OU A215 Creative Writing: What did I learn?

A couple of the CWs expressed interest in the Open University Creative Writing course (A215). What was it like?

I received the course materials in late September 2012 – a set of CDs with interviews with writers, a big textbook – nicknamed the BRB (Big Red Book) by fellow students, a Workbook giving week by week instructions on which bits of the book and CDs to use and what to write. I also had access to the OU online forums, divided into the Tutor Group Forum (TGF) which is for about 20 students, and was under the watchful eye of our tutor, and the Student Cafe which was more of a free for all for everyone – there were hundreds on the course from all over the country – and watched by OU moderators.

My tutor was very good and responded quickly if we post work on the TGF, but I would have preferred more students from my group to use it. When I did A174 the previous year the TGF was very good, with 5 or 6 students who posted work and critiqued all the time. Students from other tutor groups, however, set up their own discussion forums and there was one, with about 5 really active members, which suited me.

The course started with the Writer’s Notebook. There was much discussion in the Student Cafe about the form this notebook should take, leather bound mega expensive Moleskine de luxe notebook, or a cheap A4 student pad? I bought a hardbacked A4 notebook in Aldi for £1.50, the advantage of this being that the cover gave a firm writing surface even when writing in bed. The reason writing in bed was important was the ‘Morning Pages’ recommended by the OU.

Morning Pages involved waking up earlier than usual (groan), and the first action before brushing teeth, going to the toilet, stretching arms above head, or any of those waking-up actions, was to grab the notebook and start freewriting. The idea was to try NOT to write ‘Oh I’m so tired, I wish I could go back to sleep’. Freewriting is supposed to be about whatever comes into your mind. It’s about capturing one’s dreams, harnessing the subconscious mind which has been cavorting whilst one was asleep, before it curls itself up into a ball in the back of the head so that the conscious mind takes over.

I have to say that Morning Pages does not really work for me. I don’t really sleep very long in the week, six hours max, and am not usually dreaming when the alarm goes off, rather in a deep sleep from which waking is painful. My subconscious mind has not been cavorting while I was asleep, but stumbling about weakly, worrying about the day job. On the other hand, I did find the notebook useful when sitting down in the evening to write, as a place to scribble random ideas and fragments, or crazy ideas that occur when I am sitting drinking with my husband. Equally I like to write directly on to the computer and, with Scrivener, the fragments can all be stored in some sort of order and retrieved when needed.

The other writing technique we were advised to try was clustering, which involved writing your initial idea in the centre of the notebook page, and then writing ideas around it in a sort of free association exercise. The end result looked like a spider with the ideas beaded along the legs. Moderately useful, but I found it just as easy to type or write a list of the idea words in a line, deleting them as I incorporated them into the piece of writing. I discovered that Mind Node was a useful app for doing this on the iPad.

The first assignment was a piece of short fiction, based on a freewrite, which in turn was based on a choice from a series of set prompts. I wrote a story set at Heathrow T5, about a woman waiting to meet a man who is never going to return. I used some observations I had put in in my writer’s notebook whilst waiting at T5 for my son who was returning from three months in Argentina. At the same time I was writing my ‘Blind Date’ story for the Telegraph Creative Writing Group, set waiting under the station clock, and the two stories flowed together in a way.

Since then I have studied setting, character development and writing from different points of view. The section on story structure was very helpful, and the piece I wrote to practice ‘foreshadowing’ and ‘repetition’ became my December CW entry, ‘The Morgawr’.

The second assignment was a short story, with a commentary and bibliography. I based ‘The man who killed the thing he loved’ on the condemned man in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’. The commentary was about how the story was developed. I made the condemned man into a more complex character and created the character of the prison chaplain to give a view point which could move in and out of the prison. The word limit for the story was only 2,200 words so I economised by having some of the events – the murder and hanging – alluded to in conversation between the characters rather than directly describing them.

At that point I was starting to plan for the final TMA – a short story developed for a magazine to match their submission requirements – I decided on a story about a Spanish Armada survivor. The EMA, due in May 2013, at 50% of the marks was to be the first chapter of a novel. No ideas at that point for that one.

I found that the course, and discussions in the Student Cafe, gave me lots of directions to pursue in my reading – so much so that I couldn’t keep up with it all. Short stories by Ernest Hemingway and William Trevor, a lesbian novel ‘Fingersmith’ set in the Victorian fin de siecle, ‘Crime and Punishment’ (read in part until I got pissed off with the protagonist), ‘Bring up the Bodies’, and masses of research done for my Reading Gaol story. That was a real benefit of the course, actually. I knew I should really be writing, but I was now able to regard reading as ‘research’. Great fun.

Poetry. This did not come naturally, but learning it was like learning to do cryptic crosswords, starting with the idea and then fitting words around it, thinking about the sounds and shapes of the words and trying to express ideas as economically as possible. I learned to count the beats of a line on my fingers, and mutter my compositions to myself as I wrote. For my assignment (88%), I wrote a sonnet and another, longer poem with a rather strange structure. I didn’t fully understand it all until I met a published poet. It is not just the rhythm and the sound of the letters, but also the musical note.

Life Writing: I did a piece of autobiography for this, based on a rather strange childhood, and got very hung up on it, so maybe didn’t learn as much from this part of the course.(78%) At this point, I attended a ‘Writers Networking’ meeting hosted by Writing West Midlands and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which set me thinking about historic houses and museum exhibits as sources of inspiration. A visit to Coughton Court, a National Trust property in Warwickshire, drew me in to researching my historical piece about Mesopotamia, ‘The Tree of Knowledge‘, which came second in the TCWG voting in March. ‘Life writing’ is partly linked to historical fiction or fictionalised biography, anyway. There are other types of life writing such as travel and food writing, which I should have explored more.

The next two assignments to complete the course were the magazine submission (TMA5), and the EMA, a piece of work intended to ‘demonstrate your direction as a writer.’ This final part of the course looked at publishing, and preparing a manuscript for submission, and we were encouraged to research magazines and publishers and find out how it all works. It was all very depressing because usually their websites refer, sometimes in arrogant tones, to their being inundated with manuscripts to read, and having enormous ‘slush piles’. Some websites do offer advice and encouragement to writers. On the course, we were not asked to research self-publishing, however I suspected we should try to learn something about this rapidly changing area.

In April I attended a seminar at the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival, entitled ‘Self-Publishing Clinic: How to Make it Work for You’, conducted by directors of a self-publishing company and of an author marketing service, and a published author who had switched to self-publishing after bad experiences with traditional publishers. Their argument was that traditional publishers are bringing out fewer titles each year, that electronic marketing is overtaking everything else, and that self-publishing is no longer a dirty word, and for some authors can be a stepping stone to traditional publishing. Social media is all important.

I also went to an event in May at the Brighton Festival, which was a lecture given by John Yorke, whose book ‘Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey into Story‘ had recently been published. It’s not the first book ever to be written about how to construct a narrative, but I found it very useful for thinking about story structure.

My TMA5 (84%) turned out to be a short story of the early life of Anna Orzelska, and my EMA was about the Armada survivor, written as the first chapter of a novel. Either would do as the foundation of a novel, and I felt the course had been useful in terms of learning more of the craft of writing, and that I came away with a clearer sense of my preferred genre, and with the basis for two longer narratives.

I was delighted to be one of ten authors selected for the Ten to One collaborative novel project, so over the next few months will be working on Ten to One. Orzelska has refused to go away, and after a holiday touring France, Luxembourg, Germany and Holland I’m working on her first chapters.

I was also delighted to pass the A215 module with Distinction.

OU A363 Advanced Creative Writing is lined up for autumn 2013 and the people in my OU forum group are all going to be on it, so it should be good!

Giselle, July 2013.

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