Sunday Musings: How Writers Write Fiction
I can write. I know I can write. I’m confident in my ability to write. But there’s always more to learn.
I’ve been looking for a long while for a writing course that could help me hone my craft, while still fitting within my budget. This was a difficult task until I discovered the University of Iowa’s How Writers Write Fiction MOOC, which was free. And free’s good. Actually, they also had an option to earn a certificate of completion for $50USD, which, compared to the $3000 workshop I’d been looking at previously, was a no brainer. That left the only hurdle being the time involved because, free or not, a university level course is a lot of work if you make the commitment, and I was determined not to flake out on this opportunity.
The course lasted for seven weeks and featured two videos and two readings that students were expected to comment on and were quizzed on, and then there was a writing project. The comment part was the most time consuming and least enjoyable part of the process. I’m all for commenting and being part of a discussion on interesting topics, but, as part of the requirements, we had to write 15 different comments each week. Seems like a simple task, but writing meaningful comments that actually add to the discussion isn’t necessarily so. It was also the most time consuming aspect (perhaps more so because it felt a bit tedious).
Still, that is only a minor complaint. The videos and reading samples themselves were quite informative, covering many topics and writing elements that I only had a vague understanding of before. Things that I knew, but didn’t realize I knew, or things I could refine, having learned more about them through the course. Fiction writers of all walks of life–many of whom I was not necessarily familiar with–lent their experience to the following topics:
- Class Session 1: Starting with Character
- Class Session 2: Expanding on Character: Cast and Dialogue
- Class Session 3: Working with Plot
- Class Session 4: Using Character to Produce Frame and Arc
- Class Session 5: Voice and Setting
- Class Session 6: Immersion in Setting: Description and World-Building
- Class Session 7: Embracing Revision
The most interesting elements I took from the entire process involved point of view and point in time. Point of view I have learned well enough over time, but I enjoyed taking the opportunity to rewrite some of my works from differing points of view to see just how much that changes the story. For example, in Session 4, the assignment was to write the same scene from the perspective of two different characters who are reunited after some sort of separation, with a third character off screen, and a misunderstanding that results between them:
Sehr ran her fingers over the jagged wound across her lower abdomen. She’d almost bled out, sliced by the tail of one of those creatures as she’d run to Devin’s aid. Why? She still couldn’t figure it out. Every voice in her head screamed her to leave him behind. He would have done the same. Yet, Devin had been barely able to stand himself, bruised and bleeding, but somehow, he’d managed to fight off the last of the monsters and drag them both back to the ship.
Sehr remembered none of this. She remembered screaming Devin’s name, clawing rain from her eyes, then the searing pain in her side. Then there was nothing, until she’d woken up to find Jenna stitching her back together. There was no morphine in the medikit. Jenna’s voice was all Sehr had to get her through the pain. Now she stood in front of the mirror, examining the kid’s handy work. Sehr would heal, but that scar would never truly let her leave that planet.
“Sehr’s awake,” Jenna said quietly. It was the first thing she’d said since she’d started dressing his wounds. He could practically taste her fear, but she didn’t betray any of it. No shake in her hands. No quaver in her voice. Devin respected that. The kid would survive far more than this.
Devin nodded and pushed himself to his feet. She’d done a pretty good job for a kid with no medical training—she’d done a pretty good job through the whole damn mess on the planet—but she couldn’t do anything for his limp. His right leg lagged as he made his way down the hall to Sehr’s cabin.
He paused at the door. Sehr wouldn’t want to see him. She hated everything about him. Yet she’d come back for him when she could have left him for dead. He didn’t owe her anything for it. They’d saved each other in the end. And that’s really all it’s about out here. Surviving. Any way you can.
I would have liked to get feedback and interaction with the actual professors and teachers assistants in this MOOC, but the feedback process was very well done. Unlike the comment process, there were questions to guide reviewers through the peer evaluation process that allowed each of us to receive very valuable critique that could even shape the way our stories progressed in the future. For example, I’d originally written this story from Sehr’s point of view, but after writing Devin’s perspective, I agreed with the assessment of my peer evaluators that his view was far more interesting. Similarly, for Session 1, I wrote a scene from the perspective of a character whose presence, in my original story, is not revealed until the next chapter. This assignment allowed me to explore her character much earlier, and though the scene won’t make it into the future book I swear I’m going to write, it helped me more strongly define her character for future appearances:
Alisanna’s throat was tight again. None of these people meant anything. The screams that echoed beyond the hallway mattered nothing to her. The kingdom of Emberden was lost and she would die with it if she didn’t escape now with the trinkets she’d liberated from the king’s treasury. A game. That’s all this was. The man and the woman would figure it out. They’d pull themselves together and obey the king’s final command. She didn’t need them, and they certainly didn’t need her.
The sharp edges of the stone thrones bit into her palms. She pulled her hands away and stared at the blood that began to pool. This was not her fight. She needed only turn around and unlock the hidden passage behind the thrones and make her escape. The man would hear and likely follow, but she’d be long gone before he could catch up to her, especially since he was burdened by the unconscious woman. He would never even see her face. (Continued)
The certificate required me to complete five of the seven sessions, of which I am proud to say I managed six (I skipped Session 5 because a business trip ate up part of that week). It was time consuming, but exhilarating, and a wonderful way to close out the year. Even though I didn’t achieve the writing goals I’d promised myself thanks to a myriad of reasonably legitimate excuses, but learning about and practicing writing that I’ll someday turn into something? I’ll pat myself on that back for that.