Writing a novel has become the great British creative urge, even more so than baking the perfect cake, and the novel-writing course at the Faber Academy is the hottest class in Britain for writers wishing to give their work life and lustre.
The director of the programme, Richard Skinner, has written a book to make his ideas available to all. Just don’t expect an instruction manual…
Why are so many people possessed with the need to write a novel? It must be the single most common creative urge.
It’s cheap to do. You don’t need much to do it. And there are very few feelings to beat the sense of satisfaction from writing your novel, especially if you go on to get published. We find that a lot in the students – it’s not just a hobby, but a driving force in their lives. They feel compelled to tell these stories.
You start with a quote from Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.” Does that dismay students looking for guidelines?
It’s tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also important, because one of the things we talk about a lot is that there is no right way to write a novel. You can do whatever you want, but there has to be some kind of intention, determination and commitment.
What is the most common question you hear?
One of the biggest things that we tackle is this idea of getting a first draft done. It is a very hard thing to do. It is very easy to get sidetracked and edit your first ten thousand words again and again, or to get lost in the middle section which is the bit where people always get lost. It is all down to confidence and that is the most important thing we try to impart. Keep going. Don’t do anything until you get to the end of the first draft. Then you can see everything you’ve got and can start knowing how to shape it into a finished book, but you won’t have anything to work with unless you finish that first draft.
You say stories are written from the stomach. How so?
That is one of my strongest beliefs. I see a lot of new writers who have a good idea for a book and start too soon on it, but you have really got to believe that the idea that you have is a good one, have good gut instincts about it and turn it over in your mind for a long time to work out why you want to write this story. What is it that really touches you? What do you want to say? A lot of new writers run out of steam after 40 or 50 pages because they haven’t thought the idea through and let it grow inside them.
Which books do you give to writers as examples of how to write?
But there are two books on writing that I have always found most useful; “Aristotle’s Poetics”, which might sound very dry and dusty, is brilliant. It is the first piece of literary criticism ever written and is still in some ways the best. The other is “On Directing Film” by David Mamet. Everything he talks about in that book is directly relevant to fiction. He teaches you how to build scenes from the bottom up, about having a proper motive for people doing things and how characters interact.
Which writing habits do you go out of your way to encourage?
Find out what works best for you. Some people are very disciplined and like getting up at five for an hour before going to work, and some are just too chaotic or lazy to do that. It doesn’t matter what everyone else does, you have to find the right way for yourself, whether you are an owl or a lark, or whether you like to binge write or eke it out.
Do you find that a lot of first novels are thinly disguised urges to confess?
Surprisingly, no. The people who come to the academy are very serious story tellers, and we make sure that the group has a lot of different styles in it. But even if you are writing a sci-fi novel or a historical romance, your emotional fingerprints will be all over it, because it is coming from you.
Which of your suggestions has saved writers the most time?
Really think a project through and build up a sense of, “Yes, I can do this. It’s a great idea and I am going to do it.” Then once you start, keep going no matter what. Never look back. Those two things. Once you’ve got a first draft you can heave a huge sigh of relief and the hardest bit is done. The editing sessions after that are a different process, but that is when the writing comes alive, in a way.
Do you have most detested cliché?
My pet peeve is adverbs. It might sound pedantic, but if you are relying too much on adverbs, you are being very lazy. You are not selecting the right kinds of language to convey what is conveyed in an adverb and they are moments when writers are taking their eye off the ball in terms of story telling.
You say “Good writers have an interest in human nature that borders on the morbid.” Why so?
Novels can explore a person’s mind or the human condition, and the things that people do to themselves and to each other better than any other art form. One of the problems that we tackle is that people censor themselves too heavily and are fearful of what might be coming out – the darkness.
Chloe Esposito’s first novel was called “Mad”, her second is “Bad”, and her third is “Dangerous To Know”, and her main character is a sociopath called Alvina Knightly who murders people and has no conscience about it. Chloe said she was really scared of the stuff she was coming out with, and I said “That’s fantastic, you are doing your job properly, tapping into yourself, and letting this darkness come out.”
That’s what people find most fascinating, rather than the kind of person who does the right thing, and is polite and tidy and doesn’t have any problems. All the great novels like “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina” are about characters who are a complete mess.
Which aspects of the creative agony do you have no sympathy for?
I have some sympathy for the idea of writer’s block, but I don’t really think it exists. Writers block is the moment when you completely lose your confidence in yourself as a writer and there are lots of ways you can shake yourself out of that, but I don’t believe that there’s a state of mind where you just can’t write at all.
If you could put your name on one novel which one would it be?
A novel I talk a lot about in class is “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles, and “The Great Gatsby” is pretty good as well. “The Great Gatsby” is just the perfect novel, and the Paul Bowles book, I’m jealous. I wish I had written it.
You advise writers not to keep one eye on the market. Why is that?
We encourage students to write the book that’s inside them, the book that they really need to tell, rather than writing to try and make money. If you do that you are kind of finished as a writer. You probably won’t make money, readers will pick up on what you are doing and you will produce quite a cynical book.
What is the worst piece of advice you’ve heard?
Anyone who claims to have the answers to all of the questions is a bit of a charlatan, so when teachers say you’ve got to do it that way, that is completely the wrong way to teach.
Why is there a lack of great endings?
I think the real power of a book is how long it lingers in your memory afterwards – if a book has a big afterlife it has had a good ending. For me the most satisfying endings are definitely those that are a little bit ambiguous.
Gatsby is an example, it’s very sort of open-ended. You feel it could go on, but it just sort of ends there. Endings with all of the loose strands neatly tied up are for me a bit unsatisfying. I want to sense that the story could continue.
So you were quite happy with the way the Sopranos ended then?
Yes! I loved “The Sopranos” and I was quite impressed that they had the balls to end it that way.
WHAT IS THE FABER ACADEMY?
The Faber Academy was established in London in 2009 with a view to providing writing courses of the highest quality. Among the proliferation of creative writing options, the Faber Academy programme, designed to fit with the needs of people who aren’t able to drop everything to study full time, is one of the most highly regarded.
“We can offer the best possible route towards the potential masterpiece in everyone,” is their boast, a claim backed up by the number of graduates from the six-month Writing a Novel course who have gone on to realise the dream of publication.
“It is not academic in the sense that a Creative Writing MA at a university would be, with an essay attached to modules, we don’t do anything like that,” says Director of the Fiction Programme Richard Skinner (left), who designed and teaches the course. “There is no reading list, no certificate, it is a very hands-on practical course,” he says.
“We also have four writers who come in and talk to the students, and then crucially and uniquely, we have three people from the publishing industry who come and talk. One of those will usually be a very senior member of Faber, so we often get the CEO, Stephen Page, to come in. Another is an editor from another publishing house and the third is always an agent who talks about agenting. We keep all the business side of things until the end.”
Three months after the course finishes, the students come back to read from a published anthology of their work to a hand-picked audience of sixty agents.
“At Faber Academy we want these new writers to develop their books and finish them as well as possible before they send them out to the industry. That’s something we are quite hot on.”