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.


Creative Writing Courses: “waste of time” or “demanding academic discipline”?

I read this piece from the Guardian:

Novelist Kureshi is wrong: creative writing helps us respond to literature

Creative writing, under fire from professor Hanif Kureshi as a playground for future bestseller writers, is in fact a demanding academic discipline that is transforming the study of English
I hadn’t been aware quite how much Creative Writing has boomed as a degree subject – thinking now, of course it has. My local university never had a course back in my day but  now it’s a flourishing and highly respected masters course. If you view going to university purely as a means to an end to a job, then perhaps Kureshi’s comments are valid. There is possibly no greater imbalance than number of students on creative writing courses and number who will earn a living from it. 
So how are the courses marketed? The University of East Anglia has possibly the most famous course – they speak of “literary intentions”…
“Each of UEA’s Creative Writing courses is best seen as an opportunity to explore and develop literary intentions in relation to the wider social and literary context, to work under the pressure of deadlines, and to share the experience of writing with colleagues in a critical and creative atmosphere.”
The University of South Wales is another I have heard of – they balance simple enthusiasm with employability:
“If you are fascinated by the written and spoken word, love reading or want to hone your writing skills, then studying English and creative writing at university will offer you the chance to develop your potential and enhance your employment prospects.”
and closer to home, here is Swansea University‘s very practical suggestion:
“The MA in Creative Writing is a unique programme that offers integrated training in the writing of literary and media text.”
What is not mentioned is why the students on these courses choose to go on the courses. Are they all hoping, perhaps secretly, that they will find literary success? Of course some of them do, the rest probably have an absolute indulgence of a time studying something that they love with sympathetic souls. If anything would be worth the tuition fees, I think that would be it! As someone who did an entirely irrelevant degree and loved every minute of it and went on to get a very good unrelated job, I definitely believe that doing what you love at uni matters a lot.
Yet thinking about Creative Writing purely in terms of employability I am a little less sure. Of course, you should be able to demonstrate that you can write, plus the usual transferable skills of group work, literacy, time management etc. I would also view a Creative Writing graduate as someone who definitely has some nerve: exposing your creativity to all kinds of assessment requires courage. But would I suspect their real passion was to polish off their masterpiece and quit the day job? Probably. 
I do sometimes wonder about doing a Creative Writing course but it would be purely for pleasure. Most people I know who have done one were older graduates who could afford the time and money. How typical is that? Again, it’s a shame the article does not reveal.