The dreaded D Word

I was instilled with a certain amount of fear about having to write another dissertation. The mere word brought back all the memories of last year; filling my summer with research, reading every book on my subject, juggling it alongside other essays, word count deadlines, the endless drafts, locking myself in my room for six weeks and not looking at anything other than that word document until it made sense. In summary, it took me a full nine months to cram all my research into one coherent narrative, like birthing a terrible paper child. I even had a full scale meltdown in the final few weeks which culminated in several long nights spent with pages all over my parents’ floor, fretting over which sentence I could lose to get under the maximum word limit.

I’m a little scared about repeating the whole process.

So I finished my final essay and handed it in, knowing what was waiting for me around the corner.

I met with my tutor for that all important first discussion. I had decided on my final idea after thinking about books I had read recently that I would love to put my own spin on. It came to me like a giant shiny arrow covered in light bulbs had just descended over my desk and picked up the book which I was thinking about most and made it float in front of my eyes. And then I had to manically scribble the entire thing on a post-it, because I was actually at the train station, walking somewhere, I can’t quite remember. All I know is it was one of THOSE moments. Everything clicked and, I hate to use the word because it’s annoying and bland, but it suddenly all made sense.

So I entered the first meeting with a clear plan, and I think that’s key. I had rationalised my idea to myself over and over, thought about whether I could make it work in the word limit and started making notes, began researching the novels I would deal with. It was totally doable to me. And I was consequently delighted when my tutor thought so too. I left feeling so joyous and floating home I had another giant arrow moment when my first character started talking to me. I scrambled to find my writing journal. We only work with hastily written scribbles which are barely legible here.

Over the ensuing weeks I have kept calm. My tutor asked me about deadlines and I remained vague as I don’t work well to word counts. I decided to make this year easier so to avoid last year’s meltdown madness. I made a wall calendar with crucial dates and worked out my reading list for the following eighteen or so weeks. I’ve set myself rough deadlines but I’m not fretting just yet.

And I have to say, it’s technically early days, but it’s going well. My characters are shifting constantly, but that’s okay. It’s all coming together and I feel good, capable and, crucially, in control. We have sixteen weeks of this. It’s totally doable.


Diary of a Literary Commitment-Phobe

MizmazeIt’s a little bit like falling in love, writing. Previously I’ve been pretty promiscuous; I love the instant gratification of short stories and think of your own metaphor for Flash Fiction. There’s that initial wow; that frenzied excitement, the high of the idea.

But now I want a proper relationship, a novel, something long-term. This requires investment and commitment, so I’ve decided on 1000 words a day. Depending on my mood, this has been beautifully flowy or an angry argument.

Then earlier in the week I came to the ‘I’m not sure if this is working’ stage. ‘Do I even like you?’ I asked my draft. I was enjoying the parts set in the present with a first-person voice, they’re immediate and easy to connect with but the third-person 90s sections felt like a soap opera; too mundane, too real.

Last night I decided to end it; it was over. If I was finding elements of my work tedious how could I possibly impose it on a reader? I started considering other half-written novels I could dust off, get back in touch with. Interestingly my other ‘big’ projects all also stopped around the 10,000 words mark.

Then this morning I had a revelation. Blam! If what I was enjoying about my story is the present first-person voice then why didn’t I write it mainly that way, just include more viewpoints. I immediately started hearing voices for the two other central characters. I got all fluttery about William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Now that is a book full of fascinating people. And back to our MA’s reoccurring fairy-tale style; the past is a fairy tale so I could tell it like that, taking a steer from The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A. S. Byatt.

I was giddy. It was back on, oh yes!

Then this evening, when I was wasting time on Twitter, I saw Claire Fuller’s current post about dual and multiple narratives: . Very useful advice!

Finally, I need to learn to shut my mouth. Pitching and talking about my idea has slightly damaged it. It’s a dream growing in my head, a bit special, and needs to be nurtured, not dissected over coffee, like a latest conquest.

We’re not in love yet, but we’re back to holding hands. When we’re not screaming at each other in the supermarket.

Kath Whiting
MA Creative & Critical Writing
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The end is nigh

Book CoverIf you have been following this blog for a while, or can see the counter on the right of this page, you will know that it is only a few short days until our publication is released to the wide world on May 12th. This has been a long time coming for all involved but, I can personally say, I’m delighted it’s finally here.

We have been planning the Litmus 2015 anthology since January, carefully selecting which piece of writing we think best represents us as writers, refining the details, editing and reading in class, and finally pressing that send button a few short weeks ago. Four months to achieve that doesn’t seem like a long time, but the planning and blogging and scheduling will all be over in a matter of days.

And then what are each of us left with? A publication which we have individually contributed to as writers, our stories and names in print, and, hopefully, smiles adorning our faces on Launch Night.

During this term I have struggled to consider myself as a writer. I have never quite been convinced that just because I write things down this makes me a writer. But Launch Night will bring this one issue home for me. I will see my name in print, and my words on the page, in an actual printed book which I will take home to put in my book collection. Madness.

It has been a long road for us bloggers, event organisers and editors but the end is nigh. The Litmus anthology Launch Night is but days away. And I can honestly say I’m quite excited.

Rebecca Travers (MA Creative and Critical Writing)

If you are an agent, editor, blogger or journalist who somehow slipped off our invitation list and would like to come to Winchester for cake, readings, and your own copy of Litmus 2015, please let us know.  You can comment below, tweet your interest on @litmus2015 or email

Litmus Launch and why Writers are like Hummingbirds

Book Cover
As well as promoting our book, the Litmus launch is a celebration of the end of the taught component of our MAs in Creative & Critical Writing and Writing for Children at the University of Winchester. It is the end of a very intense creative experience. A time for goodbyes and good lucks and thank yous. Of course, there will be graduation but that won’t be until next October, or even 2017 for some part-time students, so the 12 May will be our last communal hurrah.

I’m really looking forward to reading Litmus 2015; it promises to be an eclectic mix from a talented group of writers. People have worked really hard on this project; promoting, editing, organising and galvanising.

The hummingbird cover is beautiful and appropriate. Hummingbirds are relentless, tireless and always seeking nectar. We’ve learnt on our final module, in order to be successful, to find agents or to self-publish, writers have to be tireless and resilient. And of course, we are always hunting for ideas; our own creative nectar.

As well as students and their significant others; tutors, expert speakers, guest bloggers and agents will be attending. Many of us will read excerpts, which is not at all terrifying  with an audience like that! There will be refreshments and merriment, and I’ve heard there may even be cake.

So, 10 days to go and we will be going with a bang!

Kath Whiting
MA Creative & Critical Writing

If you are an agent, editor, blogger or journalist who somehow slipped off our invitation list and would like to come to Winchester for cake, readings, and your own copy of Litmus 2015, please let us know.  You can comment below, tweet your interest on @litmus2015 or email

Writing and Breathing – Guest Post from Robin Mukherjee

Robin MukherjeeThe sweetness of adversity is noticeable, sometimes, only in retrospect. I was in my early twenties, a law career abandoned, my prospects vague, employment meagre and resources negligible. Old associates from university were landing gainful positions in legal practices, finance companies, even seats in parliament. I was taking time out to think, working in an old people’s home because I felt I’d never actually done anything useful; in those days I liked to see things in primary colours.

As a younger child I had suffered terrible asthma. This meant long nights contemplating the meaning of existence and the elusive nature of breath. In those dark, insomniac interludes I discovered writing, not as an activity, but as a way of being. In imagination I could jump and laugh and play while the other form, the physical lump, hunched over the desk inert and incapable. I never went anywhere without my inhaler. And, after a while, I never went anywhere without a pen and paper. The asthma passed, thankfully. The urge to write has not.

So that’s the impulse, carved into my soul as hungry as the need to breathe. What amuses me, looking back, is that I never quite made the equation between writing and earning. I wrote and wrote; all kinds of things, scraps, notes, short stories, poetry, the beginnings of novels, one of which I rewrote as a television script. One day my brother came to visit. I was out, but my girlfriend (now wife) was in. They dug up that script and sent it to the BBC. A few weeks later I was astonished to get a letter. Why the hell would the BBC be writing to me? They said they weren’t sure about the script, but were interested in the passion behind it. I went to see them, was assigned a mentor (who remains a great friend), received guidance, was encouraged to write for theatre, was mercilessly criticised and generously praised. Eventually one of my stage plays led to a radio commission, to an agent, to my first television gig.

I have been busy ever since. I am busy now. I even teach a little, while writing, and am constantly amazed to see that same passion, purpose and crazy leap of faith reflected back at me from a roomful of young faces. The routes into professional writing are clearer these days, with myriad courses across the country at every level of education, but faith, passion and craziness are still the price of admission. The most accomplished writer remains threaded to his younger self: the long nights, urgent needs, quiet thoughts and private dreams that shape the mind and heart.

That I wrote for love over reward might seem quaintly noble but it was merely realistic at the time. Perhaps you can’t tell a story you haven’t lived, nor understand your story until you’ve told it. Still, I do exhort my students not to be shy about getting their work out there (lights under bushels and all that). And I wonder sometimes – not without a little chill – what would have happened if I’d been in, that day, when my brother called.

The Art of ScreenplaysRobin Mukherjee has written extensively for television, radio, film and theatre. His most recent television feature was nominated for a BAFTA. His film ‘Lore’ won numerous international awards and was Australia’s official entry to the oscars. He has recently been appointed as a lecturer in scriptwriting at Bath Spa University and is currently completing the MA Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. Present projects include a feature film adaptation of Paul Scott’s Booker Prize winning novel ‘Staying On’, and contributions to Series 2 of ‘Hetty Feather’ for CBBC.

Robin’s book, The Art of Screenplays: A Writers Guide was published last year. This is a working handbook for writers with stories to tell. Addressing the key issues of creativity and craft, its aim is to connect with our natural understanding of story, to demystify the screenwriter’s art, and to enable fresh, original and authentic writing.


A Sneaky Peek

I am getting very excited!

Oh dear. I’ve just broken one of the golden rules we learn on our MA courses; show, don’t tell. Well, sometimes rules have to be broken and today I am going to do ‘telling’ – mainly because I don’t want to give you a mental picture of a short, middle-aged, Rubenesque woman doing a happy dance in her PJs. You don’t need to see that on a Saturday afternoon. It didn’t work, did it? Sorry!

So why am I so excited? Because earlier this week I held a book in my hand. That’s not the exciting bit. I do that several times every day and sometimes it is quite thrilling, but not like this. This book had my name in it. I have many books at home with my name in them. I write it inside the front cover of a book before I lend it to a friend, in the hope it might make its way back home to me. This book wasn’t one of those. This had my name in print.

I was holding a printer’s proof of Litmus 2015, an anthology of writing by students on the MA Creative & Critical Writing and MA Writing for Children courses at The University of Winchester. It still needed revisions and corrections before the final print run, but I didn’t care. To see my name in the table of contents, the beginning of my story in the body of the book and a brief biography all about me in the back pages was staggering. My breathing went wobbly, my skin clammy and I felt a tiny bit sick. A thing I had dreamed of, the result of hours of work, something I though of as happening at some time in the murky future, was in my hand and it didn’t seem real.

When other students wanted to take it from me, I found it hard to let it go. Then I saw their faces as they turned the pages, looking for their own names. If I hadn’t been feeling so sideswiped I would have taken out a pad and made notes about their reactions. What a wonderful resource it would have made for future writing: the changes in skin colour, breathing, body language, facial expressions. Some students disappearing into a land that only contained them and the book, others holding it out to share with the whole world.

As I said, the inside of the book still has some work to be done, so I can’t share that with you, but I can show you the beautiful cover. I hope you love it as much as we do – although, admittedly, we may be just a wee bit biased. Welcome to the cover of Litmus 2015. Hope to see you at the launch!Book Cover
Kim A Howard
MA Writing for Children

Guano Toupee – Guest Post from Mark Rutter

Mark RutterSometime back in the early 1990s I started a poem based on an off-hand remark. I was walking through London with my old friend Mike Harris when, between pubs, we passed a statue of Churchill, the head of which was covered in bird shit. ‘I like the guano toupee’, I said, or something like that, and Mike laughed, prompting me to note it down on a beer-mat as he went to the bar to buy a round. Years later, Mike told me that the statue had been electrified to stop the birds from landing on it and taking a shit on the eminent prime minister’s head.

I sent the poem to the Hawai’i Review along with five other haiku, and they wrote back saying they’d like to publish it, but only if I gave it a title. So I came up with ‘Tory Wig’, which I thought of as nothing more than a silly pun.

Recently while I was looking for a visual poem of mine online I noticed something unusual at the bottom of the screen: ‘mark rutter caustic poem hawaii’. I clicked on it and, to my surprise, found this very poem quoted on page 117 of a book about the history of the Pacific: Reimagining the American Pacific, by Rob Wilson:

The 1993 “sovereignty issue” of Hawai’i Review commemorating – and by diverse        voices and genres, contesting – the disposal of queen Lili’uoka-lani by the         missionary-sugar oligarchy in 1893, ends with Mark Rutter’s caustic poem “Tory          Wig”.

 Queen who? Wilson goes on to explain that the poem is ‘a haiku to the Euro-American will to possession across a native-emptied Pacific, for purposes of monumentality’, and then quotes it in full:

Tory Wig

Churchill statue:
the firm, determined chin,
the guano toupee.

 ‘The guano toupee’, explains Wilson, ‘may be a souvenir of the American presence as it took possession of the Pacific,’ and then outlines the poem’s reference to an act of Congress:

In 1856, Congress enacted the so-called Guano Law that empowered the U.S.      president to take over bird-shit-rich islands in the Northern Pacific and absorb them as “appertaining to the United States” with its interests in fertilizers and high explosives during the Civil War. One of these guano-rich islands was Johnson-Atoll, called       Kalama Islands by Hawai’ians, which is being used as a nuclear weapons incineration site by the USA, dumping ground for a kind of cold war bird shit.

By now I was amazed at the historical and cultural reach of my ‘caustic poem’, the sheer density of historical reference I’d managed to pack into it without having the faintest idea I’d done it.

Yet Rob Wilson has enormously extended the meaning of the poem by his misinterpretation – if that is what it is – and in an odd way, it seems to fit. I like the idea that, without intending to, I had satirised a whole era of the western imperialist project, referring in the process to the Guano Law, a law so ludicrously named it could itself be part of a satire. And it makes me wonder if writers are like mediums, channelling meanings they are unaware of, out of the ether of language.

Basho in AcadiaPoet Dr Mark Rutter teaches on the MA Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester. His poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Other Poetry, Magma, Interpreter’s House and London Magazine. He has had two collections published in the US, where he lived from 1990-2002: The Farmhouse Voices (Puckerbrush), and water fir rook hand (Tatlin).

He has recently published Basho in Acadia (Flarestack Poets). Rooted in naturalism, these poems share an imagistic power and present a complex vision of the wild landscape of the Maine coast along with the creatures that inhabit it. A verbal-visual work, Homage to Andrei Tarkovksy, is due from Tatlin Books (Maine) this year.