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Tips from Kathryn Heyman, Course director, Writing a Novel (Sydney)


Kathryn HeymanYou've always wanted to write a novel. Yet every time to sit down to write it, you are distracted by an overwhelming compulsion to clean the oven, phone your mother or feed the dog.

Begin with this sentence: "I've always wanted to write a novel, but..." and finish the sentence. Just that. Simple. Begin with externals: I've always wanted to write a novel but there isn't time because I need to work... I have to clean the house because no-one else will do it.... I have no space to write in... Write everything.

In my experience these interferences, though no doubt genuine and pressing, are not the main obstacle. Somewhere behind them lies the secret, hidden fear, which gets dressed up. Creativity is entering into the unknown. It's frightening. The fear that you won't succeed – or that you will (and then how will your best friend or lover or sister manage to be in the same room with you without vomiting with envy?). Or the fear that you'll touch something, once you start to write, which might open you up so terribly that you'll never be put together again.

As with life, if you let the secret fears niggle away, without naming them out loud, they have more power than they deserve. As with shadows, if you shine a torch on them, they shrink to their proper size.

So, try to dig a little deeper. Keep writing this: I've always wanted to write a novel but... and then, dig away at the external reasons, lift up the scab, and try to find the truth. Keep writing until you hit something which feels private and powerful.

Even among the chaos and requirements of everyday living, a desperate desire to write will outweigh the restrictions on time or space or money. Writers who overcome their fear of the unknown (or whose curiosity is stronger than the fear) wake up before their children, write on the train, throw out the television, live in messy houses – do whatever it takes, in other words, to write the story that they are marked out to tell.

Once you start naming the real fears, the secret ones, you can start to get to the truth. And truth is the cornerstone of good writing.

Kathryn Heyman is the author of four novels, including The Accomplice and Captain Starlight's Apprentice, published internationally and in translation. Her work has been nominated for numerous awards and she written several radio plays for BBC radio, including adaptations of her own work. Kathryn has taught Creative Writing for the University of Glasgow and the University of Oxford and is the course director for Faber Academy's Writing a Novel (Sydney) course.