Writing life

The Faber Academy Writing a Novel course

I have been meaning to write this post for AGES. I finished the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course back in March, and kept thinking that I must remember to write a little review of it on my blog, because when I was researching the course I didn’t find much online about what it was really like. From people who’d actually been through it and come out the other side. What happened to them all? Was it so scary that they never wrote another word? Were they all far too busy writing their bestsellers to have time to blog (hint: in many cases this IS the reason)? Was it just utterly rubbish?

So, for people in the same boat, here are the thoughts and ruminations of a survivor! (that’s a joke btw).

I applied for the course last August, after making a decision that I was going to give the whole ‘one day I’ll be a proper novelist’ dream a real shot. I was at the end of my maternity leave and didn’t have a job to go back to – a scary prospect and a story for another time. I had some regular freelance work to keep the wolf from the door, but I didn’t have a ‘plan’. And I’m a Capricorn, and I like a plan. So I made one: apply for Faber Academy Writing a Novel course, write novel during six months on course, get publishing deal. Live a life of fame and riches, etc etc.

So I applied, and then waited. And waited. And didn’t hear a peep. My plan was falling at the first hurdle! But, as a Capricorn, I had a Plan B. Plan B was to apply for the Writing a Novel daytime course AS WELL, which started at the same time as the evening one. I figured I’d doubled my chances, and hoped the tutors wouldn’t be confused and think I wanted to do both.

While waiting to hear whether or not I got a place, I did some pretty obsessive googling and found someone on a forum saying she had been offered a place already. My hopes dashed, I resorted to Plan C, stuck two fingers up at Faber, and puked out 5000 words of something completely new in one evening. Who needed a writing course to write a novel anyway?

But then the next day, when I was licking my wounds of rejection and feeling smug that I’d at least started something, I got an email. Saying I’d got a place on the evening course, and that Joanna Briscoe wanted me to be in her group. To say I was chuffed would be an understatement, as I’d always wanted to be in Joanna’s group. I read her haunting novel Sleep with Me years ago and knew she was exactly the kind of writer I wanted to learn from.

I was so nervous that first day, waiting outside in the rain for someone to open the Big Black Door. In truth, I don’t remember much about the first session at all, apart from that everyone was very polite and very nice, and the mix of backgrounds and experiences was brilliant. It was a really diverse group – I had thought it would all be journalists like me, but we had screenwriters and actors and architects, and a huge age range too. I remember we had to do a writing exercise to warm us all up, which definitely broke the ice, and I was so impressed with the people who volunteered to read theirs out to everyone (I still remember yours Tommy!).

I don’t think I spoke much for the first few weeks, but as we all got to know each other, I found my feet. I absolutely loved reading everyone else’s work – it was amazing seeing the variety of voices and stories, and I learnt so much from hearing other people’s critiques. It’s a fascinating process and really made me think. Joanna was a thoughtful and considerate tutor, never bossing us about but gently leading us, and pointing out things less experienced writers might not know or notice.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was really gutted when the first term came to an end. But – and this was the best bit – I had a first draft. An entire first draft, written in three months. Having that course to motivate me to keep going and ploughing on every day was crucial – Joanna asked us each week to set ourselves word counts, and then would check up the following week to see how we got on. The pressure was helpful, rather than scary, and everyone worked at their own pace, encouraging each other.

The second term flew by in a flash. Each term, we all had one ‘peer review’ session, where we submitted 5000 words of writing for the rest of the group to read and comment on. We’d then have a 45 minute group discussion once we’d all read the extracts. It’s as terrifying as it sounds, but also a necessary part of learning to write if you want to share your work one day with real readers! From time to time discussions got a little heated as with any creative endeavour, opinions are so subjective. But the lively discussions always got my brain going, and I found the feedback on my own work fascinating.

Our final class – sniff!

 

By the time the course came to an end, I think everyone was feeling a bit bereft. After having a baby and having a year off work, I’d loved having the structure of the weekly sessions (plus the long Saturday ones each month) and feeling like I had somewhere ‘grown up’ to go, to focus on my writing. Some of the passages we wrote in class for exercises actually made it into my completed novel, and they were easily some of the best. I also met some truly inspiring and interesting people, and count my 14 classmates as real friends. We continue to meet once a month, with several members of the group still sharing and reviewing each other’s work. A gang of us also went to the Hay Festival together in May, and I know I have writing friends for life.

Some of my Faber group in the Welsh countryside earlier this year

 

So my thoughts on the course… blimey, this is already over 1000 words, I’ll try to keep it speedy. I think it’s a really enjoyable and interesting experience. It’s a selective course, so everyone who gets a place has already shown they’ve got the potential to get published one day. But I don’t think it’ll get you published if you don’t put the work in. Like so many things in life, you get out of it what you put in. It’s not some kind of quick route to publication, or a way of bypassing the hard slog that comes with writing a novel. There’s a lot of hype around the agents’ reading day at the end of the course (when a group of literary agents come and listen to everyone read from their work). I do think this is a great way to get yourself ‘seen’ by agents, but if the work isn’t up to scratch, it won’t make a difference to whether or not you get taken on.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat! In fact, once the course ended I started looking at other Faber courses, and wondered if I could justify the cost of the Editing Your Novel one. I also fully intend to do a poetry course there at some point in the future, as I’ve never really written much poetry and think it would be wonderful to learn about a completely different way of writing.

As you probably know it’s an expensive course. In some ways, I think this filters out the less committed. If you pay that money to get on, then you’re clearly going to take writing seriously. Which is great. But it’s a lot of money (although you do get a discount if you’ve already done a Faber course). Faber have announced that next year they’ll be offering two free places to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to do it, which is absolutely brilliant.

I’m happy to answer any questions about the course – just leave me a comment below. As far as I am aware, different tutors have different teaching styles, so I can’t guarantee your experience will be the same as mine, but the peer review element is the foundation of the whole thing, so happy to give any feedback on that.

Oh and just in case you were wondering, my plan worked! The novel I wrote on the course will be published next year, but that’s a whole other blog post…. (coming soon!).

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