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Rob McDonald and Toni Jordan: Writing Your Way Up

Mentors play an invaluable role for many emerging writers, a source of inspiration, accountability, and much-needed emotional support.

Here, emerging novelist whose unpublished manuscript, The Nancys, was highly commended in the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, Rob McDonald, and award-winning novelist whose books include the international bestseller Addition and Our Tiny, Useless Hearts, Toni Jordan, discuss the writing of Rob’s first novel as he completed the Faber Writing Academy’s Writing a Novel course.

What are the challenges of writing a story for adults which has a child protagonist?

Rob: When I came into the course I knew my narrator was a child but at that time I was unsure of their age. I remember starting off at nine years and the class not buying it, saying she sounded older. My daughter was this age and I thought she sounded similar, but I took on the advice and was pleased I did as it allowed me a greater vocabulary range by going slightly older.

Toni: Tippy, Rob’s 11-year-old narrator, is describing everything that happens honestly and accurately but there is so much she just doesn’t understand. Readers understand, though. In this way, The Nancys reminds me of The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion’s wonderful debut, where Don Tillman isn’t lying but doesn’t quite grasp the implications behind the events. In terms of crime fiction, Shane Maloney’s iconic Murray Whelan series of novels is another great example of clever writers making space for readers in the story. Shane allows the reader to know more than Murray – it’s just genius. I love unreliable narrators of all kinds but this type of intelligent ‘reliable’ unreliable narrator is a terrific thing. I fell in love with Tippy the first time I read an extract of The Nancys and it was a treat to watch her develop as a character.

What advice would you give other emerging authors writing humour?

Rob: I did not set out to write a humorous book but rather just followed the characters. It has been a lot of fun to write and to follow them where they’ve taken me. I think with humour there has to be a counter balance between comedy and tragedy. The narrator’s father had died nine months before so there was this deep sadness and almost numbness and part of her babysitters’ goofing around was to help her process that grief.

Toni: I agree with Rob – there needs to be a balance between comedy and tragedy in funny novels. I think that the idea of contrast in general is very important in long-form fiction. Any single register – comedy, tragedy, suspense, horror – becomes monotonous after a while, regardless of how well it’s done.

Some very funny writers actually work hard to develop their humour but I never had the sense that Rob was straining to find such a hilarious voice. I agree with him, also, that the humour should come from the characters. I don’t think I’m a very funny person myself. The humour in my work comes from seeing the world through the characters’ eyes. For emerging writers interested in writing humour, I always recommend reading as many funny novels as they can because things like timing and pace are best when absorbed naturally. This is, of course, a matter of personal taste but for me, Nick Earl’s Zigzag Street is laugh-out-loud funny. I love Douglas Adams (Dirk Gently rather than Hitchhiker’s) also; he’s more gently amusing. Ryan O’Neill’s magnificent Their Brilliant Careers is the funniest thing I’ve read in ages. My gold standard for humour is Molière – in my view, the funniest writer who ever lived.

Rob, you’ve said elsewhere that your writing tutors talked you ‘off the ledge’. Tell us more!

Rob: Toni and Paddy were there when I needed them and encouraged me to continue with writing. Doing the 2016 Faber Writing Academy Writing a Novel – Stage 1 course, was the first time I had prioritised my writing. Before then work, family and professional study had taken my time. So much so that for the first six months I had to come to terms with even identifying as a writer. During the break before Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel – Stage 2 course, things got pretty hectic in other areas of my life, to the point that I decided I’d have to pull out of the course and give writing away again.

Toni and Paddy’s advice, which I am so incredibly grateful for, was to stick with it, that if I didn’t do it now I might never come back to it. They were right. As soon as I committed to it the other areas in my life fell into place and became more manageable. Writing found a place and now I can’t imagine being without it. During the past year life has thrown all kinds of things at me, sometimes I think it hides around a corner waiting until I have a rewrite before springing out with some ridiculous challenge, but for me now it has flipped – not writing is now no longer an option.

Toni: The ability to talk a writer ‘off the ledge’ is an essential skill for a fiction teacher! Writing your first novel is incredibly difficult, partly because you are trying to figure out how to do something while at the same time trying to do it really well. Having the right amount of self-confidence is a struggle for many writers, both published and emerging. In my experience, too much confidence leads to shoddy work because there’s no drive for improvement. Too little confidence can lead to no work at all. When it comes to supporting a student through a crisis of confidence, I first try to listen to their words, then I try to find the subtext beneath their words. Sometimes (and this, I think, was the case for Rob) they need to hear someone say, ‘I believe in your work, and this is why.’

For more information on Faber Writing Academy, go here.