Owen Sheers on writing a novel (12th Oct 2015)

Being lucky enough to live within striking distance of Swansea University, I went along to see the inaugural lecture of Professor Owen Sheers, their new Professor of Creativity. He’s a poet, playwright, screenwriter and novelist so he pretty much covers all bases! He was talking about his new novel I Saw A Man which I haven’t read but which is now on my wishlist despite having to give a few spoilers in his talk. As I’m currently doing “How Writer’s Write Fiction 2015” (great MOOC!) it was a treat to hear such a great Welsh writer talk about his craft. I can’t do it justice but here are some interesting points he made, in no particular order:

  • His novel arose from a single image: that of a man entering someone else’s house. He linked this with Martin Amis’ words: “the throb of a novel”.
  • He gestated the novel for about 6 years. He talked about the process of forgetting, of losing the initial “throb”, but that in itself led to finding new ideas. When you live with a novel for that amount of time, it becomes “a vessel for general concerns”. He realised that time spent not working on the novel was in fact time working on the novel (because it was gestating).
  • He wrote and trashed 10,000 words 3 TIMES because he hadn’t found the right way of telling it.
  • When he had got the central narrative device, he was able to write a first draft in 3 months. He wrote instinctively, without too much reflection. He liked to be surprised by what happened in the process.
  • Writing is about finding complexity in what initially may be quite simple ideas. Not everything should be on the surface but, at the same time, for the reader he strives for clarity, simplicity, authenticity.
  • Writing is partly the process of obscuring yourself, the author, but you also need to find something of yourself in each of the characters to inhabit them. He sees the author not as creating characters, but as eavesdropping on them.
  • He quoted Don Paterson’s “the poem is a machine for remembering itself” and commented that the novel often worked best when it forgot itself, its main theme, and diverted into something memorable.
  • In a novel it is better to pose more questions than you answer.
  • He always knew what the last line was going to be.
  • He considers short stories to be the hardest prose form to get right (and recommended Alun Lewis a Welsh writer). The ideas he has for short stories tend to become poems.

You can see it was a wonderful talk for any aspiring writer – in particular, the length of time and false-starts should give anyone (like me) hope who often feels it’s all going pear-shaped but can still feel that throb, that call to tell the story, despite all the setbacks.


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