I’m pleased to publish this guest post by Shirley Williams, who previously contributed Thoughts From a Reader (link in text below). In this post, she discusses various approaches to writing fiction, as presented in the Future Learn course, Start Writing Fiction. Shirley is Professor Emerita and National Teaching Fellow at the University of Reading, in the UK.

The OU offer a FutureLearn course entitled Start Writing Fiction.  I thought this would be a fun course to take. I consider myself a reader and have often wondered about the writing process and whether it is something I could do. For the first four weeks I was happily following the course.  It had started with us observing the world about us and then developing characters. This extended from the first week into us exploring more about characters and the language we use to describe them and then in week 4 it touched on plot.

How to start writing fiction?

Now in the fifth week we were given this formula:

Character + conflict = plot

Accompanied by text that advised us to first develop a strong sense of our main character(s) then to add a dilemma/conflict/challenge which would lead to the automatic generation of a plot.

All of a sudden I realised that this was describing a type of book I don’t like: one where the author spends a lot of pages developing the characters, throws in some conflict, but ends up with a weak plot.

So I would like to add to my list of books I may be tempted to throw across the room : Novels where the author spends too many words on the characters and not enough on the plot. I am currently reading Nick Alexander’s “The Other Son”.  For my liking the author has spent too much time on the characters, and it took a long time before I discovered the plot. That said, I am going to finish the book because now I have found the plot I do want to know what happens.

Could you get to the point?

Also in Week 5 we were introduced to Josip Novakovich (an author and teacher of creative writing) and we read some of his work that included the statement, “People read fiction not so much for plot as for company”. And that presented another category of things I don’t like. One way company. If I am seeking out real world company I look to meet with people who are  interested in telling me about themselves and hearing about me and my world – there is nothing worse for me as a grandmother than to meet someone who can spend a solid hour telling me about her grandchildren and never even asking after mine. Maybe Nick Alexander was attempting to offer the reader company in his developing of his characters. Many readers do like his book; there are lots of five stars reviews on Amazon, and I have noticed one that says the reviewer is missing : “Alice and Matt and Bruno”.

Start what you finish or is life too short?

Meanwhile will I finish the course “Start Writing Fiction”? I’m not sure. I have already decided that I don’t have sufficient time to spare to write a novel, but I have found the course enlightening, and understanding what writers are attempting to do may make me a more forgiving reader. So I will probably skim through to the end, and maybe discover a few more categories of books that I can like.