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Low tech solutions to complex problems

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Over the decades I've been a sucker for every piece of writing software that has come along, feeding it into my Mac from the early 1990s: Final Draft and PowerStructure both have their place, as does Word or PPT. These days I so far more of my thinking on paper, on cards and on a white board. And when I write I use Google Docs - swear by it. Thanks to the OU SWF course last year and over 4 months working and reworking a series of stories I am at last familiar enough with the characters and context to think I can devise and link a series of scenes to make a novel. On verra.

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Harness your obsessions.

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Tuesday, 12 May 2015, 16:12

We are all hung up on something – the terrible ex, the neighbours from hell, mothers, spiders, fitting rooms, flying or being alone. Anything you like. Some of the best stories come from the deepest and darkest obsessions (just ask Alfred Hitchcock). So dig deep and find your own personal heart of darkness.

I like this tip on writing from the Open University. 

I've come to it a very roundabout way. Via a FutureLearn initiative to get people writing 140 word fiction on Twitter. I think I've posted a dozen @mymindbursts. 

What do I get hung up about?

  • People parking up on the kerb in residential streets
  • Dogs, and cats, allowed to run about as they please yapping and shitting as they like.
  • Rubbish left to burn and smoulder for days
  • Loud radios played in gardens as soon as the sun comes out.
  • Exceedingly loud petrol-engine driven strimmers used in gardens on a Sunday morning.
  • Anyone who recites the party line instead of saying something truthful or original.
  • Overtaking on the inside lane.
  • Hogging the central lane.
  • Cyclists riding abreast on narrow roads.
  • Motorbikes revved and diddled with as their relaxing weekend activity.
  • Wheelie bins left out for days
  • Littering at beauty spots - some people regularly pull over a layby and toss their MacDonalds out of the window on leaving

I have this story called 'When the green man saw red.'

Like Michael Douglas in "Fallen' he goes mental trying to set the world straight and probably gets done over as a result. Sounds like me? I attract vandals and abuse. Was I born an arse who made one through parenting and boarding school. One wonders. 

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Can you write a short story in 140 Twitter characters?

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 7 May 2015, 10:15

Collect words  .... 

 Fig.1. How I listed new words in my teens.

This was during A'Level English age 17. I'd done it a bit age 12/13 ... not a big reader, or writer then, I never kept it up. Making lists was one thing, using fancy words quite another. More importantly, as a professional writer the opposite applies: communication is clearest when you use short, every day words, not fancy latinate terms or foreign phrases.

This is a tip three of ten from the Open University and FutureLearn supporting 'Start Writing Fiction' the online course and a Flash Fiction, 140 character Twitter challenge next week. 

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To write, write it down. All of it.

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Thursday, 7 May 2015, 10:15

“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” Will Self

This is tip one of ten from the Open University course 'Start Writing Fiction' and its launch of a Twitter Fiction campaign.

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Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap Method Template

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 6 May 2015, 08:42

Fig.1 Fig.1. Steven Pressfield's 'Foolscap Method' to write a novel

Once more I am loving the Open University's free online course 'Start Writing Fiction' on FutureLearn: it only started this week so there is plenty of time to join now. This free online course is all about character, so us novice fiction writers struggle with thoughts on plot. I love this from author Steven Pressfield: 'The Foolscap Method' is for me the 'Creative Brief' by another name, or even Churchill's dictum of being given reports on a single sheet of paper. By setting parameters and being succinct you are forced to get to the kernel of an idea. When constructing a story then, say a novel, answer the following. I find I return to and refine this often and eventually have it on the wall to stop me wandering off ... those ideas and stories can be kept for another project.

Fig.2 Close up on Steven Pressfield's 'Foolscap Method' used to write his first novel 

Steven Pressfield's Foolscap Method : From his blog.

A bit more on the Foolscap Method from his blog. The Foolscap Method - Video 1

The transcript The Foolscap Method - Video 2

 

 THE FOOLSCAP METHOD

Beginning

 

Middle

 

End

 

Story telling device

 

Theme

 

Inciting Incident

 

Climax


Looks easy? Then add 70,000 coherent, clear, exciting words!!!

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Reading and writing with fresh eyes

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Wednesday, 25 Mar 2015, 07:37
From Writing

Fig.1. Philip Pirrip is confronted by the 'fearful man, all in course gray ... '

Start Writing Fiction is a FutureLearn Course. Its content makes up part of an OpenLearn Course. It is a thread in the Creative Writing Course here at the OU.Three months on having completed the course it is about to repeat. I'll be there.

From E-Learning IV

Fig.2. How we learn in the 21st century. J F Vernon E-learning (2011)

We learn through repetition; not simply learning by rote.

We learn through passing through the same loop over and over again. There is nothing so special about graduation, gaining an MA, a PhD or achieving the lofty status of 'professor' so long as you are willing to climb, as if on a thermal, one focused ever ascending loop seeing the same thing over and over again in new light, until, through insight or height from the ground you see something new and have something new to say.

There are some key lessons to learn from 'Start Writing Fiction; (SWF)' though it is never the whole story - for that you need to sign up to a graduate course on Creative Writing. There's plenty to work with though. I look forward to being reminded what matters. It kicks off again on 27th April and runs for three months. 

Reading matters as much as writing.

The precocious child who read copious volumes and gets into literature in their early teens has an advantage. I was slow to read and reluctant to read. The only novels I may have read as a child were forced on me through school. Even in my teens as I read 'Great Expectations' and 'Silas Marner' for O' Levels and 'The Mayor of Casterbridge' for A' Levels I did say like a parrot: If I picked up an 'B' grade at both levels it was only because I regurgitated precisely what I had been tutored to put down.

Over three decades later, 33/35 years later to be exact if I check my diary from that time, I am reading Dickens with fresh eyes.

My late mother bought me a second hand edition of all the Dickens novels. I never read one. I now have 'Great Expectations' for free courtesy of 'Project Guttenberg' on my Kindle. I am reading it with lessons from 'Start Writing Fiction' in the front of my mind. SWF concentrates on the key, though not only component, of good writing: character. I am chewing over every line of Dickens with a rye smile on my face: I see what he's doing with Pip, with the escaped convict from the hulk, his older sister and her husband Joe the Blacksmith, with Miss Haversham and Estella. If 'character is plot' then the plot moves, in a series of steps, over the heads of each character. We are carried by Pip with repeated moments of laugh out loud insights to a child's perception and feelings for the world. How had I not see this before?

For the umpteenth time I am doing what doesn't come naturally to me: I should be painting, not writing.

Intellectually I feel like the child who is left handed who had than arm tied behind his back as a child to force him to write against his will with his right. I have managed well enough, but it is against character and it is too late to correct? I need to work with words as the text that describes what I see. Text has other values too of course. It can carry a story beyond a single canvas.

A creative writing tutor, editor and author - former opera singer and opera director - Susannah Waters in reviewing my writing on a retreat last September gave me more than SWF can do on its own. An A4 sheet torn in half offers the following tips on 'Scene Building:'

  • Who am I?
  • Stay in the person's head
  • Put me in the place

She expands on these.

Every line of 'Great Expectations' is in Pip's voice, written as autobiography much later in life, in the moment, capturing for now, his wonder, fear, feelings and hopes. It helps me enormously as I try to construct a story of my own set  in the couple of decades 1966 to 1986, rather than 1820 to 1860. Characters don't change, technology and society does. It helps me to contain my imagination and fears as I feel it falling apart. Character will hold it together; each character needs to surprise. 

I wish I could find the link to the BBC Radio 4 programme in which an author, Michael Morpurgo or Alexander McCall Smith talks about writing; it was on over the last three weeks. Or was it on TV?! Tips and devices were spoken of, but what had most resonance for me was the idea that an authors wonder at even the most mundane creates interest for the reader. 

I used to discount Dickens as old fashioned; I now feel that I am reading Dickens with the same wonder of someone who has broken through the fog of a new language and is becoming fluent. Can I now translate this into my own writing? For now the juggling game I am playing is my writing in one hand, Dickens in the other.

Sharing where I stand matters hugely. Knowing that others are following my journey and are supportive matters: it keeps me going. Being online matters. It is the next best thing to standing on a soapbox in the local park and reading passages from my efforts. Feedback matters as it guides you.

On this retreat last September we read out our work, actually Susannah read my piece for me as I wanted to hear it from a different voice. We were around an open fire in a cottage in Devon. Telling stories around a fire takes you back to the origins of storytelling; what must you say to hold their attention, to keep them entertained, to make them cry (I did with that one), to make them laugh, fear, hope, clap, get angry ... and ponder, even panic over the outcome. In that story I had a soldier in the First World War slowly sinking into mud, up to his chest and neck ... screaming for life.

 

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What the OU has taught me

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Whilst I cannot yet see how or where I will use my OU MA I have, over five years, here and when studying, learnt to fill much of my day with reading and writing. In one respect I am back where I was exactly nine years ago: writing all the hours I can. I don't blog. I go to bed early with a story or character on my mind and as soon as I am awake I am looking at notes I received overnight from a reader I befriended on the OU FutureLearn course 'Start Writing Fiction.'

Nine years ago I worked freelance writing and editing copy for websites, training and promotional. Nine years ago I started to take professional swim coaching work. I do both of these again four days a week for a few hours at a time: the wolf is not so much at the door, as sitting at my side but I don't feel I have any choice any more.

Meanwhile I envy my 18 year old daughter who took herself off to Paris, took two jobs, has rented a studio flat and is writing fiction with the kind of enthusiasm she had devouring books when she was little. Good for her.

I am writing at www.startwritingfiction.wordpress.com

This blog I set up initially so that a bunch of us could share work to review. It turned out more practical and very easy for each of us to have our own blogs though.

I no longer blog per se. Rather I write up between 500 and 3000 words of fiction every day, sometimes 5000 words If I am transcribing things I have already written. 

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Diaryland and the writer's itch

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 8 Feb 2015, 08:29

1,783,027 words, 1,879 entries over 5,091 pages if printed off. 

This how I left my first blog.

It barely scratches the surface of the memories a brain can recreate. I tried. I have in there repeated efforts to recall the very first things I could ever feasibly have formed as viable memories: or were they words and images put into my head by my mother much later? I also noticed that in the comments I have two years of conversations with the now published author Catherine Valente and, would that I could verify it, a short exchange with Norman Mailer. 

This diary is on 'Diaryland;' started in September 1999, finally ended in March 2006. It feels like landfill: there's so much stuff in there rotting away. Though it doesn't, it's digital. Closed because while I don't give a monkey's about writing on everything I have done, thought about or think where people can be identified it does cause embarrassment and pain. It took me a few years to realise that if I was receiving 200+ views an hour some of these people might know me. No one I knew ever, ever said they were there. Not for a long time. Perhaps they knew I'd close it down if they let on? I tried to obscure names and locations but that just got very confusing. I held a mirror along the Pennines and set everything that had taken place in Northumberland in Cumbria and vice versa. For people's names I tried initials, but 'JV,' for me is a give away, so I cleverly decided to change names by one letter in the alphabet, so 'JV' would become 'KW' and I'd give him the name 'Ken,' for example. I knew a lot of Sallys and Sarahs who all become 'Tamsin' or 'Tabatha' which threw my head into immediately constructing different personas for them. Ken and Tabatha sounds like the relationship between a Barbie doll and a Sacha doll.

There were a lot of 'Js' too for both boys and girls from the 1970s and there is a limited choice of 'Ks' to go with.

Only a few years later bumping into old friends from home and school have they said they knew all about 'X', and 'Y' or looked at the drawings I did of 'K' and the photo of 'T.' The greatest shock was getting into a conversation with my 'petite amie' from my school French Exchange when I was 17 - 33 years after we'd last seen each other. I'd posted a teen sketch I did of her and wrote up in detail how we behaved.

It is of greater value to me not 'cleaned up,' so I keep it closed though once again I'm drawing upon it constantly as it contains a substantial part of a diary I kept from the age of 13 to 28 and a great deal of stories that I wrote drawing on some of those experiences. These are finding life once again thanks to the OU's FutureLearn course 'Start Writing Fiction' and, once again, a close writer/editor relationship that has formed. It is, should I ever get published, a sound example of the value of keeping a 'notebook' as that diary, even as I conceived it age 13 is/was a 'writer's journal'.

What I find touching, then and again today, is that supportive friendships form with fellow writers or readers or editors that is enormously encouraging and guiding; people want my words. I feel like a kind of stand up comic on stage who carries his audience some of the time, then gets hit from time to time by a soft  'carrot' or a bendy 'stick' and subsequently re-adjusts his 'voice' to the one they want to hear. 

Marking five years since I started my OU degree and this blog almost coincided with a logical, deserving step into the legitimate world of e-learning as I completed an 'in-tray' exercise ahead of a second interview. As I prepared to mark this 'Five Years' (a totemic time period for any David Bowie fan) I thought I could be announcing this literal step onto a 'platform'. Though I also had in mind my response to it not happening:

  • no more job applications
  • no more OU courses
  • back to writing with a renewed vengeance and determination. (I feel the Start Writing Fiction course on FutureLearn has refuelled me. I've been a petrol engine trying to run on diesel all y life and they fixed that)
  • once again give a substantial body of unpublished work (manuscripts for novels, screenplays, TV series, radio plays) their chance. (I have made and found the time and was for a couple of years indulged by an agent and producers enough to get interviews to discuss treatments and first scenes. On reflection I was a chef who appeared to promise something delicious but kept serving the thing up either cold or over spiced. SWF has been like a short course in Cordon Blue cookery; I may not be there yet, but at least what I'm now producing is edible).
  • and commit to a two month sailing trip later in the year: the Atlantic via the Canaries and Cape Verde to Bermuda.
  • Meanwhile I have picked out one manuscript, something I dated March 2006 when I boxed it away, that runs to around 100,000 words and 42 chapters. I am revisiting, rewriting and posting this in little bits. It'll take at least six months working 14 hours+ a day.
  • eight hours a week 'work' fails to keep the wolf from the door. I could do with at least 20. 

On verra.

This OU Student Blog, a good deal of it already migrated into a WordPress blog, is coming to its natural conclusion. Five years is long enough. Until I study here again.

Elsewhere at:

www.mymindbursts.com

Writing fiction at:

www.startwritingfiction.wordpress.com = password protected

Diaryland at:

www.jonathan.diaryland.com = password protected

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Review, Reflect, Repeat ...

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 4 Jan 2015, 09:05

Fig.1. My mash-up from the Start Writing Fiction, OU and FutureLearn MOOC. 

Many weeks after the Open University MOOC on Future Learn closed 'Start Writing Fiction' I find I am returning to the many activities across the eight weeks to refresh, reflect, and build on my knowledge. As well as doing my bit for that 'community' by doing a few reviews (all assignments are peer reviewed). I completed the course in early December.

I return to reflect, to develop ideas, to be reminded of the excellent lessons I have learnt there, and in particular on how we use fact and fiction, whether consciously or not. In pure fantasy writing I find, inevitably, that I ground events in places I know from my youth, or have since researched. I use the hook of reality and my experiences on which to build the fiction. While currently I am embedded in what started as 90/10 fiction to fact I find it is increasingly looking like 95/5 in favour of fact as my imagination is close to the truth about a particular character and his experience of the First World War. All this from a simple exercise in week one called 'Fact or Fiction?' where we are asked first of all two write something that contains three factual elements and one fiction, and then to write something that contains three fictional elements and one factual. There are thousands of these now, many very funny, original or captivating. In week one, I'm guessing that around 10,000 got through the week. How many posted? There are 967 comments. This happens. It is an open course. The same applies for most web content: 95:5 is the ratio of readers to writers. Many people prefer not to do what they feel is 'exposing themselves' online. Why should they.

Anyway, this gives me reason to argue that it is an excellent idea to keep a blog of your OU studies. All of this can remain private, but at least, as I know have in this blog, when the doors close behind a module you can, months, even years later, return to key activities and assignments and build on the lessons you learnt. More importantly, as we all forget with such ease, we can keep the memory of the lessons fresh.

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Time to reflect on 'Start Writing Fiction' with the OU and FutureLearn

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Friday, 19 Dec 2014, 09:33
From E-Learning V

Fig.1. The writer's path ...

The eight week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) I have just completed 'Start Writing Fiction', with the OU, through FutureLearn merits, like all learning experiences, a period of reflection. How do you look through posts across some 80-100 'threads' with anything from 143 posts (final thread, final week) to over 7,500 posts (fourth thread, first week) ? You have to filter, but these filters are dependent on your participation throughout because the key filters are: 'my comments' and 'following'. These in turn, isolate from a massive thread, the comments you have left, starting a thread to the main discussion or commenting on points made by others. While 'following' picks out those, all of them, whose thoughts and contributions you have enjoyed. You can also pick out 'most liked' - though with likes ranging from 0-4 with 1 like the median, this sift hasn't anything to offer. And you can prioritise 'Activity' i.e. select in reverse order across all posts in an activity those that are most recent.

Thus armed, if you can give it the time, you can work back over the battlefield of minds that has been this last two months; it feels like a 60 degree credits 7-8 month slog packed into a very, very long weekend - it has been that intense (I've let it be so).

Whilst the activities could be done in three hours a week at a fast jog, what takes far longer is a) writing a piece for peer review - 300, 500 and 1000 words were the lengths of submission and b) reading, replying, following and learning from the mass off comments in what are sometimes huge discussion threads with thousands of responses where some of have skipped through the entire 8 weeks course in a few weeks, and others, like climbing onto a moving walkway, are still, just joining. 

I can write 1,500 words in an hour. However, 500 from a day of writing, takes ... all day. And it is generally this 500 which is worthy of keeping and could lead to publication.  I have learnt the value of reviewing the work of others - all standards (I've been at all standards and can migrate with ease between them). I am reading fiction strategically -I did this with efforts to write TV series and Film scripts (I have a writer/director credit for a short film on Channel 4). It is so useful, as you get a feel for the genre you are writing, to read some of the very best in that genre. It makes sense really. How have other authors successfully tackled time-travel, war, fairies ... horror, romance or sex. And then writing itself. Setting time aside, focusing on that for hours uninterrupted to give you creative side a chance to come out. And then, from that, edit ruthless to those ideas, phrases, descriptions and characters that meet a set of criteria. It's tough. If it wasn't everyone would be a published author.

I may forget to take my phone with me, but when I go anywhere I have an A6 size notebook and pen. Like Louis de Bernieres I take a bath and use this time to read fiction! No iPad. Fewer showers. Currently reading 'The Time Traveller's Wife' and 'Never Ending Story'. 

When I get up, very early, I flick over two hourglasses: one is 30 minutes, the other an hour. I like the 'reward' of getting 30 minutes in. I may forget where time is going after an hour or so. 2,000 words a day ought to be about right. Less happens. More happens. Then the rest of the day takes over - often until the early hours of the following morning. I read over a few pages before I go to sleep and sometimes the Muse rewards me in the early hours ... or torments, or deserts me. 

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