Once I’d made the decision to devote proper time to my writing on a regular basis, I knew that I would want to learn as much as I could about the craft of writing. I have always written and I have always loved reading since I was first able to do it, and what’s more, I teach all aspects of Literacy in my job, but I knew within a very short time of starting my debut novel that there was a lot I could learn. I researched a few creative writing courses in the UK and was surprised at how expensive most of them were. There are a number of excellent degree courses but I was loathe to start another one and anyway, where would I get the money to pay for that or for any of the other courses on offer? So, I was delighted when I found a free Open University course, run by Future Learn, called Start Writing Fiction that would run for eight weeks and take place online. The course is aimed at beginners, as well as those with some experience so I wasn’t sure how much I would pick up from it but I wanted to try it just in case I might learn something from it. As this week is now the final week of the course, I wanted to report back on what I have achieved.
Keep a Writer’s Journal or Notebook In the first week, we were encouraged to start keeping a writer’s journal or notebook. This may be the most useful piece of advice I received from the course. I blogged about it here and tried to explain just how useful I have found this approach, especially with my advancing years! It’s so easy to forget things and getting into the habit of writing useful ideas or observations down has really worked for me. If you don’t do it yet, I would seriously recommend it. By the time we revisited the idea in the fourth week, I had established it as a habit, writing something in it virtually every day.
Writing Prompts In the second week, amongst other things, we were given a tip about a writing prompt which suggested starting some sentences with ‘Emma said that’ as a way of getting your writing started. For example, I wrote the following sentences using this prompt:
- (Emma said that) one of the servers had seen a famous actor in the Food Hall.
- (Emma said that) it was definitely the one from that detective series on TV.
- (Emma said that) he’s just as good-looking in real life as he is on the screen.
The idea with this prompt is that you use it to get you started it and then remove it later. Once I took away what was in brackets above, I was left with three core sentences that I then used to write a mini-story. In the third week, we received feedback on that piece of writing from our peers and thought about editing.
The Difference between Story and Plot Another piece of advice I found very helpful in week four, was how to get from an idea to a plot line. E.M. Forster wrote in ‘Aspects of the Novel’ that a story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence, whereas plot is a narrative of events with the emphasis on causality. In simpler terms, this means that a story tells you what happened but the plot tells you the reason why things happened and this is what is fascinating for the reader. The reader wants to know what causes your character to do things or to be the way they are and one of the ways that you can develop your character is by asking questions of them – you know the ones. At school, we call them the 5Ws and the How. Why was the man angry? What had happened to him? Where was he going? Who was he? When did this event happen? How did it happen? The important thing to remember is that these aren’t scientific questions, there’s no right or wrong. You answer them using your imagination and this is what gives you your plot. The other question you need to ask is ‘What if?’ Answering this question about your characters adds richness to them and in so doing, further develops your plot. In week five, we developed this by giving our characters flaws which caused conflict or a struggle and so deepened our plot that bit further still.
Planning a Short Story By week six, we had a character that we had been developing for a while and we were given the task of writing a short story of between 750 and 1000 words. We had to write the story from their point of view, using either first or third person. As you know, I have written a lot in first person so I decided to write my story in third person to see what that was like. I found it quite easy to write in third person but the hardest thing was keeping within the word count, whilst still trying to develop a character and a plot. We have been asked to edit rigorously, thinking about setting, point of view, the type of language we’ve used and our sentence structure before submitting the story this week for feedback from our peers. My story is now ready to go and I feel happy with what I’ve written using the things I’ve learnt on the course. I have found the feedback received so far to be very constructive and I hope that this final task will be the same. I plan to post the story for you all to read in due course.
So, in summary, it has been a good experience doing this course and I have picked up a lot of useful pointers. You can always learn something, no matter how old or how experienced you are and I highly recommend this course if you come across it in the future. Thanks for reading and I look forward to receiving any comments below. Have a good writing week
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