Spotlight on Faber & Sarah Menary

By Samuel Elliott

The Faber Writing Academy is an unprecedented institution, both in vision and accomplishment. It offers a broad array of courses for those looking to better themselves as writers, with a selection that ranges from those spanning a single day, to the lengthier, more intensive Write Your Novel Stage 1 and 2 courses. It was a name that I had heard uttered reverentially from the lips of dozens of contemporaries, an educational centre long held as synonymous with securing publication.

My knowledge was admittedly limited though, and with my interest so piqued, I yearned to learn more. Fortunately, the folks at Faber proved to be extremely accommodating when I reached out to them, and a meeting was promptly arranged with Sarah Menary, one of the key figures and driving forces behind the widely-regarded institute.

Before my interview with Menary, she treats me to a tour of Allen and Unwin’s offices located in leafy Artarmon, on Sydney’s lower north shore. Along the way, I’m introduced to a succession of friendly folk from among the three-hundred or so strong team of the office and our journey soon brings us to the topmost floor of the building, occupied by the Academy.

Upon entering, I allow myself a moment to truly take in my surroundings – its clearly been designed by someone with an appreciation for the aesthetically pleasing, as well as the flawlessly functional, featuring floor-to-ceiling windows that both allow sunlight to burnish the tastefully furnished interior, as well as offering views of the distant cityscape. I’m immediately struck by the sensation that this is a place conducive to producing great writing, a little serene retreat tucked away from the innate tumult of a major city.

Menary first begins by giving an overview of what her vital role entails. ‘I’m the Communications Manager, basically, that means the marketing and publicity side of things. I need to raise the profile of Faber Writing Academy, for me though, it’s not just about that, but also it’s about looking after the people that already know us and care about us which is the alumni.’

This relationship with those that have graced Faber Writing Academy extends long after they have completed their courses. ‘We keep in touch with all former students, we want to know about their successes, even if they are not ultimately published by us. We try and help as much as we can.’

One abiding practice that speaks volumes about the ethos of Faber, is that they help promote their graduates regardless of if they have been published with A&U or not, through the A&U blog and the Faber site.

Menary’s road to this prominent role with the Academy has been a long one, the provenance of which can be traced right back to Menary’s childhood where, as a child of seven or eight she already possessed a burning passion for writing and one that she largely kept hidden. ‘It was a very covert pleasure, because I didn’t get much validation at home for that, it was all about academic, getting a secure career, that sort of thing.’

Her passion for writing didn’t wither as her formative years passed and she arrived at the matriculation junction of her life, not that she undertook a creative writing course, instead opting for the more “sensible” option. Nevertheless, she continued pursuing her own writing outside the purview of her studying. ‘I did have a poetry group and literary society. But I never ever considered I would be able to have it as part of my life. Then I went and tried being an academic for a while, I did half a Ph.D. in history and a bit of academic stuff.’

This brought her to a jarring existential moment in her life, a crossroads where she questioned what the next step was. Menary understood creative writing to be her true calling, yet she didn’t fancy her prospects in earning a living from that. Undaunted, she emerged from her stint in the world of academia and secured a role that still revolved around the crafting of words – public relations. ‘I got a job in PR, which I was very good at, but I hated.’

She found herself to be restless and rapidly progressing up a corporate ladder that she didn’t even want to be on. ‘That began my serial job changing, then I went into internal communications for big corporations. I got to about thirty-three and I was very, very down about it.’

It was at this time of despair that Menary focused on her writing, commencing with penning a junior novel. ‘I started writing my first novel when I was down, that was kind of an epiphany for me.’ Menary found that she had overcome the first-novel blues, and bashed through all the inherent adversity to complete the novel in its entirety. With the finished product sparkling and yearning to be sent out to the masses, Menary didn’t wait around for the traditional way of securing a literary agent and a publisher, but instead chose to undertake the self-publishing route. She did so with the intention on making enough of a splash that those pundits occupying the lofty heights of the biz would sit up and take notice. In an era long before E-books, Menary boldly ordered a thousand copies of her novel – and sold almost every one. A Herculean accomplishment by anyone’s standards and one she attributes to her long-honed skills acquired in the PR world.

‘I made enough money to go to Frankfurt book fair. Now, that was a horrible experience, and very terrifying, but my conclusion after the end of all of this was that I had done no writing in that time, I had basically been a publisher and not a writer,’

Menary then uprooted herself from her home in merry old England, to move halfway around the world to our island continent, where writing was temporarily sidelined in lieu of focusing on another pursuit. ‘I realised it was my last chance of having a child, so I went into motherhood for that.’ As time passed and Menary’s daughter no longer required the full-time care required for a newborn, she found more freedom to return to writing and penned her next full-length work accordingly. ‘So I was at home then, I started writing an adult novel then. I managed to do it.’ With much of the manuscript under her belt and the need to return to work looming once again, Menary was adamant that she would not return to business PR. ‘So I thought “How on earth can I bring my love of writing into this?”’.

Thus began a period of job hunting, filled with chasing down contacts and utilising those that she had accumulated over the years. These efforts finally produced succulent fruit in the form of lining up an interview. Unbeknownst to Menary at the time, this would be a role with Allen and Unwin publishing house (A&U). ‘There was a job going, and I got it by the skin of my teeth, but I got the job and that’s what I have now.’

Menary found that her years spent on the other side of the desk, as a burgeoning author dedicated to getting her own work out there, has translated to an appreciation for every student that enters into the various courses Faber Writing Academy holds year round. This affinity for these folks has also shaped one of the main aspects she loves about her job – the chance to offer support to other writers.

‘When people call the Academy, I love talking to them because I know where they’ve been, I’ve been there, I know how they feel. We actually provide a lot of support, we don’t have to do that, but it’s why I like my job. I get to help other people who are like me. I like that, that gives me my buzz.’

Menary enjoys the environment in which she works in, not only being around fellow wordsmiths and overseeing their progress towards having their manuscripts polished to a publishable standard, but also how her role affords her the opportunity to constantly better her own writing.

She now reflects that it is these perks that, while not fiscally vast, are nevertheless just as rewarding, the self-same ones that she had sought throughout her forays into the world of academia and subsequent years spent in business PR. Despite having a constantly full dance card due to her huge role with Faber, Menary assures that she still manages to find slivers of time to work on her own creative writing, much of which is still through making good use of the courses that she helps organise. ‘I did the Writing A Novel course in 2014. I learned a heck of a lot there.’

Menary considers what makes Faber stand out from other such institutions that have popped up in its wake. She begins with first opining that the immense popularity of the courses the Academy offers are a direct result of their striving to provide the highest quality of said courses. Each has been carefully devised to ensure every student can get the most out of it, and when you couple this with the indisputable fact that it’s located within the beating heart of A&U’s Sydney offices, you can start to see why people flock to Faber from all over Australia and abroad.

Two of the crowning achievements that the Academy has produced thus far, is the renowned Writing A Novel courses. Divided into two separate three-month courses (Stage 1 and Stage 2) both of which are held entirely onsite and predicated on the expectation that writers are coming to the course with a manuscript, or at least the beginnings of a manuscript and then mentoring them in order to ensure it realises its true potential. This involves getting constant face-time with doyens of the industry. ‘They come in, look at the work, offer feedback and advice. We have other people coming in as guests, quite often you’re getting a literary agent or a publisher coming in, some of the courses specialise in that.’

Although the team at Faber put in their utmost with working with writers to make their manuscript the best it can possibly be, Menary wants to address a commonly-held misconception. ‘Some might come in and think all they need to do is show their work and that’ll be enough. The reality is that, you have to be good at the craft and then it’s whether or not your book suits the market at the time. That’s the bitter truth.’

That said, Menary reminds that Faber will always try to assist students in any which way it can, including helping them meet with publishers from other companies. ‘We want to see people getting published and published by credible publishers.’

She next outlines the structure of each course by sharing her own experience. ‘When I completed it, in 2014, it was a six month course, but we’ve now split it into Stage 1 and Stage 2.’ This has worked out better than the preceding course structure as it breaks up the cost, therefore one need not scrape together the entire sum to be paid in a single payment upfront, and furthermore, they have a break between courses, even allowing for someone to return and complete the Stage 2 course the year thereafter, if they so wish. In addition to making such an undertaking cost-effective, Menary believes that this break between Stage 1 and 2 is ideal in that it allows for more breathing space and a writer to develop their manuscript and work at their own pace, now with the valuable skills bestowed them.

‘Not everyone is going to be ready for the advanced stuff in Stage 2 straight away. If they’ve just written the first draft, they’d be better off coming back another year and doing the day courses about making the writing sing in between, or something like that. They’ve been learning elements of plot structure and dialogue and now we’ve given them the chance to do this in pieces, which means it’s also much more accessible.’

Menary also recommends that, prior to applying for the Writing A Novel courses, one should strongly consider completing one, or even a few, of the other smaller (usually spanning no more than a day or so) courses Faber Writing Academy provides. ‘I’ve done Getting Published, an Editing one and also Start To Write.’ That is a course best suited for those who have the writing bug, but might not yet be ready to undertake a mammoth project like a full-length novel.

In touching on the course being short and intensive to accommodate for those with limited availability, Menary explains that Faber’s courses are all carefully designed to try and work around the schedules of the normal 9-to-5ers. ‘Most of our courses are in the evenings and during weekends, because most of the people that do our courses are professionals. They are lawyers, doctors, barristers, we’ve even had a priest. Still, whatever it is they do, most have a day job and we try our best to work around that.’

Menary stresses the hands-on approach of the Faber that distinguishes it from dreary private colleges. Instead of only writing down notes, you’re expected to want to have much more of an active participation. ‘What you are required to do is listen, absorb the facts that are relevant to you and be thinking about how what you are being shown is relevant to you. You basically got someone who is very experienced, who you can quiz, who will provide you with their knowledge and you can then relate to that to your own writing, they’ll keep it very open-ended.’

This is far beyond simple jotting down points from a slideshow though. One of the most crucial aspects of Faber that sets it apart from lesser imitators, is the openness and forum-like arrangement each course is presented in. You will be able to, and expected to, contribute to the betterment of yourself and others through discussions and providing feedback. ‘There’s a lot of discussions and then there is a feedback element.’

Menary outlines what can be expected in the lead up to undertaking the course, an exciting prelude aimed to get you into the proper mindset and ready to plunge into truly realising your potential as an accomplished author. Prior to even your first day of the Stage 1 course, you’ll have a consultation with the tutor, who is none other than the award-winning author and teacher extraordinaire, Kathryn Heyman. ‘Everyone gets one-on-one time with Kathryn, so she’ll have read their work, it’ll be a private meeting.’

That said though, throughout the duration of the course, everyone will come to know each other’s work through constant exercises and the imparting of feedback, including being fearless with dissecting one’s own work to build upon the best aspects and weed out anything that’s not working. ‘A lot of looking at writers that have done a particular aspect well, be it dialogue, or plot, or setting and they’ll analyse that and combine that with exercises.’

In addition to Kathryn, who conducts the lion’s share of the teaching, there will also be a succession of guest teachers throughout the course’s duration, each of them pundits of the writing and publishing biz. This ingenious method ensures that you’re provided with a broad selection of insight and knowledge into how best to craft your manuscript into something that truly shines, leaving no literary technique or device unexplored throughout. ‘Then there will be guests coming in who will specifically be talking about certain things and Kathryn will be giving a lecture every week too.’

Beyond learning to appreciate one’s own work from a different perspective, many will also find themselves becoming a much more discerning, and undoubtedly better-equipped writer, both with the faculties and techniques of the craft as well as imbued with a new sense of confidence in sharing their writing. ‘I didn’t want to show anyone my work before the course, but that changed and I started opening up over time, so did everyone else. I mean, you don’t have to workshop your work in the class, but you’d be crazy not to.’

This new assertiveness and fresh perspective of one’s own work is crucial for those looking to take themselves, and their ever-flourishing manuscript, into the next Write Your Novel stage – that of Stage 2. One of the main events of this course entails meeting with a bona fide publisher, which is an undoubtedly daunting enterprise for any and all, but a necessary one. ‘You meet a publisher and you’re getting feedback from this publisher and continue to work with Kathryn and then, at the end of course, you can put your work into an anthology which goes out to all the literary agents and publishers.’

Menary addresses what skills are really imparted to those who complete one or both courses. More than a finer eye for grammar, or a better understanding of sentence structure, a course graduate is wholly improved as a writer. ‘It really focuses your mind, you think that you cannot hide anymore and that begins a transformation.’

She stresses that the course curriculum is not founded upon the ideal of everyone achieving the same results, nor leaving with the same checklist of skills ticked off. Instead, the onus is on everyone taking something indelibly beneficial from the course. ‘Different people start at different points, some might be more experienced when they come in than others, so long as they have the right attitude, they will leave with something truly great, a true improvement on themselves.’

Menary points out that no one should come in obdurately focused on only one particular aspect of their writing, as that might inhibit a full appreciation of what could be improved upon. ‘Come in with an open mind, don’t come in intent on focusing on one element. Stage 1 is providing the toolkit, Stage 2 is more fluid. In some weeks you’ll write more notes than other weeks. You get out as much as you put in.’

Faber prides itself on being an open and welcoming environment to any and all that might want to attend. With this in mind, they have created an initiative to try and accommodate those that are otherwise financially incapable of attending, in the form of two scholarships made available for both courses. This includes one for the Fiction writing and one for the Non-Fiction writing, and for those Melbourne-based readers among you, be aware that these scholarships outlined are also available at the Melbourne Academy too.

Menary first touches on the narrative non-fiction course, which, for the first time since its formation, will now have a scholarship available for the upcoming 2018, much of this can be attributed to the ever-increasing popularity of creative nonfiction, as by her own words – ‘There’s more non-fiction books that are published than fiction books. Real life true stories, it is easier to get published in non-fiction than it is in fiction. Blogging has opened this up, people now have this avenue to publish their take on things. Patti Miller [the teacher of the Sydney course] is Australia’s foremost life writer, and she has a record number of former students getting published.’

Another inclusion of the scholarship (introduced for the very first time in the upcoming courses) is a week-long writing residency provided by St Alban’s Writers Festival. ‘It’s beautiful, lovely place to write. Very quiet and picturesque, lots of settler and indigenous history.’

So, now that you know what Faber’s prestigious Write Your Novel courses can offer, it’s important to turn introspective for a moment and consider what you yourself can bring to the table. What traits do you possess that will make you an appealing applicant? Because distinguishing yourself is essential in order to secure a place within, be it paid or one of precious few scholarship spots available, as every year the academy is positively inundated with applicants, making it difficult for everyone to get in.

‘Firstly, having an attitude to learn – don’t come in thinking that you already know everything, because no one, no one at all, ever does. There must be a willingness and openness to learning, that’s probably the most important, above all else. It is a journey in the end, so they need to be willing to go with that.’

Be sure to apply with some solid writing, an intriguing bit of your work that has been polished to a fine sheen and really showcases your abilities and promise as a writer. Related to the crafting of stories, Menary lastly covers what type the team at Faber look for. ‘We do tend to look for literary fiction, but, that said, good writing is good writing. I think we tend to get people who love words and they want to craft them well, so there is that element where it’s not just about the plot.’

Whatever the case, what has been definitively established is that the Faber Writing Academy is the ideal next step for those serious about writing, thanks to the tireless efforts of Sarah and her contemporaries.

Thus, check out the site for all the details:

http://faberwritingacademy.com.au/

And get submitting soon!

Also, stay tuned for further spotlights on Faber Writing Academy’s best and brightest!

About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor

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