What I learnt from my Creative Writing course

Future LearnOnce 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.

E M ForsterThe 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 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why it’s a good idea to keep a writing journal

Journal

Photo courtesy of flickr.com

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a free Open University writing course called ‘Start Writing Fiction.’ I have found everything I’ve learnt so far very useful but the most helpful thing I’ve learnt is that as a writer, I should be keeping a journal. I had heard this before I started the course but I’d been a bit half-hearted about the idea of taking a journal with me everywhere I go. It seemed a bit pretentious, I thought, and anyway, what would I have to write in it?

So when the course started, I decided that I should give it a proper try. They suggested using it to make notes about everything from story ideas, to character portraits, to everyday details and thoughts you might have that you could come back to later. I have found myself writing in it most days now and as a result, I have a long list of story ideas that I could use in the future. One of the things that really works for me, is music lyrics. For example, I wrote down a couple of lines from a Taylor Swift song that I’ve always loved, which also happen to tie in with my favourite Shakespeare play (you know the one I mean, right?) and as romance is my genre, this got me thinking about the idea of love at first sight. Next thing I knew, I’d written a whole page of story ideas.

I also like to use the phrase ‘What if?’ as a story idea prompt and have found that just letting my mind run free with these words often leads to ideas for stories. The important thing is to write them down whenever you have them because then you can use them later, at a time when you might find yourself fresh out of ideas otherwise. Now, whenever I go out to visit places, I try to take my notebook with me because you never know when an idea might strike you. I do have Evernote on my ‘phone though and that can also work well for note-taking if you get caught without your journal. Personally, I like to rewrite any electronic notes into my journal by hand because there’s just something so nice about writing longhand into a proper notebook 🙂

One of the other suggestions I found helpful was to write down ideas for characters: names, descriptions, observations about personality types, clothes, hair, behaviour etc because you won’t remember these details later on. These everyday details about people that you absorb without even noticing are the very essence of your writing and it’s only by making a note of them that your characters can start to come to life. I find that these are the kind of details that you relate back to other members of your family at the end of the day as a natural part of your routine but once told, you tend to forget them. If you write them down though, they become rich material to be used later. Even if you don’t use them, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is to write them down, just in case.

I have now taken to writing down all kinds of details. I took a group of children to the cinema the other day and as soon as I got out of the car at the Leisure Park, my nose was assaulted by the smell of fried food. This is something that has happened to me many times before but I’ve never made a note of it until then. This time I did because the sounds, smells, sights of everyday life will add depth to your description of settings and your reader will be familiar with them too. These everyday things may also prompt other memories for you as the writer, taking you back to something you might well have forgotten until the moment that you made a note of the new memory. Our minds are full of memories of course but they might be buried deep within and our minds work in very unusual ways. It’s a bit unnerving for example, the way that my husband remembers some events we’ve shared over the last nearly thirty years we’ve been together and I have no memory of those things at all, and vice versa. Other things will be crystal clear for both of us. So if you write it down, it will be there forever.

I am now using my journal for all kinds of different things and I find it great fun. I note down words I like and why. I write down the context I’ve heard them in as well, especially if it’s an exotic context because I may use both the word and the context one day; I write down words, phrases, speech patterns I hear people use in conversation; I make notes about the way people behave; I make notes about what I hear on the radio or what I read in the newspaper or magazines. If you’re finding it hard to get writing, using your journal for a short while can often be a good way to get you going as well.

Do you keep a journal yourself? Let me know in the comments how it works for you and I’d love to hear any tips you might have about how to expand my use of my journal. Thanks for reading and have a good writing week 🙂