Return to Study

By Helen

Months before lockdown, I signed up for a two year post-graduate university course. Perfect timing, as it turned out. A good friend, who knew that I mainly wrote non-fiction, put the idea into my head by enthusing about this wonderful lecturer and fantastic course called Science Communication that would be just up my street. After years of writing textbooks, I had run out of things to write about. I felt becalmed with a fossilised use of language, and sentences that arrived on the page in the passive voice. I studied science more years ago than I care to admit so I guessed my knowledge was out of date. New ideas have replaced the old facts that we regurgitated onto exam papers decades ago.

Science communication as a subject you could study hadn’t been invented when I was at school, so what is it? It is about examining the many ways the general public learn about science. But it’s also about how social and economic policy influence the context in which people learn, and scientists work. I learnt a lot about the history of science and history in general, which I hadn’t studied since I was thirteen. I’ve also learnt about the way film makers change real events to create a winning formula that will do well at the box office. I have always watched nature documentaries but now I’m watching with a critical eye and ear; trying to spot where animal noises have been added afterwards to a scene that would have been naturally quiet. Now I notice how the emotions are ramped up using music. I also watched the film Hidden Figures to analyse how the three Black women scientists were portrayed, and compare that with other stories showing scientists in books and on television.

There are lots of distance learning options these days for anyone who needs the flexibility and doesn’t want to travel away from home. But there’s a lot to be said in favour of learning face to face in groups, and I’m definitely a groupie, even if it’s on zoom or Teams. I found part time study was useful because it gave me the time to think that I needed. It took me a while to ramp up to writing essays again, but I have been delighted with the results. When your future career doesn’t depend on getting a good grade it takes the pressure off straight away. But I must say I was horrified to hear that some postgraduate courses still have exams and I wasn’t prepared to put myself through that again. The modular structure gave me the chance to put together topics that interested me. But I also asked around about what the lecturers were like and decided to follow the good ones. A good lecturer is just as important as an attractive topic, though that can be complicated by staff often being engaged on short term contracts.

I am not quite old enough to start boasting about my age, but one of the things that put me off signing up was worrying about how other people would see me. Would I be seen as a grey-haired old lady with a bus pass in her purse? At enrolment, I bristled a bit when some helpers assumed I was either a member of staff or somebody’s mother. But once I joined my lecture/seminar group I felt completely at home. The age and gender mix was good, with a couple of other grey heads: there were three PhD students as well as the five us doing MAs. Only two of the group had just completed their first degree, and all of us had work experience of various kinds, which made discussions really interesting. To start with I was anxious about expressing my thoughts but I found the others listened to me and said they valued my ideas. One thing I noticed was how easy it is to get stuck in a particular point of view, and find yourself defending it long after you have forgotten why you thought it was true. People of any age can get stuck and well-managed discussion is a very good way of challenging fixed ideas.

When I told friends what I was going to do, one thing that surprised me was the number of them who couldn’t imagine wanting to study for pleasure. Some looked puzzled and asked how I would fit in the work. But I don’t see reading and writing as a chore, especially at the moment when I can’t go anywhere or do any of the other things I usually do. The big benefit I hadn’t expected was the feeling of belonging to an academic community where I found challenging things to think about like colonialism, and the way so many museums were financed by the profits from slavery. But equally important, I have been encouraged to write differently, which was what I really wanted.

Submission Blues

by R.J. Harrison

Just the other day, determined to clear out junk before the offspring have to do it, I came across a short story I wrote as a teenager, complete with a typed rejection slip from a magazine that is now defunct. It put me off creative writing for decades.

Back in the saddle, I have rediscovered how much of a craft writing is. My juvenile adventure story had all the passion and no technique. I pretend to others, and sometimes myself, that being an author is nothing more than leapfrogging writer’s block and letting all that creative prose pour out onto the page. When I read posts by other would-be authors, that appears to be their opinion too. Wherever will they get their ideas from, and what colour should the book cover be? Typewriter, laptop, or pen? Nothing about adverbs, Oxford commas or dodgy dialogue.

Personally, I am stuffed with ideas, the book cover is someone else’s problem, and my biggest challenges are point-of-view, show-and-tell, and continuity. How is it that a character I killed off in chapter two pops up in chapter twelve unbidden, and right as rain? Dodgy plotting, too.

The one thing an aspiring writer needs is a beta-reader or two and preferably many more. Your friends and family will not cut the mustard. They’ll be far too fond of you to tell you the truth. They will give you what you and the rest of us desperately want. Affirmation. To be liked, and to have our work enjoyed.

They will encourage and support you, but what we need to improve is honesty. More than that, we need honesty from people in the same boat. Writers who can add to our arsenal of skills and techniques by pointing out not only where our efforts are not working, but who can also suggest ways to put our compositions right.

That’s one reason I joined Writers of Whitstable. For a start I don’t feel so lonely tapping away under the shadow of a lethal pandemic, a bewildering Brexit, and fascism lurking in the wings across America. That’s an Oxford comma. Right there after ‘Brexit’. I look forward to monthly meetings, come rain or shine, with other writers who can help me and who, sometimes, I can assist in return.

A case in point is my short story ‘Taken for a Ride’. That too earned a rejection slip from a competition panel, without the least comment as to why it was rubbish. That’s how it often is. So, what was wrong with it? The Writers of Whitstable licked their lips and got stuck in. Amongst their number are published writers, a dramatist, copy editor and others who really know what they’re doing.

Taken for a Ride’ was inspired by a piece I read in New Scientist magazine. It turns out there’s plausible evidence for something called Quantum Gravity. Amongst other implications, one QG concept is the notion that whilst our time is going ‘forwards’ time may also be running ‘backwards’ in a parallel dimension. So, what, I thought, might happen if you met yourself going the ‘other’ way in time?

I wrapped it up with a bit of romance and scenery from Reculver. Lobbed in a few metaphors such as trains going to and fro on the same line and boats going up and down the Swale. Lots of science stuff too. The point at which the self meets the self is called the super-position. Brilliant. Except it wasn’t, as my rejection slip proved and my critical friends in WoW pointed out.

I had rather laboured the science bits, and got so lost in the implications and explanations, that no-one cared about the characters. In fact, although it all made sense to me, it didn’t make sense to readers. They were taken for a ride and didn’t like the journey one bit. That is the value of beta-readers. They can be usefully frank. As one of them put it:

‘You don’t need to explain. It’s creative writing, and could be at Reculver, or on Mars if you like.’
He was right, and it was enlightening too. I didn’t need to persuade readers it was possible, or plausible. Fiction is entertainment. It simply had to feel like it was true to the reader, and for that, I had to stay closer to what the main character was thinking and feeling.

That understanding alone was liberating, and looking back over the last year, I suspect my writing has improved not only through practice, but because of the helpful and entirely free feedback from WoW members. If you want to write, and you want real support and appraisal, then why not give WoW a try?

Taking risks and being brave, isn’t that what writing’s all about?

by Jo, founder of Writers of Whitstable

It was winter 2012 and I was a lonely screenwriter new to town. I’d tried a paid-for writing course at the Horsebridge Centre, but meeting on a Sunday was tricky with a family, and it was pitched at beginner writers. I wanted a simple writing group where friendly writers would read my work, and let me know how I might improve a story in the next draft. There wasn’t any group like that around. Should I start one?

No, I thought to myself. I’m shy and this would take leadership.

No, I told myself. No one would come and I’d feel like a failure.

No, I told my husband. It will take lots of organisation and commitment; what if I changed my mind and didn’t want to be doing it a few months down the line?

The idea buzzed around my head and didn’t quite go away. Then one day I realised that a writing group set in Whitstable could be called Writers of Whitstable.

WOW! How could I turn down the opportunity to start something with such an exciting name?!

I listed the group at, and I put a postcard in the newsagent’s window. Four writers wanted to try the new group, so soon I was trying my hand at leading meetings.

This was where things went wrong. I’d never led anything in my life. I was the quiet girl at school. I never put my hand up and I never dared venture an opinion. I ran WoW meetings like I was still that little girl. I set vague rules and then I didn’t say anything when people ignored them.

In one meeting someone completely rewrote another writer’s story and handed them a “better” version. This didn’t go down well with the writer in question. She pointed out that she thought she was on the right track already, and there was nearly a fight. The writer has since found an agent , published two books, and had a TV adaption optioned. I think she was on the right track and WoW didn’t help her at all.

In another meeting a writer completely took over, and spent the whole session boasting about how Scorsese wanted to option his screenplay. I still don’t know if this was true, and you’d think I should have worked it out after hearing the details for a full ninety minutes. Most of the writers at that meeting never returned.

It would have been easy to quit and think I didn’t have what it takes to run a writing group. Yet, somehow, I pressed on, changed what I did, tried things. There were clearer rules. I told people what kind of group it was supposed it to be. I ensured the people who attended knew what to expect. And instead of quitting after three months, as I could so easily have done, the group’s still going strong eight years later. It’s led to three spin off groups for novelists, it’s published three anthologies thanks to Lin White, the group’s talented editor; and at least a hundred local writers have tried the group over the years.

The lesson I learned from running WoW is that taking a risk is the very best way to get better at anything. The writers who come to a group like WoW are all taking a risk, putting themselves on the line when they send a piece of writing to other members. That’s just plain brave. They are hoping that everyone will say “that’s just great, it’s perfect.” But most likely someone will say, “I’d love it more if it had a sharper ending.” Or, “I’m not convinced your character would do that.” It’s hard to hear a piece of work needs a second draft, but the writers who listen to feedback and learn from it will be likely to become better writers.

I sometimes tell my children that people have a “bravery muscle.” The more risks you take, the more regularly you put yourself out there, the easier it gets to try new things and not accept stasis and fear. Fear holds you to the spot; being brave moves you onward. As writers we know this, because we write stories about characters overcoming weaknesses and changing. We also have a sense of it because creativity is all about risk.

I’ll give you an example. Imagine writing about a story about a dragon. We might make it green and breathe fire. The writing group members will read that story and say, ‘that’s a fine dragon.’ But what if some brave writer doesn’t want a safe green dragon? He wants a purple dragon that can time travel, and it doesn’t breathe fire, it breathes hope. That’s a risky story, but shouldn’t he dare to try it to see if it works?

I’ve stopped being nervous when I chair a WoW meeting. I don’t mind the organisation. I no longer worry that people won’t come. I know it will go on and on and entertain me. Yet I still feel scared when I wait to hear what people think of my stories. And that’s the thing I thought I wanted, the thing I thought would be easy.

It’s right that it scares me, because daring to fail is part of the writing game. If someone tells me my story has weaknesses then I should tackle them. Just like I tackled being the worst writing group leader the world had seen.

A bravery muscle isn’t a real thing (I hope my kids know this) but my imaginary bravery muscle felt stronger after launching WoW; so I dared to lead a community event. It grew a bit stronger after that, so I launched an education campaign group. I felt I could lift a weightier risk so I published a treasure hunt, launched two writing websites, became vice-chair of governors at a local school, and even got a job where I sometimes speak on TV. That’s not bad for a quiet girl from Leeds. If I ever get time-travelled back to school, I wonder, would I dare to raise my hand?

Maybe that’s a short story idea, and I can add the purple dragon too! I hope I will be brave enough to send that story to my wonderful friends at WoW.