My friend Dylan always wanted to write a novel. He savoured puns, told off-colour jokes, and spun stories peopled with characters you can’t get out of your mind. He also read widely and knew about all kinds of obsessive, shadowy communities and strange, unsettling wrinkles in history. He would have been a wonderful novelist. But then a few years ago he died, suddenly, of brain cancer, before he got round to that novel.
A lot of people have always wanted to write a novel, and I was one of them. Not so long after Dylan’s funeral, when the first lockdown came in early 2020, my PR work slowed right down, and I thought, well, if not now, when.
I’d tried writing a novel before and it hadn’t gone so well. When I was in my twenties and thirties, at home with young children (and, yes, horses), life seemed always to be interrupting writing, so that when I did sit down to write, I couldn’t sustain anything longer than a short article or longish poem. Unfortunately, I’m not a very good poet, so the poems never came to much more than practice scales on a piano. And maybe I was lazy, or scared. There were no deadlines. I didn’t have to finish anything, not really, and as long as I hadn’t finished, I hadn’t failed.
Then, when I was in my forties, a brutal divorce suddenly left me needing to build a career – fast – and the pressure of catching up on the decades I’d missed in the world of work left me no time for novels. I went to graduate school, wrangled part-time editing work and social media internships and finally, to my great relief, landed a decent job in public relations. As it happened, my PR work involved a lot of ghost writing for high profile clients, and this and the editing work taught me to write precisely, to deadline and word count, as well as in different voices.
But I was still a long way from a novel. I’d had an idea for a novel about Carl Jung, but set in Ireland, and had made several painful starts. I had maybe twenty pages, and they were dreadful. I needed help. So, locked down in a flat in London, with the great good fortune of a furlough payment and a hugely patient and supportive husband, I gathered my notes and applied to the Faber Writing a Novel Course.
The course, for all you writers planning to someday write a novel, was the turning point for me, and I don’t believe I ever would have finished a novel without it. There was the support of a writing group, yes, but that can be found elsewhere. There was the supervision of a successful published novelist, but I’ve known a number of successful novelists who’d always been happy to look at my work. There were the weekly deadlines of 1000 words that couldn’t be missed without shame. Which was worth a lot. But most of all, there was a laser-like focus on the craft of novel writing.
Like almost every occupation, novel writing is a craft. This is obvious, but I was slow to learn it. The time I spent in the Faber course learning about structure, dialogue, voice, etc brought it home. Each week there were readings and exercises focused on a single aspect of craft. We began with limbering up, getting-to-know-each-other exercises, then went quickly into pitching drills, which uncovered any flaws in our basic premise. As the weeks went on, we might, for example read some Sally Rooney and then write a scene in which a character is arguing with someone from behind a closed door. Or we might read a bit of Emily Fridlund and then write about a character’s secret, something crumpled and hidden away under the bed. The course ran for six months, and at the end of it I and everyone on the course had a manuscript of at least 15,000 words, as well as a pretty strong idea of where we were going. I wouldn’t say it was exactly downhill from there, but the skills I learned on the Faber course, and the momentum generated by those 15,000 words was enough to get me and many of my classmates through to the end.
So I’m not one of those people who wants to write my first novel someday. I’ve done it, and I’m a more or less a writer. Turns out I don’t feel particularly different, except that I spend a lot more time in my bathrobe. I rarely see or even speak to another human being between 8 am and 6 pm, and it’s not unusual for me to look up after a particularly intense day and realise it’s five o’clock and I’m still in my pyjamas and haven’t had anything to eat or drink except coffee and a bowl of breakfast cereal, and that bowl and that coffee cup are still crusting away beside my keyboard. It’s a glamourous life.
It’s much, much harder to write a novel than I expected, and I’m a lot nicer about other people’s novels these days, now I understand the years it takes to even begin to learn the craft of novel writing, and the hours and hours of fiddly, lonely agonies that go into each one.