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.
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…
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.
I have just completed a creative writing (vaguely) related MOOC – FutureLearn’s “How to read…a mind”. This was…
…an introduction to what has come to be known as cognitive poetics. Taking our best current knowledge of how our minds and language work, this course takes you through key questions of literature and reading: why do we feel anything for fictional characters? Why do we get angry, moved, irritated, annoyed or sentimental about imaginary people in imagined worlds? Why do the lives of imaginary minds living in fictional bodies seem to matter so much to readers? The answers to these questions are surprising and empowering.
This was a relatively short MOOC at just two weeks with a pretty reasonable amount of work involved. They say 3 hours a week – I didn’t spend that but I managed to get through the material in a fairly superficial way. I didn’t mean to be superficial but it was that or nothing!
Was it useful for writing? I’m not sure. The course looked at what happens when we read and how people have studied that. I found it strangely reassuring to be told that for readers, fictional characters could be more real than real people. It also looked at what pushes our buttons when we read and how we deal with the process. It didn’t do so much in the way of analysing how an author can manipulate that which may have made it more relevant for writers specifically.
It certainly incarnated aspects of the reading process which I had never really thought about before. It also made me have some rather unkind thoughts about the extent that academics analyse (and endlessly label) what is best enjoyed as a magical process. I’m not including Professor Peter Stockwell in this as he was a great host and explainer but some of the further reading was impenetrable. I came away feeling it was rather like music theory – it’s all very well to have your favourite song diagnosed as containing certain chord progressions and harmonics but does it make it sound better? Probably not. It was already full of all its magic. It was also probably created by someone who had no understanding of that either, they were just a great magician.
Reading back over this post, I’m veering to the negative! I don’t mean to – it was a great little MOOC, very well put together and with lots of interesting comments from fellow students. I’d recommend it as an experience. I also suspect it may inform my reading more in the future once the ideas have percolated into my brain a bit more!