Afterwords: Reflections on Writing a Novel
5 minutes read
Shelley Weiner, who has been teaching on Faber Academy's Writing a Novel course since 2014, reflects on some of her students' key takeaways over the years.
One of the first things I tell a new Writing a Novel class is that the process will not be easy. I say it with gentle caution. At the end of the six month course, one of the most frequent things said by writers is, ‘It’s been harder than I could possibly have imagined.’ They say this with the joy and relief of a marathon runner with a finishing line in sight.
Then they discover that it’s not the finishing line, that it’s just the end of the beginning – but they’re hooked. They have started and, with my voice in their head and the support of their new ‘writerly people’ (a great term!), they persist. And persist. For they have imbibed my advice that tenacity is as important as technique or talent. And they have discovered – for they have told me so – that everyone’s novel-writing progress moves forward at a different pace.
‘It’s not a race,’ someone said at the end of one course. ‘Nor is it a competition.’
Which sounds simple and obvious – but it is an insight that comes with the compassion and understanding acquired after so many months of growing trust in a group of cohorts, which is more likely than not to turn into a lifelong writing network.
When I asked a group, having recently completed the course, to offer advice to their successors, top of the list was: ‘Stay in touch with your class – they will understand the rollercoaster in a way that your friends and family do not.’
And it is a rollercoaster – from that moment on week one when, with trepidation and oft-reported hints of imposter syndrome or less-frequently-described over-confidence, fifteen or so strangers eye one another over the table and wonder how it will be. And what they’ve let themselves in for. And sometimes want to run away …
But they don’t. They stick it out. They discover (and I’m passing the following nuggets of advice on from those who have) that:
- Writing isn’t just about finding time to put words on the page, it’s also finding time to develop ideas in your head. Thinking time is vital. You can do this while exercising, while driving, while cooking, while lying in bed waiting for the alarm to go off. Wherever and whenever you can, make space for it.
- To write an eighty-thousand-word novel you probably have to write a million words or more through the various drafts. You keep the best eighty thousand. So don’t be afraid to write the wrong words. That’s part of the process. They are stepping stones to the words you are looking for.
- If you get stuck, do something sensible. It may work, it probably won’t, but in learning what doesn’t work you’ll have a better idea of what does.
- Every time you learn something new you’ll want to go back and fix what you’ve written so far. Don’t. By the time you get to the end of your first draft you’ll have learnt a dozen more things and you can apply them all at once on the rewrite. You will rewrite, many times.
- Writing a first novel, calling yourself a ‘debut writer’ is a brilliant opportunity. Nobody is waiting for your manuscript. Nobody is asking to read it. Take the time now to make as many mistakes as you can. When you have an agent and a publisher you will feel pressure to get it right. This is your opportunity to get it wrong without anyone knowing.
- Bad days happen, as do bad weeks and bad months. It’s normal. Don’t beat yourself up. Write something the next day, then it will all be fine.
- The people in your life, the people who matter to you, won’t understand. They’ll treat it like your hobby, they’ll wonder why it’s taking you so long, they’ll eat into your writing time, because they don’t get it. Don’t blame them; once upon a time neither did you.
- The people on this course with you, the writers around this table, are the ones who get it. Help and support each other.
Overall it is agreed by former students that it’s an extraordinary experience, being part of a Writing A Novel class. For me it is always equally extraordinary to be teaching one. Every time, with every group.
When we gather for the first time, I say to writers that here – in the Faber context and in this room with trusted peers – we’re acknowledging the often-tiny and hidden part of us that is ‘me, the writer’. For the time we’re together, we are not ‘me, the partner’ or ‘me, the parent’ or ‘me, the doctor’ or lawyer or business professional. It is liberating – sometimes terrifying. As a tutor it is an ongoing privilege to engage in so many rich stories, in that exciting creative process. For all of us, it’s a potentially life-changing experience, an opportunity for celebration.
As one student wrote:
‘Remember that writing is a joy and something you choose to do. Hold onto that urge to tell your story – and remember that if you don’t tell it, in your way, from your perspective, then nobody will.’
Shelley Weiner is an acclaimed novelist, short-story writer and journalist who has, over the years, established a reputation as an inspirational creative writing tutor and nurturer of new talent.
Writing a Novel is designed to support aspiring fiction writers to develop their craft over six months, with courses in London (at Faber’s HQ in Hatton Garden), Newcastle and online.
A six-month programme of seminars, sessions will cover all the essentials of novel writing – including character, story, structure, plotting, voice, dialogue, conflict and more.
Find out more about the next iterations of Writing a Novel here.