A few weeks ago, SJ Watson came in to talk to students on our creative writing courses with his agent Clare Conville. A former student of novel-writing courses himself, Watson saw his debut novel Before I Go To Sleep become an international bestseller that was adapted into a film starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, while his second novel Second Life has recently been optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon, so you can imagine our students were keen to talk to him about his particularly heady experience of the publishing world. It was an enjoyable session and, in its aftermath, we asked him a few questions about agents, his inspirations and his writing advice.
You’ve said you’d written quite a lot before deciding to take a creative writing course. Was there anything in particular that spurred you to take the step of enrolling on one?
A number of things, but mainly it was the realisation that writing was becoming more and more important to me, and yet the pressures of my day job meant I wasn’t giving it the energy it deserved. I decided to make a few changes to redress that balance, and one of them was to apply for a demotion at work. I don’t believe in fate, but in the same week I heard I’d got the job I saw an advert for a creative writing course, and decided it’d be a good way to kick start this new chapter in my life.
What do you think are the benefits of creative writing courses?
It varies from person to person. For me I really benefited from the focus it gave me. I was determined I’d make the most of every single moment on the course, and it was wonderfully inspiring to be surrounded – for the first time – by people who felt as strongly about writing as I did.
You didn’t really think of Before I Go To Sleep as a thriller before your agent, Clare Conville, pointed out the thriller elements in the story. What do you think the role of a good agent is?
A good agent will be your supporter, editor, mentor, and cheerleader. They’ll intuitively know what’s necessary at any given time, they’ll know when to tell you you’re great, and when to give you a kick up the backside. They’ll protect you from any crap and nonsense, and fight battles over obscure points in contracts that you don’t even get to hear about and wouldn’t understand if you did, just so that you can get on with the important business, which is writing. A great agent will also be a friend and be there for you when you just want to drink cocktails. I trust Clare’s judgement and will always listen to her point of view.
What was it like writing in your spare time when you had a full-time job?
It was tough. The pressures in the NHS were considerable, even then, and my job was quite stressful. It took almost all my energy. That was why I decided to go part time, and see what would happen if I made writing my main priority for a while.
Is there anything from your medical career that informs your writing, or how you write?
My patients were severely hearing impaired, and so often had huge difficulties in communicating in the hearing world. I think my work made me think a lot about being isolated from society.
There are some common themes that have run through your books so far: memory, identity, and how love depends to a certain extent on both of these. Are these your main interests as a writer, and what else intrigues you in novels?
I guess they were my main interests for those two books, but I’m not sure if they’re my main interests now! Preoccupations shift, and I want to explore lots of things in my work. But yes, I am interested in identity, in what makes us who we are, and our vulnerabilities. I think those elements might always creep in, but I try not to think too much about it.
Your taste in books is very broad, ranging from The Lord of the Rings to Alan Hollinghurst, to Margaret Atwood. Are there any books or writers in particular that influence you?
I’m searching for the perfect balance between art and entertainment. A good story that’s beautifully told. I hate literary snobbishness, the idea that a book can either be gripping and popular, or beautifully written with something to say. Why not all these things? I will return to again and again to books and writers that have managed that
What are you reading at the moment, and what novels would you recommend for people who want to write?
I visited Sissinghurst for the first time last year so I’m reading Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson right now. Vita Sackville-West’s marriage to Harold Nicolson was characterised by passionate, and often same-sex, affairs, and conventional morality would therefore condemn it as somehow inferior. Yet their union was powerful, and only strengthened by these other liaisons. It’s fascinating, but then I’m interested in anything that questions the heteronormative status quo.
For people who want to write, I’d recommend they read anything. Anything that inspires, or moves, or intrigues them. I think you have to be a sponge for other people’s work. But read it carefully, as a writer would, and reread anything that particularly interests or inspires you. Once for pleasure, once to try and figure out how it works…
Applicants to our creative writing courses have to send in their 3,000-word opening. What are your tips for writing a good opening?
Don’t explain too much. Let the situation reveal itself over time. You’re far better off confusing the reader than boring them. A confused reader will read on whereas a bored reader will put the manuscript down and pick another one up. Look very carefully at your first three paragraphs. Often the book should actually begin half way down page two.
What’s your writing routine like?
I have to work every day. That’s my only routine. Sometimes it’s in the evening, sometimes the morning. I aim for a thousand words a day. Sometimes I manage them, sometimes not.
What do you do on a bad writing day to get past the block?
I now have faith that stepping away is the best thing to do, so I’ll go and do something else. I go for a walk, or I take photographs, or I do some job around the house. When I return to the desk I set myself a smaller goal. If one thousand words isn’t achievable, then I’ll tell myself I only have to do 500, or 200, or even 50 if it’s really going badly. I have to feel that I’ve nudged the book forward, even a little bit, but there’s no point in trying to plough on if it’s just not happening. Tomorrow will be better.
Is there one piece of advice that you’ve found particularly helpful for your writing?
Give yourself permission to write really badly. Books come together in the edit.
Second Life is out now.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Three-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Charlotte Mendelson (deadline for applications is Sun 8 October).
Three-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Nikita Lalwani (deadline for applications is Sun 1 October).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 17 Sept).
We’re also offering two low-cost ‘taster’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis: