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 🙂
Now that I have finished Camp NaNoWriMo, I have had to get back to editing ‘From Here to Nashville’ with a vengeance. My aim is to go through my three beta readers’ comments and do a final edit of the story before the end of May, at which point I will send my manuscript off to be assessed by the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Association). I’m now on my fourth draft of the story and I’m finding it so difficult to apply some of the points that have been raised. The proofreading type edits are easy but it’s the more meaty comments that would involve a lot of rewriting that are so hard to deal with. So I thought it would be useful in my blog post today to raise two of the more difficult issues I’ve been trying to handle, for you to consider.
Writing in a different gender My story divides quite easily into three parts. Part one is set in Dorset and is written from Rachel’s point of view. The second part sees the story move to Nashville and is from Jackson’s viewpoint. The final part moves between both settings and so I alternate between the two main characters’ points of view. I’ll come back to point of view in a moment but I’d like to look at this problem of writing in a different gender. Obviously, it was always going to be much easier for me to write Rachel’s point of view because she is a woman, like me, and I can understand what’s going on inside her head that much more easily for that. When it came to Jackson, I didn’t really ever think consciously, now I need to write more like a man. I had the character in my mind and just wrote his part the way I saw it. However, the feedback I’ve received from two of my beta readers is that he’s not enough like a man, in fact, he’s too much like a woman. The problem with this is that I have created a character in my mind and tried to put him on the page the way I imagined him to be. I can accept that maybe he’s a bit too feminine and work on some of what he says and does but I worry that if I try to make him more ‘manly’, I may stray into male stereotype territory and I don’t want to do that either. As always, I did some research on the internet and came across this useful article from Janice Hardy’s ‘Fiction University’ blog: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2011/02/gender-bending-writing-different-gender.html
If you’re interested in this issue, you really must read the full article but I would like to pick out the main points that I found useful for me in my current dilemma. Firstly, she says that ‘A well-rounded character is just the same, no matter what the sex.’ She says that we’re often tempted to write gender stereotypes when writing about the opposite sex to our own but this will only lead to us writing flat, two-dimensional characters and our reader won’t believe in them. What we need to do is to look at people we know who are of the opposite sex and ask them what they would do or say in the situations our character finds themselves in. For example, I asked my husband what he would say in answer to a question about whether a wedding had gone well. Jackson says ‘It was really lovely’ in my story but my husband said he would never say that. He thought he would probably say ‘it was really nice.’ Well, that’s a bit bland for my character but it made me think about my choice of language for a man. I don’t think my husband is a typical man’s man but his language is definitely not as flowery as mine. Another tip Janice gives is to focus on the character, not the gender, seeing them as a person first and foremost. I liked this point a lot. Everyone is different and should be treated as such and for the reader, that’s what makes a character interesting. My question for myself needs to be not whether Jackson ‘needs to grow a pair’, as one reader advised (!) but whether his character is genuinely more in touch with his emotions and whether that reads right in my story. Her final point is to get a beta reader of the opposite sex to read the story and to see what their take on it is. I am going to take that advice and see what happens.
Point of View I want to come back to the question of which point of view you write in. As I’ve said, my story is told in the first person, either by Rachel or by Jackson. I have had some surprising reactions to this. One reader a while back told me that she had only ever read one book written in first person point of view! I was shocked by that statement. I’ve lost count of the number of stories I have read in the first person and it doesn’t bother me at all. It did knock my confidence at the time she said that though because when I did some more research, I found that some critics believe that only inexperienced, first-time writers (like me) would make the mistake of writing in the first person. I blogged about it here. Anyway, I got over it and decided that, whilst I respected that view, it was not something to focus on. However, I’ve had this comment again recently, thus stirring up the same storm for me all over again. This reader has carried on and adjusted to that point of view and she is no longer bothered by it but it is still a worry for me, now that a few people have mentioned it. To change it now would be really hard but I am wondering whether to change the third part of the story to third person instead. I have heard from other writers that Carole Matthews, a very successful romance novelist, writes in first person from different characters’ points of view, concluding with a change to third person and so I feel heartened by that. I need to get round to reading one of her novels very quickly to see how she does it!
In summary then, it is a hard job editing your novel and trying to work out which comments to take on board and which to leave out. The important thing is to consider them all and then make your own decision. It is very important to have other people read your work of course but at the end of the day, it is your story and these are your characters. Only you, as the author, can decide what exactly it is they would say and do in certain situations but it helps to have other people give your their opinions to make sure that you have written the best characters you can write for your novel.
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog today. As always, I would appreciate any comments you might have on these topics.
I haven’t had so much time for editing this past week, what with it being the end of a busy term AND nearly Christmas, but I have been plodding on with it bit by bit and reading as much as I can around the subject. Then the other day, I came across an article about point of view in novel writing. Its main point was that new writers often make the mistake of writing in the first person and this reveals their lack of experience. Cue much soul-searching as, of course, you have probably guessed that I have written my debut novel in the first person. All the self-doubt came pouring in as I read through to the end of the article, which assured me that only truly experienced, brilliant writers can pull off writing in the first person. On top of this, a new critique partner I found this week told me that they had only read one novel written in the first person and so felt a bit unsure about commenting on mine because of this aspect. So, I decided to do some more research and came across this article, which was a bit more reassuring but still gives me cause for concern.
My concern stems from the fact that I have encountered some of these very problems, for example, the stream of consciousness and the limiting single perspective. It wasn’t ever a conscious decision for me to write in this point of view but now I can see that I might have made my writing life much harder by doing so. However, many books have been written this way, as the article suggests, which is why my new cp’s comment surprised me. I would have thought they would have read many more books written from this perspective than just the one they’re thinking of.
I am left wondering therefore, whether I ought to rewrite the whole thing now and if this would improve the novel immeasurably because it would give me much more freedom as a writer to be writing in the third person. I would be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this matter and look forward to hearing from you. In the meantime, I will let my brain process it and consider how to deal with this latest turn in my learning curve.
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and thank you, as always, for reading 🙂