Want to know what it’s like doing our Faber Writing Academy Writing a Novel course? Journalist Diana Jenkins shares her experiences of the course so far, what she’s learnt from our tutors, and how it’s helping progress her novel (and also comments on course catering & our eating habits!).
I’ve committed to Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course this year: First and Second Draft. Here I am already at the halfway mark. First Draft went by in a flash, but I know some of you are interested in hearing some first-hand detail about the program. I also know from my own experience that dishing out a big pan of clams for a writing course is not a decision taken lightly. I can ill afford to blow it and I’m sure that’s a sentiment shared by anyone considering undertaking such a thing.
You may remember Varuna Alumna Sarah Price won a Faber Academy scholarship in 2014 for her YA manuscript ‘Chasing Butterflies’; I interviewed her here that March. Sarah’s group was taught by James Bradley (Clade), mine by Kathryn Heyman, whose first novel, The Breaking, was published in 1997. Her sixth, Storm and Grace, will be out January 2017. James and Kathryn are both pretty fabulous – as authors and human beings – and it’s the luck of the draw as to where you land. You may like to check out Sarah’s interview with James over at The Saturday Paper – it and Sarah’s others, with authors including Varuna Alumna (and, oh yes, Stella Prize winner) Charlotte Wood, is excellent reading.
I became aware of Kathryn as a writing teacher and mentor back in 2010, having first stumbled across Gold Dust, a UK-based mentoring outfit. Kathryn and I exchanged promising emails at the time, but the prospect of paying in Pound Sterling, plus a major life change my end – I had my first child that November – eventually thwarted the idea of my coughing up the requisite gold to get hold of some of Kathryn’s magic dust. Resorting to privately stalking the course offerings once she became Program Director of Faber Academy Australia, I got to 2016 and Something. Just. Snapped. I think it was that sense of standing still while time marched coldly by: in the decade since completing my research PhD, I had failed to publish a single piece of fiction or secure interest in my first manuscript. It was time to invest in my own development.
Faber Academy Sydney (there’s a Melbourne office too) runs out of the Crows Nest HQ of Independent Publisher of the Year, Allen & Unwin. I get a buzz just walking through the doors each week and I’m sure I’m not alone. In First Draft, we were split between James and Kathryn in two groups of 12, occasionally coming together to hear guest speakers (including The Illuminations’ Andrew O’Hagan, who was both charming and brilliant, and A&U Publisher Annette Barlow, who’d already worked all day and no doubt missed her train connection home, but still managed to be transparent, generous and bubbling with her trademark warmth).
The collegiality is almost worth the cost of the course all by itself. You have to be fairly serious to sign up, I think, so in my group, for instance, everyone has a good amount of writing experience. Almost everyone writes a great deal in their job even if it’s not their primary occupation. We’ve got a number of lawyers and one barrister, for instance, as well as journalists and academics. Everyone’s pretty sharp, regardless of how they earn a crust, and we developed a wonderful camaraderie during First Draft I wouldn’t trade for the world.
Each project is at a different stage of development. Some people finished First Draft with around 30,000 words. My own manuscript is currently sitting at about 70,000 words, but it doesn’t qualify as a first draft because it fails the basic test: is it a story with a clear beginning, middle and end? No, it is not. I’m getting there, but the beginning keeps changing and the consequences ripple all the way through. I think I know the ending, but I haven’t written a word of it, and that’s still the case even though Second Draft started a fortnight ago.
Now the band is back together, I think most of my group is feeling the heat after the first two sessions. I feel slightly better knowing others are in the same boat, but no one wants it to become a ship of fools. There’s major work to do if those of us from First Draft are to finish Second Draft with anything of the kind to show for it. We had a majority return for the second course, but it’s only the two new members of the class who have actually completed first drafts. I think it’s to do with the nature of the course: no one is supervising your progress and Kathryn and James aren’t checking homework. If you’re looking for a course that consists of your building your word count week to week under the watchful eye of a taskmaster or -mistress, this probably isn’t it. Kathryn and James aren’t invigilators.
(Although, having someone else set and collect the week’s output before putting it in a box marked ‘Progress’ is not actually a terrible idea … I might suggest it to my husband when he gets home tonight. Whatever it takes, friends, whatever it takes.)
So no, I didn’t finish my first draft during First Draft. On the other hand, I’m learning so much and I love Kathryn. Anyone who read her last novel Floodline knows just how good she is as a writer, but lots of talented people have no gift for sharing what they know. A sensible, lively and erudite instructor, Kathryn has an apparently endless store of practical writing exercises that she works into every session. I find them massively helpful without exception. I have no doubt the product of some of these tasks will find its way into my finished manuscript, even if most of what I manage to scrawl in the allotted time is execrable. Better yet, I’ll have these exercises at the ready long after my last Faber Academy session has ended. Whenever I’m stuck down the track, either with this manuscript or (be still, my beating heart!) any future project, I’ll be reaching for my Faber Academy notes quick smart.
You also can’t overstate the value of the stuff that silently burbles away in the subconscious while you’re sitting with writers, talking about writing while writing. I’d like to see if the average writer’s brain activity changes in those circumstances, because sometimes it’s a little spooky. Last Tuesday night’s session was on dialogue, for instance, and while I’m still not sure what the precise catalyst was – maybe it was the homemade iced teacakes the program coordinator left for us, because they sure deserve to take the credit for something – but as I drove home from Crows Nest, reflecting on the session, I had several major epiphanies concerning my story. Really fundamental changes that – while sowing chaos in the short-term – will ultimately feed directly into the major shift that occurred at the end of First Draft.
In other words, I’m not completing some tidy, linear course where everything behaves perfectly and I write seamlessly from beginning to end. It’s a mess, really, but I feel these changes will serve the story far better than the largely arbitrary choices I made when I started writing. So many things I had grown confused and even fearful about – like why a secondary character kept threatening to take over and become the protagonist, and what I was supposed to do about it – make perfect sense now. Moreover – and here’s the really important point – I am quite sure none of these seismic shifts would have occurred to me in isolation. They are a product of the course, Kathryn’s guidance and weekly interaction with my peers.
My hope is to shortly complete the first draft and crack on with the second draft for the duration. At the end of First Draft, Kathryn made us set 3- and 6-month goals. On Tuesday 10 May I said I wanted a complete first draft by 10 August. We each pledged to the person next to us to email our progress at the 3-month mark.
I’d better get cracking.
Assuming I meet my goals, and I finish the second half of Writing a Novel with a solid second draft under my belt, my next course of action will be entering the manuscript in the most appropriate Varuna program/s in 2017. If I can get myself in that kind of position, it will make 2016 a very good year.
There’s one last thing people should know about the course. It’s not about how vital it is that as the mum of a 20-month-old and a hyperactive 5-year-old, I formally carve out and claim that time for writing. Nor is it about industry insights and connections or even about Faber Writing Academy’s high standing, thanks to a growing number of its alumni becoming published authors. No, it’s about something far more fundamental. It’s about food.
Much like Sheila’s legendary catering at Varuna, the other thing it’s worth knowing about Faber Academy is that it gives good snack. It’s one distinct advantage of being housed within Allen & Unwin; A&U’s annual bake off is the stuff of legend and it’s a cultural thing at every level (just look at their list of cook books – they’re mad for mastication!). Faber Academy students are annually invited to The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award announcement, and the catering that night was outstanding too. As for our Tuesday nights, I’ve already mentioned individual teacakes, but every week I arrive and fall on that spread of cheese, cake, fruit and biscuits like my writing life depends on it. I’m close to arguing it does. We all elbow each other out of the way in a most unseemly snack surge before Kathryn has any hope of calling us all to attention. Because let’s face it. There’s no surer way to focus a group of writers than placing a selection of tasty morsels in their path.
Diana Jenkins is a freelance journalist. She is Features Editor for Varuna, the National Writers’ House, and presented storytelling event 5×15 at Sydney Theatre across three Sydney Writers’ Festivals. Her articles have appeared in The Australian, The Weekend Australian, The Australian Magazine, The Sydney Morning Herald, WHO, Deluxe Sydney and more. She holds a research PhD in English from UNSW and is the delighted recipient of a 2016 Varuna PIP Fellowship for her YA manuscript. This piece originally appeared on the Varuna Writers Centre blog as Your Time Starts Now where you can read comments from other readers.