance to join my beloved ModPo (and be a Community TA which would have been a real treat). The up-side is that I have a space for writing again and this makes me happy!

So I have two plans:

  1. To do the new MOOC from the University of Iowa’s IWP How Writers Write Fiction: Storied Women. Their MOOCs have been such enjoyable online experiences in the past, I am really excited about this one.
  2. To do NaNoWriMo 2016. The concept has never exactly appealed to me – I enjoy writing, I’m not trying to compete against some target, the speed element is not appropriate. However, this year I’m embracing the challenge to come up with a novel from scratch and spew it out without being too precious. I will blog more on this but I’m already enjoying a month of planning and feel all fired up to write, write, write when the time comes.

The clash of the two is going to be interesting! Watch this space.

Week 8 on #FLFiction14 – reaching the finish


After losing nearly an entire week to visitors and work, I thought I’d never make it but today I managed to submit a story I was (almost) happy with and complete the final exercises of the course. The submission of the final story was definitely a big challenge for me – I have never written a short story before the course and I don’t read them either (I know! Shocking…) so I found it quite hard to know what one should look and feel like. After scratching around for ideas I ended up using some back story from one of the characters in my novel – this set me off and running so I was able to knock up a draft pretty quickly but then the agonizing began: it had no plot, no conflict, it was too long, then it was too confusing as I didn’t include enough detail… I needed all of the four days I had left to edit and come back to it and edit some more before it felt OK to let go.

After we’d done it, we were asked to reflect on the following:

  • Are the main characters consistent and clear?
  • Have they enough conflict and interest?
  • Is the setting established?
  • Have you done enough research?
  • What would you like to develop further?
  • Do the language, style and voice fit the characters and content?

I wasn’t sure I had enough conflict / interest and there was a great deal I would have liked to develop further but the 750-1000 word limit seemed very short.

I was so grateful for the useful criticism I got – they picked up on entirely valid points and also made me notice things I had not realised about what I had written. I think the biggest benefit of this is how it has absolutely reinforced the necessity of letting people read your work and give you feedback. Something I find scary but now can see is essential.

I have really enjoyed this MOOC – it’s been manageable in terms of workload and whilst not life changing or revelatory I have definitely learnt a few things and pondered about the writing process in beneficial ways. I have also enjoyed the contact with others both on the comments and on Twitter, it has felt for a while like we have a good community spirit going.

Week 5 on #FLFiction14 – Exploring Character Creation

 Sketchy people

This week has been all about exploring ways to create characters. As a recap for myself, this is the gist of what was presented and my ramblings around it:

  • A discussion of characters needing conflict: boiled down to Character + Conflict = Plot. So the idea is that we create these characters but it is by testing them to breaking point that we really show what they are like. Some instinct makes me disagree with this but I can’t argue my corner. I suppose I don’t think the challenges need to be quite that extreme – we put them in scenes and situations and then watch them work their way out of them. Isn’t this what “Lord of the Rings” is all about? Surely plot leads those characters?
  • One quote from an extract written by Josip Novakovich: “Whether or not there’s a change in you, character is not the part of you that conforms, but rather, that sticks out. So a caricaturist seeks out oddities in a face”. I liked this – I think it could help me enrich character descriptions.
  • The idea of the flaw as generating plot: this immediately makes me think of Shakespearean tragedies but it doesn’t have to be that grand. What makes people behave in a certain way and what may then ensue from their quirks – again, for me I think this will be helpful to bear in mind when writing. It will draw out cause and effect in a more character-rooted way.
  • Flat and round characters: the whole section on enriching stereotypes did not work for me at all. Why start with a stereotype in the first place? Nobody is ever just a stereotype; everyone is complex. The ones listed were so dull I couldn’t imagine doing anything with them. Then again, I read some of the ideas posted up – one or two here and there were absolute quirky genius so that told me not to be so sniffy about the exercise! I noticed that the ones I liked had real heart and emotion to them, a subtlety and a delicacy that would make me want to read more about them.
  • Back to Novakovich again for his four ways of creating characters: “Ideal” (concepts and ideas-based), “autobiographical” (based on yourself), “biographical” (based on others you have observed) and “mixed” (a combo of the others). I agreed with one comment – this seemed a bit like giving fancy names to something most people probably do quite naturally.

Pretty much all my characters are extrapolated from people I have known, with the exception of one that is spun off from myself and one who departed so far from the original inspiration that he has taken on a life all of his own. I do find it very hard indeed to conceive of characters outside a plot – I think this is a reason I have found this week’s tasks so difficult. Only once I’d developed a story around a character could I feel there was any interest or mileage in them. Perhaps if I was more gifted with description to conjure up a person I’d feel differently but I’m all too quickly afflicted with a great weariness of “what’s the point?” when I start writing about someone in isolation. The idea of coming up with a character and then giving them a conflict to see what happens just doesn’t work for me at all.

This week has made me think and I did (almost) enjoy the exercises of creating characters but I’m not sure I learnt a great deal from it apart from the couple of points I picked out above. Mixed feelings at the moment about this MOOC – will see how next week goes. I am tempted by two literature-focussed courses which start next week. Can’t do them all – my allegiance may be tested…

Week 1 of “Start Writing Fiction”

Image of blank writing page

The joy of a new notebook

I am just about to start the second week of a Creative Writing MOOC from the Open University – “Start Writing Fiction” on FutureLearn. Week 1 was all about various aspects of writing fiction, in a “Getting Started” kind of mode. It encouraged the keeping of a notebook – which, of course, is the best invitation to go and buy a lovely new notebook. I have even written something in it – some character sketches of people I have seen in the last week. Once you open your eyes to detail, there are a million quirky and wonderful people all around to inspire better character descriptions. So I learnt something already (or rather reinforced what I should have remembered): the value of observation.

We also had to try two blends of fact and fiction: 1 fact and 3 “lies”; 3 “lies” and 1 fact. I found this harder than I thought I would – I don’t usually struggle to come up with ideas but I think I was feeling self-conscious. Most of my writing so far has included real life people or facts, probably in the 1:3 ratio. I am a sentimental person and like to use things from the past as a launch pad, spinning off what I would have liked to have happened or just sprinkling them in as little memories for myself. Some places and people were too good to forget.

The final step was reading some character studies – short excerpts from George Orwell and Zoe Heller – and studying what they were doing. This reminded me of the wonderful book “Reading like a writer” by Francis Prose. Time spent on this kind of study is time well spent in improving my writing. This time it was the different ways to introduce a character – short and pithy vs a subjective observation that tells more about the narrator too. I would have liked to have spent more time on this kind of thing, maybe try writing “in the style of”.

Week 2 is the “Habit of Writing” – it’s not too late to join if you fancy a little tuition and a wide community to chew it over with.

I also had the option this month of doing a day-class for 8 weeks (which costs, not free like the MOOC). I was looking forward to seeing how MOOC vs real life class shaped up BUT it’s proved difficult to make the time and place, I missed the first class…I suspect the MOOC is going to win out in terms of convenience. Isn’t this their major benefit? However I would have liked to meet some new writers locally. Pros and cons…I’m fortunate to have both as an option.