Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Learning to dance...

No, of course the MA in Creative Writing is not about learning to dance. But I think getting used to each other on the course forum is a bit like that.

There is a lot of forum work involved. We each write three or four pieces of 500 words each per week, then have to comment on each others. As we're not quite used to each other yet, and it's very difficult to suggest tone on any Internet forum, there is a lot of dancing back and forth involved. We're all gauging, I think, how to give each other constructive criticism without causing offence. I seem to find myself apologising or explaining myself a lot, so obviously I need to work on that! I must admit it has led to a bit of a wobble, but I'm not about to give up. After all, we're all there to learn and improve and we can't do that just by saying everything is perfect. I should stress that everyone on the course is very nice and supportive. I think it's only me who worries about whether I've given offence or not. It does occur to me that maybe if I stopped apologising for my opinions, they might carry more weight...

The activities are fascinating though, and are making me look at my writing in a very different way. So far we've played with the idea of building characters, using their deepest secrets and appearance in order to suggest their personalities. This week we've done some work on point of view. We had to combine two characters, one from Andrea Levy's The Long Song, and another from Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Levy's character talks in the first person, whereas Lahiri's story is told in the third person, about a taxi driver called Mr Kapasi. We had to put Levy's unnamed character into Mr Kapasi's taxi and write about her from his point of view. I must admit I struggled with this. I struggle with cultural appropriation full stop, and honestly feel there are people who do it much better than a middle aged white woman from the Peak District whose only three trips out of the country include Germany, Spain and Venice.

The next activity (which I'm actually avoiding by writing this blog post) is about consistency in point of view. We have to write about something we own or a place, first in objective terms, i.e. a white house in a field, then in subjective terms, i.e. ugly white house in a field. Then write in the first person about a character who disagrees with our opinion of the place/object, then change it to third person.

Even though I am only writing three or four pieces of 500 words per week, it is impacting on my other writing, mainly because of all the forum time. I imagine this will settle down eventually, but as we're marked on forum work, I don't expect that to happen anytime soon!

Monday, 3 October 2016

Technology ... Arrgggghhh

The first proper day I'm able to devote time to study and the OU website has crashed. I managed to respond to and post a couple of forum posts, but it was grinding then. I guess that everyone has had the same idea as me. Kids are back at school, spouse perhaps at work, busy weekend ended (in my case) so let's get down to it.

So I thought I'd share my beginnings here, with you good people. We've done two tasks so far. One was to choose a favourite beginning and the other was to write three different beginnings to a story, either using some novel openings we'd been reading or a favourite story or our own. I chose to write my own.

When it come to favourite openings I was torn between two. The first was:

Everybody has been at me, right and left, to write this story, from the great (represented by Lord Nasby) to the small (represented by our late maid-of-all-work, Emily, whom I saw when I was last in England. ‘Lor, miss, what a beyewtiful book you might make out of it all – just like the pictures!’)
And the second was:

This is a story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve. 
As I read them, I realised that, despite the different tone, they're actually similar. They both begin by stating that the narrator is in fact telling a story, and whilst on the second one it isn't clear, both are in the first person (although interestingly the narrator of the second one often refers to himself in the third person).

I shan't give away what they are, but if anyone has any thoughts or feelings on them, don't be afraid to share.

Then we had to write three opening sentences. I'll share mine here with the remit at the top of each. I don't say I've nailed it. I only offer them up as an example of the work I'm doing (excuse the formatting).

·        Making a startling or arresting statement of fact.
I didn’t intend for Beatrice Taylor to die. I suppose it’s fair to say I didn’t do much to save her either. I saw an opportunity and I took it, as I always have. 
·        Offering an invitation to the exotic or particular world of your story.
She pressed her face against the window of the saloon. Inside she could see the flickering lights and hear the musical meeting of fine crystal and the soft whisper of satin and lace. If the women were not quite as beautiful as they should be and the men not quite as handsome, she did not care. One day, she vowed, I’ll take my place among you.
·        Taking the reader in medias res – the action has already begun. This may mean beginning with dialogue, in the midst of a conversation.
“Do you really think I look like her?”

“Yeah. You’ve started doing your hair the same, haven’t you? Not sure it’ll work though. She’s a lady and you’re definitely not.”

 The nails diving into his bare flesh, and the foul language she used, proved him right. He didn’t mind. He liked her just as she was, ragged nails and all.

Maybe it's something you'd like to try yourself with a story, to see if you can find the very best opening. I already know which one I'm going to go for, but won't say so here.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Beginnings and a tutor

I've been working on activities in the first and second chapters of my coursework, which fittingly deal with beginnings.

I have had to write down my favourite beginning from a favourite novel, which I must post in the forum (when it opens tomorrow). I can't say anymore about that as I'm not supposed to tell fellow students where it's from. Then the next activity was to write three different openings to a short story or novel, using the following criteria, and something you may want to try yourself:

  • Making a startling or arresting statement of fact.
  • Offering invitiation to the exotic or particular world of your story.
  • Taking the reader in medias res.

It was an interesting exercise, but I'm not sure I've done what was needed, so I'm going to leave the extracts a day or two and look at them again to see if I can make them fit the brief better. On the other hand, one of the suggestions is that it's possible to overthink the opening of a novel or story and I can certainly see that might be a problem!

The third activity was to either write imaginary beginnings to one of three novel extracts we were shown. Or to write a beginning for a new story or novel, using approaches suggested by several well known authors, including Stephen King  in this interview in the Atlantic.

I've gone for the latter, as I didn't really relate to the extracts enough to feel enthused to write about them. Also, I feel that I want to be writing my own new stuff for the course, even if my heart once belonged to fanfiction.

As it happens, the extracts I've used in the second two exercises may become part of a longer narrative and the novel I eventually work on. I'm writing them as a means of testing the water for myself, to see if I can keep building on it and have something substantial to do by the time I begin my second year.

And I have now been allocated a tutor. I don't think it would be right to name him on this blog as I must respect his privacy. But it makes it all seem very real now!

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Ready, Steady, Go!

And we're off! Well very nearly. The course starts properly on Saturday 1st October, but I've made a head start. I would have started sooner, but I've had problems with a recurring skin condition that has knocked me off my feet a bit. I'm now getting treatment for that and will see a dermatologist in mid-October (by which time it will probably be gone...).

I've decided to take a pragmatic approach to studying. What I intend to do is read my way through all the course materials and extra reading in as quick a time as possible, doing only the brief exercises. Then on the relevant forum-led weeks, I will go back and do the exercises to be posted on the forum. I hope this way to get quite a way ahead in case I need to take time out for my own health and my husband's.

I popped my head into the forum 'cafe' yesterday but have not yet posted, though I see that others have. I even recognised the name of a Facebook friend :-)  I haven't yet felt able to dip my toe in the water, because when I took a course some time ago, a fellow student told me 'Your enthusiasm used to get up my nose, but I don't mind you now.' (Gee, thanks!) I'm afraid I have found, even in adult education, that there is the tendency to label someone a 'swot' if they try to go that extra mile. Yet, aren't we all there to learn and improve?

Anyway, I'm going to have to tone myself down a bit before I attempt the forum, I think, and just be enthusiastic on my own time! Otherwise I'll be losing friends before I've managed to make them.

So far I have completed up to Block 1, Chapter 4, covering Beginnings, Character and Point of View. I'm enjoying reading extracts and tips from favourite authors (Stephen King and Sarah Waters) and discovering authors I haven't read before. I can see my to-be-read pile growing exponentially!

I must admit, I was afraid that the course materials would go over my head. The last time I studied at undergraduate level, for my BA, was around 2003, and they were all humanities and literature courses, as the OU didn't do writing courses back then. I have done some short courses since, but only one of those was writing related (Start Writing Fiction). What if I've been doing it wrong all these years? (And believe me there are enough 'experts' out there who will choose some bugbear of their own and turn it into a rule against doing it).  What if the course materials were all written in a high-handed fashion that excluded the plain speakers amongst us? I really should have trusted the Open University better. They've always been mature student-led and this course is no different.

It turns out that whilst I may not know every technical term in writing, I have sort of been doing it all without realising (I make no promises as to actual quality) and I'm finding the course materials very easy to follow at the moment. Phew!

They are also challenging me to look at the various techniques from a different perspective and I can only hope that will improve my future writing.

My biggest fear, and something I have heard from others who have taken an MA, is that doing the course would leave me unable to write at all. Well, so far, I'm still working on my current WIP (health allowing) and I find that the course materials I've read so far are informing that nicely. I'm also enthused with lots of ideas for the forum-led exercises and TMAs. I particularly like those that ask you to give a different slant on a known story. As I started my writing 'career' with fanfiction, it's almost like coming home.

So far. So good.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Are we there yet?

I do feel like a child sitting in the back seat of a car, excitedly asking 'Are we there yet?'

My excitement is exacerbated by the fact that all the materials and TMA (Tutor Marked Assignment) instructions are now available to download from the A802 site (you won't be able to see this site unless you're on the course, I'm afraid). I have spent all morning sending them to my Kindle for easy access whilst I'm working.

The TMAs look interesting too so I thought I would share them with you along with my preliminary thoughts on what I might write. (I will paraphrase here so as not to infringe on OU copyright).

TMA 01 - Fiction (my major): Due in by 24th November 2016, this TMA involves writing a 2500 word piece of creative writing, which can either be a short story or a chapter from a novel (the chapter has to be 'complete' and not finish mid-sentence). If from a novel, I have to include a 200 word summary of where I expect the novel to go. I also have to write a 500 word commentary on my writing process, and finally I have to give two links to my forum work; one where I post my work for critique and another where I critique someone else's work.

There are excluded genres, which mainly involve writing for children. All work has to be aimed at adults (I'm not sure if YA or New Adult could be included).

This assignment accounts for 30% of my overall mark.

TMA02 - Creative Non-Fiction (my secondary choice - I could have chosen either script writing or poetry): Due in by 2nd February 2017 (that seems a LONG way off, but as I've just seen them putting up Xmas decorations at my favourite breakfast place, perhaps it's not that far away!)

This TMA involves writing a complete 2000 word piece of creative non-fiction, in sub-genres such as memoir, life-writing, essay, autobiography, biography, or combinations thereof.

I also have to add a 1000 word commentary on my writing process and nominate a forum on which I wish to share my work.

Part four involves submitting a 300 word summary of my intended EMA (End of Module Assessment) in my main genre (Fiction).

This TMA constitutes 35% of my overall mark.

TMA03 - Fiction: Returning to my major, this TMA is due in by 30th March 2017. Once again it should involve 2500 words of either a short story or novel chapter, and again a 200 word summary of a larger project if applicable. The commentary on writing development should be 700 words.

Finally I have to submit 500 words from contribution to peer review discussion.

This TMA is worth 30% of my overal mark.

Fiction EMA: Apparently this is worth 50% of my overall marks (no, it doesn't add up for me either, but I assume the OU know what they're doing!). Due in by 25th May 2016 It involves writing either a complete story or part of a novel of no more than 4000 words and a 1000 word commentary on what I presume I'll be working on in Year 2.

So whilst I've been eagerly jotting down novel ideas, I don't actually need them until March 2017 at the latest and I am considering whether it is best to write a couple of short stories for TMAs 1 & 2, and then develop a novel idea later. I could do it by using characters from my intended novel, to try them out in a stand alone story. As I haven't decided what my intended novel is going to be yet, that could prove difficult.

I do think that once I get started on the course, doing the exercises, ideas will come to me. But I need to choose a final project that is going to keep me interested as, in the words of the EMA instructions, it's something I'm going to be working on for a long time and will constitute most, if not all, of the work for my second year.

It does help, knowing I've got a few months to decide, and knowing me it will be very much a last minute thing, just as it is with NaNoWriMo most years!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Student Loans, OUSBA and paying for the course

I'm sure that some would find it very helpful to know about funding for this course. I have put some links in the left hand side bar to guide you, but thought I would try to summarise things here as it can seem a bit complicated. I know it was a bit of a headache for me to sort it out, though it is only fair to say that both Student Loans UK and the OU were incredibly patient and helpful.

As befits a course of this magnitude, it is very expensive. The first year (worth 60 points) is £1920 and I should think the second year (120 points) will be roughly double that. Few of us have that sort of money hanging around, but there is help out there, if you qualify.

Student Loan
If you are under 60 years old, and British, you can try for a postgraduate student loan of up to £10,000, which will cover the course fees and any other costs, such as books, laptops, travel etc. This only has to be paid back if you earn over £21k per year. You can claim up to £5000 the first year, and the rest is paid in the second year.

However, there is one drawback in that the monies are not paid into your bank until after the course begins, but there is help with that.

OUSBA  Account
An OU Student Budget Account is a low interest loan that can be claimed from the Open University. They will pay for the module, then you can start to pay them back monthly after the course begins. For this course it works out at roughly £244 per month. However, if you get your student loan in place, you can pay it off immediately without accruing too much interest. If you do take this option, and don't pay it off, the interest charged over the period is only £36 on top of the £1920 course, which I believe is quite reasonable. And if you pay it off immediately, it will be less than that (if anything at all).

If you do intend to pay this off with your student loan, it is important to email the OUSBA when you make your application to let them know as it could mean the difference between you getting accepted or not.

You might also be able to apply for a bursary to help with costs. The OU has two: The Crowther Fund and The Robert Beevers Memorial Fund. The funds are dependent upon financial circumstances, and as the applications close in February each year, it's too late to apply for this year, but perhaps it's something to keep in mind for future years.

Other avenues of funding

This Open University page lists other options for funding, including help for disabled students. Because I have arthritis in my hands, all my course books (when I took my degree) were comb bound to make it easier for me to use. It's a simple thing, but incredibly helpful.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Looking Forward...

I might have given the impression yesterday that I'm being a bit negative about taking this course. Certainly the lovely messages of support I received, both on the blog and privately, suggested that. What a smashing lot you are! I already feel as if this blog is going to be a warm and welcome place to relax between coursework. (I should point out that all comments are moderated before appearing on the blog, so don't worry if your message doesn't appear straight away. If it doesn't appear at all after 48 hours, do let me know).

The truth is that the wobble was only brief, but as I want to share all my feelings about taking this course on this blog, I didn't want to leave my worries out and pretend that it's all rainbows and roses on this journey. There will be times when I am convinced I've bitten off more than I can chew, and other times when I know without doubt that it's the best thing I've ever done. Knowing myself as I do, it is possible there will be times when I feel both emotions at the same time.

In reality, I'm monumentally excited by the course and October 1st seems a long way off at the moment. I'm itching to get started! Whilst I do intend to stay true to myself, I am looking forward to being challenged, enthralled and hopefully taking my particular style of writing to new places.

I intend to take Fiction as a first subject, with Creative Non-Fiction as a second.  I have been looking at the sample exercises for the course and these are things I feel I can really get my teeth into, perhaps more so than trying to make something meaningful out of the clutter in my living room. There seems to be room for individuality in both subjects.

I particularly like the idea of trying three different openings for a novel. All the writers here will know how hard it is to get those first lines down (and how often we then go on to change them!) Having the freedom to play with the opening will be a valuable exercise.

The Creative Non-Fiction exercise suggests writing about something that interests you, trying different points of view, such as first or third, or more general terms ('you' then 'I'). This idea excites me and I'm already thinking about what I want to write and how I want to write it.

I already have a notebook which I intend to devote to the exercises for this course, and have created a folder on my laptop to save exercise samples and course materials. So metaphorically speaking I have my white tie and top hat. All I need now is the course...