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

Welcome to the age of the digital readeur

TO AN interesting talk at the Oxford Literary Festival this morning.

The three speakers were talking about publishing online and I was especially interested to go as I will be talking about my other blog, SHORTCIRCUIT, at the Vale and Downlands Museum in June.

I found the first speaker the most engaging. Ivy Alvarez, a poet and teacher, smiled, a lot, and like she meant it. She gave us her personal history of moving from physical print books to the digital world. ‘The internet is a new country,’ she said and talked about the possibilities for contact between people that could never have taken place without our new digital passports.

The next speaker, Alexander Smith, is one of three students who run a publishing portal, mainly for students. I’m incredibly impressed that he and his friends have started DEAD BEATS.

Finally a French intellectual, Philippe Aigrain, spoke and made some interesting comments about the different ways the digital tools have been used in different countries. In China, the digital landscape for literature is dominated by one site on which writers post original work. In England, authors tend to use their personal websites, or blogs, to advertise their wares.

In France, writers have individual websites which they use to publish their projects including experimental collaborations (I’m sure they use them to advertise their books too). He showed us his very interesting piece, inspired by some music, which was, among other things, a demonstration of how a digital presentation can be used to slow down the reading of, in this case, a poem, the words becoming legible in time to the music. This, he saw as an interesting experiment in countering the speed culture which dominates so much of life, not least online. The poem and its digital presentation had been put together for an informal swap, in which he made something for a friend’s blog and vice versa. This is a common, often weekly, event in France, a sort of ritualised guest-blogging.

Both Aigrain and Alvarez talked about the blurring of the distinction between readers and writers. And it’s something I’ve noticed myself. Almost all the people who follow me either on twitter or facebook, are writers. We are a new type of writer though, many of us being unpublished, in the traditional, professionally-filtered, sense. Yes we want to read your work, but we want you to read ours too. We are readeurs, readers with our own voices, our own authorial intentions.

This is on one reading simply a symptom of our narcissistic age. But it’s also democratic and educational. Readeurs can be very sophisticated in their understanding of writing, on and offline. It’s an extension, a massive, oceanic expansion, of the truth that learning to write, for example, poetry, is also learning to read it.

There was some anxiety in the audience about plagiarism and copying. Plagiarism, said Aigrain, is rare, mistakes (misattributions) common (and far more easily corrected online than off) and if you don’t want to be copied, then don’t put your stuff online. His view, if I’ve understood it correctly, is that with so much content out there, indifference is more of a problem. Being copied, I think he said, is a huge compliment.

(They way I see it, the internet is porous and democratic. You can rub up against the very famous and those who will vanish without trace in your life and everyone in between. This is great, in terms of access, but it can also, in my experience, be enough rope. It’s easy to annoy the famous. They can be touchy, lack a sense of humour and feel very entitled to put over their views as the word of law. The internet is democratic, yes, but not without hierarchies.)

There was some discussion of whether or not digital practice changes output, changes the way we write. No one seemed quite sure. They mentioned ‘immediacy’ and ‘rawness’. They talked about personas. How do we know who anyone is online? There was some consideration of time. Is what we put on the net ephemeral, or there forever? Again, the answer seemed to be er, perhaps. Aigrain did say, interestingly, that the French authorities who are trying to archive online content have to be quick. There’s a lot of revising that goes on.

Anyway, I came home and looked at my blog and felt instantly unsatisfied. I don’t want pictures of leather-bound books anymore. I don’t want to try to write a novel in 10 minutes anymore (10 years is more likely). But I can have a lot of fun online in 10 minutes …

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Posted in creativity, feedback, friendship, links, literature, Poetry, reading, Writing, writing novels

sLINKY SUNDAY friendship is more powerful than racism; spider shock; upworthy

These are the links I’ve been loving this week.

Moving film – if someone sprayed your car with racist graffiti how would you respond? For the two people in this film, it’s taken for granted that they will respond creatively. That’s almost what I love most about this film. The second thing I love is the message, or at least what I took from it which is that friendship can drown out racism. I find it hugely redemptive and comforting that someone wants to assert this and does it in such style, so effectively. I also think the film is pursuing a very interesting genre of faction, which works perfectly here. More from these two please. (11 minutes)

Shocking film – another film I really enjoy watching. It is very shocking and caused my entire writing class to gasp and cover their mouths. So don’t watch it if you’re a sensitive petal or need a pacemaker but haven’t had it put in yet. Very tightly written and shot.

Upworthy – the website that I got the first film from and a couple of other things I’ve watched. I like their liberal sensibility and their taste in short films. Followworthy.


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Posted in links

sLINKY SUNDAY – not safe for work

These are the links I’ve enjoyed this week. Thanks to Laura Dron, Amanda Jennings, everyone on facebook and Sarah Watkinson.

Laura Dron’s pictures

hilarious but very rude blog about cooking

why you should support gay marriage – also not safe for work

Tony Harrison on Poetry

this is so beautiful it made me cry – it’s about mushrooms

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Posted in creativity, film, friendship, links, Writing


I enjoyed reading all of these. Thanks to Nic May, Laura Dron and others.

Amazing story about couple who found their baby on the New York subway

What could possibly go wrong? They’ve really thought this one through



Posted in Writing


Here are the links I’ve liked the most this week. I hope you like them too.

wonderful pictures

interesting corrective

Clare Foster, Gardens Editor of House and Garden has a lovely new blog

Polish poetry from Ravensbruck

strange, ingenious, fascinating



great use of an awful song

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Posted in links, Writing


I follow and am ‘friends’ with a lot of writers, and others, on facebook and twitter. I often stumble across links that they post and I think are interesting or uplifting in some way. Sometimes I’m directed to links on the various poetry courses I take. So I’ve decided to put them on this blog every Sunday that I can, in hopes that you too find them useful or uplifting or sometimes even both.

Billy Collins’ interesting and illuminating essay on poems of memory

Seamus Heaney reading his most famous poem on the Poetry Station

Somatosensory Cortex – not strictly about writing but about perception and so beautiful I couldn’t resist

I am down with the kids, even the excessively talented ones

my top favourite funny

I hope you enjoy them.

Cathy x

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Posted in Writing

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