GUEST POST: On course, with Sarah Watkinson

Today, my good friend Sarah Watkinson, an eminent scientist (and a woman of such modesty she’ll hate me for saying it) has agreed to share here the secrets of novel-writing she has gleaned on recent creative writing courses. Sarah, who has been writing her exciting novel for a little while now, is also a writer of beautiful poetry.

Thank you very much for writing this valuable piece, Sarah:

“I recently took the Oxford Diploma in Creative Writing in order to see if I could write a novel.  I knew I could write engagingly about fungi.  That was a start.  I knew I could construct an unambiguous and elegant sentence.  Often, I could even arouse an interest in fungi (yes – really!) and lay a trail of connected ideas for a reader to follow.  So surely a novel would be a doddle.  For fiction you don’t even need an EndNote library of references before you begin.

The professional critique of my first 32,000 words was humbling. Not devastating:  some of the settings and dialogue were quite good. And the plot was excellent (so it should be – it’s adapted from an old story, re-told many times by some of the greatest minds in history).  But that was my problem.  I had assumed the plot should come first, with a proper plan from the start.  But the result was a set of characters like puppets dancing to a complicated tune. Who would care?  Writing came to a stop as I wondered how real novelists create that marvellous illusion of a person, living their life.

So two weeks ago I went on Julie Cohen’s course for beginning novel writers, to learn about creating characters.  Julie is a successful and engaging novelist with fifteen published books. I downloaded ‘The Summer of Living Dangerously’ and was immediately hooked by the laugh-out-loud opening in which her protagonist leaps off the page.  Julie generously shared techniques for conjuring up believable people and facing them with gripping problems.  Using her carefully-designed exercises (I hope former school pupils realised how lucky they were!) I produced a character in a mere ten minutes who came to life in my imagination to the extent that I could almost feel responsible for his continued existence and happiness (Kevin Zacharias aged 65. His greatest fear? That his long-lost extrovert wife will reappear and disturb his frugal and ascetic existence in reduced but refined circumstances.  Shall I visit and offer to lend him books, take a bottle of something vintage?)

I came away from the day with new hope for my characters. Also, they now have an interesting series of plot points rising in front of them, like an attractive range of walkable hills concealing a series of hair-raising hazards.  I am back on track with my tale.  I’m also fortified by Julie’s advice to let myself write crap when stalled. So I now think I will finish my first draft. Parts will be excellent – they were graded as such by my fantastic teachers on the Oxford Diploma.  The purple passages will probably stand out from slurry pits of stuff churned out on off-days, but I WILL have a complete typescript by 15th June. That’s when Julie gives her advanced course, designed for hopefuls with a first draft to work on.  I’ll edit out my crap then.  I can’t wait.”

Sarah Watkinson

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Posted in how to write a novel, Writing
3 comments on “GUEST POST: On course, with Sarah Watkinson
  1. Sarah Bryson says:


    Sarah you are amazing 🙂

  2. Megan says:

    Fab! I am taking an Arvon Foundation course in June to help get me out of my writing drought.

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