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.
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.
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.
THE FOOLSCAP METHOD
Story telling device
Looks easy? Then add 70,000 coherent, clear, exciting words!!!
I've abandoned the computer screen and QWERTY keyboard for writing; I think better pen to paper - in my case ink pen to refill pad.
I am using notes from Kurt Vonnegut on story shape, from Susannah Waters on scene building tips and cheats and from the zoologist and anthropologist Desmond Morris who wrote 'Man Watching'.
Between them I've been standing back from my efforts of the last few months to try to see the wood from the jungle; to give it some order, like a closely managed English deciduous copse rather than a wild and vast forest.
There is masses online to feed you with tips, hints and cheats.
Meanwhile, despite the number of variations I've had on 'The Form Photo' I feel there is a shape worth cutting from the growth I have laid down.
From Kurt Vonnegut I take and overlap two story shapes - am I allowed to do that? Robbie, follows the 'man in the whole' pattern - unable to thrive in the rarified wealth of her 'sinks' with some relief into a few more modest years living with his maternal grandparents. While Kizzy, is a Cinderella story shape - it has to be as she comes from some a deprived background: on the round, illiterate, abused and poor. She makes a few bids at escape and is then rescued through adoption. Any of this make sense? It does to me. Simplified it is a 'Boy meets Girl story' where Kizzy and Robbie meet and become fond of each other as kids ... then meet again in the later teens but she says she wants nothing to do with him unless he proves himself in various ways for her.
I'm posting all draft of my current writing in 'Start Writing Fiction.'
I set up www.startwritingfiction.wordpress.com at the end of the Start Writing Fiction course from FutureLearn adn the OU in order that some 8-12 of us could share our writing. It very quickly worked out easier for us each to manage our own blogs so I find myself landed with 'startwritingfiction.'
Here I get the same pleasure, feedback and community feel that can exist here. You get to know a few people well and respond to each other's work on a regular basis.
Connectivity should equal support, not just access to information.
Fig. 1 Jeremy Irvine (War House) and Dakota Fanning (loads of films) on Seaford Head looking towrds the Seven Sisters.
This gem of a film is also from the director of "The Magnificent Marigold Hotel.' Dakota Fanning is a 17 year old dying of cancer with a wish list. Her performance is wonderful and she totally credible as English.
What's odd here is that the bench is pointed away from the view towards some gorse bushes and lacks a dedication which all such chairs have up there. I know because I walk the dog here often. Today I stumbled upon the largest camp of film lighting, catering, wardrobes and other support services I have yet seen. Are they filming Iron Man IV down there?
I have thus far stumbled upon the filming of a scenes from Atonement, what I was told was an Eastenders special, a TV commercial and picking up shots for Harry Potter (It's where the World Quidditch game is played).
Do you live next to a regularly used film location?
As a boy we had Alnwick Castle up the road. Long before Harry Potter they filmed something called 'King Arthur and the Spaceman' in which I was an extra all one summer. I was 16. I was the 'King's Guard Special' to Kenneth Moor's Arthur.
Fig.1. The Thorn Birds. From my iPad
Every few weeks my writing output collapses as I wonder where on earth I am going with it. A few weeks ago I thought 30,000 words along the lines of 'Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging' would be good enough and about the standard and tone of what I was producing as I wrote up the antics of a 15/16 year old with his eye on any pretty girl.
A second character appeared and grew. She took over the lives of two others and developed a life of her own.
I have both these two age six or so onwards.
Somewhere I got a whiff of 'The Thorn Birds' and so have had a couple of days reading what I vaguely remember as a TV series of Rachel Ward. It was on in 1983. I picked up bits of it. I had assumed it had been on far earlier than that, more like the mid 1970s.
Anyway, this story told over sixty years has its appeal as a model. There is more sense to it as the lives of the immediate family around the central characters are brought to life than my determined efforts to thread together a group of girls from a Form Photograph.
Who am I? (Point of view). Who is accessing this scene for the reader?
Stay in that person’s head – same applies to omniscient narrator. Stay in their age, their voice, their way of thinking/see/noticing, because of who they are and where they are, both emotionally and physically, and contextually (time of relating this story).
Now, from that person’s viewpoint, i.e. you are him or her:
What can you see?
What can you hear?
What can you smell?
What do you touch?
What do you taste?
i.e put me in that place.
What are you doing?
Show me state of mind/emotions/reactions
What are you saying?
What are you thinking?
With thanks to Susannah Waters for this.
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.
Anything you might use. Think of yourself as an artist before the era of the portable camera. If you don’t sketch something now you’ll forget it. So with words and ways of expressing what you see, feel, do and think. Get those ideas and descriptions down as soon as you can.
Try to work them up that evening, that day. Within a couple of days. Think of this as nurturing a seedling that will have to be transplanted in a day, week, even in a year or five years time. It’ll wait for you, but only if you have made it robust.
Write, and rewrite, toy with it and layer it. Have you recreated a sense of the moment as it was experienced the first time? Maybe. This effort to recall the moment creates a multitude of connections in your brain, some logical, many not, some becoming fixed, some floating, all transformed every nanosecond more that you live. There is no stability in it, not on the page and never in your head.
Then use these ideas somewhere. In a short story, or in a character or context description. It’ll come in time. It’ll become easier.
No automatic recording device can do this for you. A gadget works in absolutes, in numbers. What it takes for you is fixed. Write it down.
Like many of us, I'm sure, I wordpress and go online. I conceive and store ideas on these things. None yet gets close to offering the emotional power of what I said, and where I said it forty years ago: in a school kid diary, in a letter to my grandfather, even typed up with the portable typewriter I got one Christmas. Boxed up and stored I know have a way back into the child's head, that young teenager's hopes and observations. I even printed out filed and boxed stuff from the Amstrad in the 1980s and the various MACs I had in the 1990s and that originated on the Psion in 2000. Anything I thought would be safe on a floppy disc, or Zip drive is probably lost. I can't figure out to read them on a modern device. A box full of paper is another thing.
At 53 my life has been short. At 89 my father-in-law is going through his 'archive' - an academic and educator his house has over the years become a physical expression of the contents of his brain. There are books three columns deep to the ceiling, there are bedrooms stacked with boxes of papers and newspapers. As most of his faculties fail he now has a PhD student at his side to give some order to his archive, and to his life. Sharing it with one, on paper, at this stage, has to be more rewarding and effective than doing it digitally in a blog with wiki-like affordances.
|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.
The MOOC model for assessment is that the students do this.
The cohort of 'writers' on the Start Writing Fiction MOOC in its 7th week is probably around the 1400 mark. Of these, let's say 1000 submit their 1000 word piece for assessment. Each of these takes between 1/2 and 1 hour to read, re-read and assess across three criteria. I find a well-written piece with some flaws takes half an hour, an excellent pieces takes ten minutes while a piece that is a difficult read, misses most points taught over the last 7 weeks or simply fails to answer the brief can take an hour. Am i getting that wrong? Am I trying too hard to make up for a student's failure to grasp much or anything at all over the preceding weeks? Perhaps the answer is to seek out some positives: getting this far, the idea behind the writing, a line or phrase ... and leave off either picking through all the problems or offering a summary of all the points they have clearly not got, or simply skipped over the previous weeks.
Not a tutor or AL, though I've had a dozen, this is quite an eye-opener. Good feedback takes time to think through and then to deliver.
The tips on how to give feedback on FutureLearn are succinct. I learnt a technique in sports coaching: sandwiching praise with constructive feedback. This is all well and good. The problem is where it is a huge struggle to find something to praise. Not possible on the FutureLearn platform, my preference I see now, with a couple of the 36+ reviews I've now done of fellow students, is to leave the toughest ones for 24 even for 48 hours. At least then you may get a sense of where the person was coming from and how you speak to them if you had them over for a coffee rather than writing in the quasi-anonymous tone of randomly selected fellow reviewer.
Not easy, but from a student's point of view you have to learn how to take feedback. Occasionally you have have to stand you ground. A couple of times, not ever with The OU, I have taken issue with feedback and a grade and on review it is found that the reader/tutor could not have taken adequate care: posting a set of generic responses on a point missed or references, or saying the essay needed X and Y when, in my case X and Y were introduced in the introduction, covered in the main body of the assignment and mentioned in the conclusion - something I had to do when I was a point off a distinction.
It will be a new skill for students to become assessor, and a new world for academics to allow students to so boldly enter their domain, but a necessary one if we are to 'educate the world'.
Constructing a length piece of writing - over 50,000 words and need to stick to the chronology of events, at least in the first draft, I have found using the timeline creation tool Tiki-Toki invaluable. You can create one of these for FREE.
Over the last few months I've been adding 'episodes' to a timeline that stretches between 1914 and 1919. You get various views, including the traditional timeline of events stretched along an unfurling panorama. However, if you want to work with two screen side by side the 3D view allows you to scroll back and forth through the timeline within the modest confines of its window.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.1 Quote from John Gardener
My writing tutor Susannah Waters quoted Gardener during a one to one on plotting last week; 'the vivid and continuous dream' is what she described as my job as an author. That evening she read out the 3,000 words I'd written that form a lynchpin scene in the novel I want to write.
I would have welcomed the support and pointers three decades ago. That was then; this is now.
Even half an hour spent here is a half hour lost? Or a jinks?
Part of the 'definitely yes' for me was recognition that a) the isolation and TLC of a retreat works and b) having someone to deliver words to every few days is crucial - writing for an audience makes you concentrate, as does preparing and giving a presentation, or reading out an essay in a tutorial.
Prince Edward was sent to France during the First World War. He lost his virginity in an Amiens brothel soon after his 21st birthday and recieved the Military Cross for duties that included the organising of firewood collections.
Fig.1 Another writer on the retreat in Devon
I use an hour glass to count the time I spend 'at it'. Five hours pulling together ideas, then three hours writing. 600 words. Which is a multiple of ten less than I'd historically generate. I need to speak to my tutor about what this may or may not have achieved. Progress if I am successfully transplanting images and sounds from my head to hers, otherwise not.
Fig. 1 Retreats for You, Sheepwash, Devon
An hour with my tutor yesterday evening. Buzzed, but fell asleep soon after. It was a four hour drive yesterday afternoon/evening and I'd been up since 4.00 am or something. Which is when I woke this morning and rattled off 1 1/2 following guidelines on how to 'set the scene'.
Armed with a pot of coffee I plan to get another hour in before breakfast.
The goal is to write four completed scenes, each of around 2,500 words this week. I may, a new experience for me, write each of these scenes several times as I try out the approaches I've been given.
The premise for my novel got the thumbs up as did my 'voice': not so hot were the gaping holes in my scene setting - I leave far too much untold.
By the end of the week I will decide either to give up once and for all, or that there's a future in it and the boxes of manuscripts, scripts, zip drives, discs and flopping discs, hard drives, notebooks and diaries have served a purpose or should go to the skip.
And I'll rejoin the family for my birthday.
|From E-Learning V|
Fig.1 The effect of drinking too much coffee
With an assignment, TMA or EMA or exam deadline comes the inclination to get up earlier and drink stronger coffee, in larger doses over longer periods. Easing off the caffeine in take comes at a price: headaches. This isn't a drug you can come off in an instant ... or in my case, at all.
I'm trying to stick to water after breakfast; the problem is that I may have had a jug of expresso by then. If I get a headache later in the day what do I need? Paracetamol and caffeine.
- Ringing in ears
- Heart palpitations
- Gut rot
NONE of this is conducive to getting much done. I need to put in a couple of hours a day for the next four days at least.
Quitting coffee is on the cards. Done with alcohol, meat might be cut back to the weekend or cut out entirely. Quit Facebook. Cut back on Linkedin. Off on retreat in a couple of weeks when I plan to leave all gadgets behind - let's see or prove how productive that can be. Five days with pen and paper.
|From E-Learning IV|
Fig. 1 You have sixty minutes.
I also have one, three and thirty minute timers. I use sixty when I simple MUST get a few hundred words down on the page. I use one minute as a kickstart that can see me happily working away two or three hours later.
This is for some fiction writing. I know that the most crucial thing is to sit down and get on with it. Without distractions. I don't allow myself distractions during this hour. My usual way of doing things is summed up in two words 'anything but ...' Typically I will prepare, research, think about it, jot down some notes ... even sleep on it, even, in fact, especially in the middle of the day.
I've got four or five hours in the bag. I need to lay down a couple more today.
I use the metaphor of essay writing being like sewing a tapestry but wonder if making a house of cards wouldn't be better? In many respects this is how I now write: notes from copious reading reduced to frames in a presentation, and even notes on Rolledex cards that are in time grouped into a coherent argument and then 'stacked' into shape to form an essay. Looked at in this way an essay is a case of assembling the right parts in a logical order. Looked at this way, on reading through, you can identify a card that is out of place or faulty. It takes great care if the entire edifice is not to fall, or, however reluctantly, you have to dismantle the thing and build it up again from scratch. THIS is where I fail to get the illusive distinction - faced, inevitably with such a house of cards, I am loath to fix that card, wherever it might be, knowing that to reassemble the 'house' will take time and effort and a degree or repeating a task you thought was done.
Fig.1. My ever changing desk
Some weeks into preparing a 4000 word essay I finally, painfully, through copious notes, and assemblages of arguments to support my chosen thesis hit 'Word Count' and to my amazement find this fourth draft far from massively overfilling the cup comes in at 4036 words. It is with an uncharacteristic confession that I should know by now that this kind of considered effort will deliver, while writing as if in a blog will never do. A few marks short of a distinction for my last effort what I need now to do is prioritise the multitude of references that I've attached - some 67 (from a core set of seven or so books and eBooks). Actually I am still missing a dozen references at least. Whilst some of the ideas are mine, most are not, when it comes to the First World War, thousands have been there already (some 23,000 publications on the topic).
There is method to this. All other approaches having failed the above is to be the approach I take for my very last effort to constructing, rather than writing, a novel. It has its moments in the First World War, though it covers a period that a lecturer at the weekend expressed in the phrase, as 'From Super Power to the three day week'. He wanted to know how Britain had gone from Empire to near collapse over 75 years; this just so happens to be the period my main character lives through.
Over the last four years I migrated from pen and paper, to purist working on and from digital platforms only. Today my approach is blended - anything and everything that works. This means hard back reference books as well as eBooks, a pad of paper and an ink pen and the interface an iPad, and laptop or desktop - documents in Google Docs so quite frankly anything that gets me online will work. Often I take photos of a book rather than take notes. With eBooks I highlight, add notes - then assemble choice points onto Rolledex cards. What counts, I have learnt, is the time and quality of engagement with the subject matter. At some stage the fog does clear and it makes sense well enough for you to be able to talk about it willingly and in an informed way if you so choose - recommended, where and if you can find some many willing and able to listen and respond.
The result is my understanding of 'Why Britain went to war in 1914'. It is not the conclusion I would have come to a few weeks ago. It has relevance today as 100 years ago too - it comes down to a handful of political leaders: who they are, what they desire and represent, how they behave and to whom (if anyone) and how, they are accountable.
Somewhere across these posts there are other images of 'my working space' and my 'Personal Learning Environment'. This space is temporary: its the kitchen/dining table for a start. When my teenage daughter gets in from college she takes over with art materials and a sewing machine and I retire to a corner of the bedroom with an iPad.
For all the gadgets I've gathered around me and despite for 18 months doing everything on a screen through a keyboard or touchpad, I know have a whiteboard and put sheets of paper on the wall. I take notes. And when I need to hunker down I pick one of these and commit.
Green - One Minute
Yellow - Three Minutes
Black - Thirty Minutes
Blue - An hour
I practice I find 3 minutes does the job and I may keep going for several hours. My heart is telling me not to panic then the adrenalin rush kicks in.
An hour is just that. It is a pre-arranged slot and I find I am yawning at 55 minutes, as if I am waiting for the class to end.
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