Writing a Novel: Why the pen is mightier than the horizon

Faber Writing Academy alumna Leah De Forest tells us about her experiences on our Writing A Novel course with Carrie Tiffany in Melbourne last year. 

I like to colour-code my rejections. I’m not fancy enough for a spreadsheet, but I have a shaded table in Word: purple for novels, blue for short stories, red for non-fiction. Last year, I tracked 16 rejections (across the colours) and two acceptances (one blue, one red).

leahdeforest-225x300I should say that this (mildly obsessive) behaviour is not something I learnt at the Faber Writing Academy. But it was on my mind when I showed up for the first Writing a Novel class, fretting about an assortment of things, including:

Am I good enough? Is my writing awful? Why am I even doing this to myself?

Fortunately, I had the presence of mind not to say these things out loud. I figured that as the course went on, I’d start to feel more confident. I might be able to describe my novel without staring at the floor. And perhaps—say it quietly, folks—I might have something good enough to submit to a publisher someday.

But in my anxiety about doing this odd thing (write a what?), I had it all backwards. I was worrying about the horizon, when I needed to be thinking about my pen. Because although the course taught me invaluable things about publishing (such as, it’s competitive and rigorous and sometimes subjective) and editing (such as, a great editor will be ruthless and picky and a champion for your project), what I needed was the time (and permission) to focus on writing.

Tutors Carrie Tiffany, Sophie Cunningham, Toni Jordan and Paddy O’Reilly pulled my focus away from the sunset (or the storm clouds, or whatever you’d like it to be) and reminded me—in Carrie’s words—of the importance of ‘paying attention at the level of the sentence’. In workshop pieces, Carrie marked up, line by line, where I’d repeated words, confused the action, or overdone the description. My classmates were generous with their feedback, too—and gentle in pointing out that I’d changed a character’s clothes, or meal, mid-scene.

Animal People by Charlotte WoodMeanwhile, Carrie walked us through two set ‘texts’, Charlotte Wood’s Animal People and Claire Keegan’s Foster, examining how key motifs (such as a trio of lights on the water) added emotional resonance, tension, and meaning. She talked about how animals could be used in fiction; the role of place; and the importance of ‘one small true detail’ that can make writing come alive.

Paddy spoke about character, and diplomatically pointed out the weakness in one of my writing exercises. I needed to hear it. Guest speaker Alison Goodman talked to us about structure, which sent me scurrying home to map out a future project against the classic three-act story structure. Toni reminded us that as a writer, ‘what you’re trying to do is make people feel’. Not easy, but worth it.

I went into the Writing a Novel course anxious about my manuscript, not knowing if I’d ever make it as a writer. The best part of a year later—I’ll be honest—I still feel that way. But I got a lot of work done on my project, and I’ve had a good long look at what might be over the fence. I’ve met some of the people who read and assess manuscripts, and can confirm that they are in fact people, like you and me.

I’ve heard writers talk about their own successes and failures in publishing, and share their insights about the daily joy (and pain) of writing a novel. And I needed to hear this. Because as Carrie told us, whatever happens in the slush pile, or out in the book shop, ultimately there’s only the writing. Words on the page. Make them better. Try again.

Leah De Forest has been a writer of speeches, memos and headlines. Her novel The Borrowed River was highly commended in the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and shortlisted in the Varuna Publisher Program 2013. Her writing has appeared in The Age, Canberra Times, Kill Your Darlings and Eureka Street. She blogs at www.leahdeforest.net 

Faber Writing Academy - do you have a story to tell?

2015 Writing a Novel courses run in Melbourne (with Toni Jordan and Paddy O’Reilly) and Sydney (with Kathryn Heyman) from March, with scholarship applications open until February 6th.

Read more writerly advice from our Faber Writing Academy tutors and students.

Banner image courtesy Nic McPhee on Flickr.

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