Thursday, May 8, 2014

MOOC, Writing Fiction

Milk Wood

As many of you know, I registered for a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). This is my first course of the kind, so I was rather curious about the way it'd be organized. Considering that this wouldn't have the traditional teacher-student model I know so well and that it was a course for which no writing experience was required, I wondered how effective something of this type could be.

Start Writing Fiction by the Open University's Future Learn offers the interesting possibility of the learner being able to go through the different steps of the course at his own pace. It started April 28 and will last 8 weeks.

Now, I know that teaching writing is a bit like teaching someone how to cook. There are different styles, different tastes, different ingredients. However, there are a number of techniques that, when used properly, can improve the end result considerably.

So, although I've been writing for a while (I'll never admit to how long... I wouldn't want to give away my age *cough cough*), I thought I'd benefit from a structured learning environment to consolidate those techniques.

Throughout the weeks, I'll post a few comments on what I thought was "Interesting" and "Uninteresting".

Week 1: Starting to write fiction
• Start keeping a writer’s notebook for life observations
• Write both fact and fiction, discussing the difference
• Read character sketches in novels
• Do a quiz on the readings from Orwell and Heller
• Listen to novelists on how they started
• Start writing yourself.

Interesting: Although I already used a notebook to jot down ideas, words, sentences, collect newspapers clippings, names of songs, anything, I never spent much time making notes about people. This course focuses on creating a character, and it was interesting to pay more attention to this aspect of writing. 

Uninteresting: One of the goals I had when I registered for this course was to have feedback from others. As it happens everywhere, people are too eager to comment on anything/everything without giving some thought to what they are commenting on. This is not only unhelpful but potentially harmful.

Week 2: The habit of writing
• Discover your own writing rituals
• Listen to novelists talking about their own rituals
• Read novel extracts for how characters appear
• Do a quiz about the readings from Atkinson and Greene
• Learn about heightening powers of observation
• Experiment with story beginnings and write a mini-story.

Interesting: Reflecting on writing rituals and how published novelists introduce and develop their characters.

Uninteresting: The foreseen small interaction between the teachers and those attending the course. Yes, this is an open (i.e. free) course and I have received an email earlier today stating that more than 20.000 people registered for this MOOC. I'm not sure all of them are actually going through the tasks given, but... it's an enormous amount of people. Commenting at a 101 level would be impossible. However, I guess I'm old-school... I'd like to see the teachers online for an hour or two a week to answer questions in a chatroom situation or a live video stream, for example.

Week 3: Writing is editing
• Discover the importance of reflecting on your writing
• Explore how, where and when to make changes
• Consider what to bear in mind as you edit
• Review work from fellow writers
• Receive feedback from other writers
• Start writing another story.

Interesting: I found it extremely interesting and useful to reflect on my writing process. It tends to be a bit "impressionistic" and unplanned, I must admit. Once I start spending too much time drafting a story, taking notes and trying to make sense of it all, the magic is lost. I get stuck. How to find a middle ground is quite a challenge. I'm still working on it!

It was also very important, this week, to review the writing of fellow learners. Yes, there are a few rules one should follow to produce an effective and actually useful review. Did people follow those rules? Not always...

Uninteresting: Peer review criticizing an aspect of the story but not offering an alternative.

Week 4: Building your story
• Listen to what novelists think about research
• Develop further a notebook habit for research and ideas
• Explore ways of turning events into plots
• Read writing that focuses on personal concerns
• Do a quiz about the reading from d’Aguiar’s novel
• Investigate where ideas for stories come from.

Interesting: I've never felt the need to do much research other than finding the right name for a character. It was interesting to reflect a bit about that and about how much of each writer is in poured into the characters.

Uninteresting: The quizzes are definitely a bit odd. Being a multiple choice type of exercise, I'd expect them to have a right/wrong answer. In many of the questions that is the case. However, there are answers that depend on the opinion of the learner. So, I'd either remove them or rephrase some of the questions.

Week 5: Creating convincing characters
• Read about four ways to create characters
• Do a quiz about Novakovich’s methods of creating characters
• Discover the effect of ‘conflict’ on your writing
• Learn how to turn stereotypes into rounded characters
• Review work from fellow writers
• Receive feedback from other writers.

Interesting: Receiving feedback from fellow writers. At the beginning of the course, learners were offering feedback in a rather unorganized way. This week, I was fortunate to have a few peer reviews that were structured and very helpful.

Uninteresting: I continue to find the quizzes rather "fragile".

Week 6: Developing and portraying characters
• Listen to novelists on developing their characters
• Investigate ways of getting to know more about your characters
• Read a short story to see how characters are portrayed
• Learn four ways of portraying characters
• Experiment with one or more of these methods
• Start writing the first draft of your final short story.

Interesting: It was very interesting to see the methods accomplished writers used to portray their characters.

Uninteresting: Writing the first draft of my story is something I've been struggling with, oddly enough. I am usually fast in planning a story and even faster in writing it. My gut-feeling tells me the reason why this is happening is the fact that I fail to recognize a logical sequencing in the tasks suggested in the course. Some seem to be "out of place" and others quite repetitive. What should have led to this moment, writing the first draft of the story, didn't... At least for me...

Week 7: Reading as a writer
• Listen to novelists on how important reading is for them
• Note your responses to what you read
• Read a novel extract, investigating its technique
• Do a quiz about the reading from Toni Morrison’s Jazz
• Review the first draft of your short story and redraft
• Learn of the benefits of reviewing other work.

Interesting: Reading other writers' work is, in my opinion, extremely important. I have found myself having no time to read, for some reason, and noticing immediately that my writing becomes more difficult, more confusing and in need of a lot more reviewing.

Uninteresting: Well, it's not the first time that I mention the fact that I have been struggling with the tasks suggested by this course... This has led to a certain stand-still in my story...

Week 8: Your final story
• Review work from fellow writers
• Receive feedback from other writers
• Write a reflection on your story
• Edit and redraft your story
• Review the important tools that help you to progress as a writer
• Do a quiz about character and story and the approaches picked up on the course.

Interesting: Submission time! The story had to be ready! It wasn't... Life does tend to kick us about a bit every now and then and,as a result, I finished week 8 at the end of... week 9. So, I am not sure if there will be enough people around to take a look at my story. We'll see. PS: There are still plenty of people willing to review stories.

As a matter of fact, I'm doing my bit. I've reviewed two already. Writing a review is always interesting for me. It makes me reflect on the writing process without being too close to the story.

Uninteresting: Still the quizzes. They don't add anything to the course. In my opinion, they are often embarrassingly easy.

Final Comment: Apart from the weaker aspects mentioned above, I think this course did promote a more systematic reflection upon many aspects of the writing process, especially character building.

Only time will tel whether this course had a strong enough impact on my writing or not. For now, I find myself being considerably more self-conscious about my characters' portrayal. I do hope this is good and not somehow constricting!


  1. How wonderful and generous of you to share these tips Lizzie. Thanks so much. Was this expensive? I like the idea always of working at your own pace.

    1. Cybele, it's a free course. It's interesting, but being a free course with thousands of learners, it lacks the kind of feedback you'd have from a teacher you can actually interact with directly. In this course, we can ask questions and sometimes our posts are replied to/commented on by the "course facilitators". However, the "personalized" approach doesn't exist.

  2. Yayyyy YOU ARE A CHAMPION!! You managed to finish it and you wrote a very interesting story at the end!! CONGRATULATIONS, you are my NUMBER ONE!!

    1. :) Thank you! And thank you for your support and encouragement!