I just completed a MOOC – a Massive Open Online Course. I first heard about them last year but couldn’t find one I wanted to try. Then the University of Edinburgh announced they were offering one through FutureLearn on ‘How to Read a Novel’. I know how to read a novel (open cover, start at page 1!) but I thought it might give me a new way to look at writing a novel, so I signed up.
The course lasted for four weeks, with an expected two hours of work per week. It course was an interesting mix of videos, articles, discussion and, at the end, a piece of written work. I had wondered how, with many thousands undertaking a course, the instructors could possibly assess written work, but now I know – that task is assigned to participants, and after submitting my own I was given others’ work to comment on. One of the strands of the course was an assessment of examples from the short-listed finalists for the James Tait Black prize for fiction, to be awarded at the International Edinburgh Book Festival. This was awarded near to the end of the four weeks and it was interesting to see how the course participants championed the different titles. Most left me cold but I was intrigued by Jo Baker’s ‘A Country Road, a Tree’, a fictionalised account of Samuel Beckett’s wartime experiences; her ‘Longbourn’, a servants’ eye view of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, created quite a stir a few years ago.
In case it isn’t clear from the name, MOOCs are free. Successful participants on my course are invited to upgrade their qualification by getting a certificate and permanent access to the course materials for £49, but I don’t think I could justify that cost. It was an interesting experience though and I’m already looking over the options to select my second MOOC.
My charity knit in August was a hat for ‘Knit for Peace’, to be sent to a Syrian refuge camp. The pattern is ‘Two by Two Basic Beanie’ from Ravelry, knitted in some oddments of pure new wool I was given by a friend. None of the scraps looked very much in the ball, but they were enough to make sure someone is warm this winter.
Last weekend I attended the Romantic Novelists’ Association Annual Conferenced at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. This time I was there for the full two days, so I was able to hear from lots of well-informed and interesting speakers. But first of all, a word about the food! Harper Adams is a former agricultural college, and to help in training the students they raise crops and animals in the surrounding area. Much of the produce is then used in the university catering; the bacon at breakfast was made from their own pigs and cured locally, for example. The Gala Dinner on Saturday night was amazing; normally at an event like that, catering for over 200 people, the main course is something like chicken or stew, which is easier to keep warm and serve at the right temperature. But we were given individual Beef Wellingtons! – and the vegetables were hot, another thing almost impossible to achieve. I highly recommend a visit.
Back to the conference itself. All attendants received a goody bag with books (donated by various publishers) and promotional items from authors. People were queuing up to but raffle tickets for the most beautiful quilted wall-hanging, made in memory of agent Carole Blake by Anne Styles. It was so colourful and flamboyant kept going back to look at it – but alas I didn’t win the draw. I had been looking forward to a talk on ‘Plotter vs Pantser’ by Alison May and Bella Osborne, as plotting is something I really struggle with. After some exercises with them, I discovered that although I am in general really very well-organised, like some others in the audience I could not translate that across to plotting. The suggestion was that plotting was an area where my creativity needed to be able to play. Kate Johnson interviewed Jill Mansell on her writing methods, and Jill produced from her handbag a huge concertina of paper covered in different shades of sticky notes; now there’s a woman who knows how to plot. Jill writes in longhand, with the television on, and manages about a thousand words a day. She said writers have to like their characters, so that they want to find out what happens to them. Fiona Harper gave a brilliant talk on how to develop your characters from the outside in, asking and answering questions about what they want, fear and believe. Once you know their motivations thoroughly, you can see how and why they behave the way they do.
All in all, it was a great conference and I have lots to think over. I have lots of notes to reread, business cards to file and things to send to people, as well as wait for copies of handouts etc to arrive. Busy times ahead!
After a winter when not much was achieved, I hoped to kickstart my creativity by booking myself on to The Write Stuff, an afternoon about writing and publishing arranged by Literary Dundee at the university there. There were around 150 people in attendance; many of them students, as Dundee runs an M Litt in Writing Practice and Study.
Three of their recent graduates were there. Oliver Landmead, Claire MacLeary and Sandra Ireland all read extracts from their works. They all said that reading work aloud was key; initial discomfort at reading to fellow students was excellent training for doing readings from their books at festivals, and reading your work out loud to yourself could make you aware of areas needing improvement. Claire added a query letter should have three paragraphs; what it’s about, whom it will appeal to, and a little about yourself. Jenny Niven spoke about her career organising literary festivals, which has taken her all over the world, ending back at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
David Stenhouse’s talk about the BBC and the written word was fascinating; I hadn’t thought before of how much work it would be to fill all those hours of radio. As he said, if you can be an answer to someone else’s problems, you’re halfway there already. 404Ink were inspiring; their story of how ‘Nasty Women’ came to be published showed just how much they were willing to take on to make it and their publishing venture a success. The last two speakers were Laura Waddell, a writer and children’s publishing manager, and Claire Wingfield, a literary consultant and editor. Both had some great advice and suggestions which I need to follow up on.
There’s going to be another Write Stuff event next year. Would I go? Absolutely. At £3, the tickets were a bargain and the goodie bag was great!
I’m really excited to announce I’m one of the four finalists in the Royal Ascot contest for Regency authors, run by the RWA’s Beau Monde chapter. http://thebeaumonde.com/resources/the-royal-ascot-contest/
I entered at the end of March only in the hope of getting some feedback, so this is wholly unexpected and very encouraging. Now I have to wait until the middle of July to find out, but I’m not worried – because with my memory I’ll probably forget about it within a few days, and the result (whatever it is) will come as complete surprise!
If you haven’t come across The Beau Monde before, there’s a blog and a free monthly newsletter you can sign up for, which gives Regency snippets and details of new titles. There’s a fun series of articles about Georgette Heyer’s novels to celebrate 80 years of the Regency novel that I recommend: Victoria Hinshaw, who writes about ‘Pistols or Two’, Heyer’s only collection of short stories, has picked my two favourites to write about at http://thebeaumonde.com/regency-turns-80-pistols-for-two/
I’ve already said I don’t do New Year Resolutions, but I came across an interesting alternative just before Christmas last year. Instead of what are often quite negative resolutions: “I’ll give up….”, a Vision Board lets you picture what you want in your life in a positive fashion. You use words and pictures to create a vision of the goals you want to achieve, and look at it often.
Hmm, I thought, I can’t see how it will work but it won’t cost anything and it might make a difference, so why not give it a try? I found some cover art images online and added my name and book titles along with the words ‘Write’ and ‘Create’. Uncomfortably aware that I tend to get bored with projects, and start something new, I added the word ‘Finish’ alongside pictures of pink and green cardigans (knitted but not sewn up). That patchwork I started in 1979 – nope, not finished either. A picture of someone lecturing to an awestruck audience, beside ‘Expert’. A suitcase and ‘Explore’. Add in a photo of money (hey, why not!) and a picture of a Starbucks cup, inspired by Joanna Basford’s story
And so far? Well, I’ve finished the pink cardigan (pictured) and nearly done the green. I’ve been asked to lecture in June, and I’ve got one trip booked and another on the horizon… although I’ve haven’t gone back to the patchwork yet. And the best thing about vision boards is that you don’t need to wait till the New Year to create your own. So give it a try. After all, it doesn’t cost anything and it might make a difference.
And if you need some ideas, there’s a good article on vision boards in the Huffington Post
If you write romance, or even simply read it, you might find it enjoyable, but struggle to defend its value and significance. When the RNA began in 1960, the founding members were mocked for their work (not proper writing) and that attitude is still around today. But over the last few years there has been a growing interest in romance as an academic study, and more and more universities are running courses which offer a serious study of the genre. There’s even a peer-reviewed journal on the subject and, unlike many journals, it’s available free online. The Journal of Popular Romances Studies now has eight issues up for viewing, and each includes several articles and reviews.
It requires a strange mental contortion to view some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed in the context of the textual criticism and analytical deconstruction familiar to any student of English. But it’s a very interesting exercise, and it made me see some of my favourites in a new light. There’s an excellent essay by Laura Vivanco on Georgette Heyer’s ‘The Nonesuch’ (one of her quieter works, and a favourite of mine) which links it to Walter Scott’ ‘Guy Mannering’ and other contemporary works, and makes a claim for it not just as an enjoyable read but as a clear moral guide to the times. And an even more academically titled article is ‘Who the devil wrote that?’: Intertextuality and Authorial Reputation in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia. If you’ve ever played the same game yourself, you’ll enjoy the analysis of Damerel and Venetia’s conversations.
The one thing good criticism will do is drive you back to the book, to consider it again in a fresh light. I’m already making a note of books I want to reread. And I might even find a new favourite if I tried A Masculine Romance: The Sentimental Bloke and Australian Culture in the War- and Early Interwar Years
by Melissa Bellanta or one of the other intriguing articles available on the website.
At the start of the year, I shared photos of some of the squares I crocheted for this year’s craft project. My ambitions was to have 121 squares made by the end of the year – made, but not necessarily sewn together. Well, look at the picture! We’re now into August, and so far I’ve made 80; comfortably on track to finish 41 more by the end of the year, if I make 2 or 3 a week. I’m just making them, you understand; I suspect sewing them together will be next year’s project!
I’m pleased with my progress so far. Tackling bigger projects is always made possible if you divide what you want to achieve by how long you think it will take. That’s how I manage my writing too – just now, I can’t write more than 500 words a day during the week, but that will add up to about 10,000 by the end of a month, or a novel at the end of the year.
“Little and often” means that I can keep on at something, and in the end achieve what I might have thought wasn’t possible – and that’s very encouraging. It means I can tackle the next project, confident that it too will be achievable. Genius might be ‘One per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration’, but also needs a healthy dose of application. So if you’re struggling with something, I wish you every success.