It is just over two years since I took a deep breath and pressed 'send' on my online application for the novel-writing course at Faber Academy. And now - as I write this - I have a book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, just published by Transworld as part of a two-book deal. I have 29 other publishers all over the world. I have an agent who is rated as one of the best. And I have a small group of friends on whom I can rely when I need to talk about how head-splitting it sometimes feels.
Before choosing the course, I had made several attempts to write a novel. None of them came to anything. This time, I decided, I would do it. I would travel to London once a week. I would do the exercises. I would begin to write and show my work to strangers. I am quite an outside person and the idea of being in a group scared me - but I felt it was time to go beyond the place where I am naturally comfortable. I was shaking so much on my first day I could barely speak.
Even though I have been writing for radio for many years, I felt it was important to be humble about what I had already learnt. And sometimes - even if you think you know about something - it is important to go back to school with it. More than anything, the course helped me firm up my resolve to write the book. It helped me understand things I had instinctively known for a while perhaps but had never actively sat down and found the words for. I am not sure I believe there are definite rules for writing but I do believe there are clues and pointers to help you. And the moment we stop being open to new things is probably the day we should put down our pens.
Nevertheless there were things I found hard. Even though I am used to showing my work to others, I am used to doing it when I am ready. I found the opinions of 15 people about my precious words very hard to swallow but that is part of the process. And really you only learn when you truly open yourself up.
Writing is a lonely process. I have been doing it for years and I am pretty comfortable with that. But when you are doing something for the first time and when it is as big as a novel - something that will rage through you like a wild beast so that everywhere you go you feel you are still a little at least somewhere else - and when it is something that will swallow up weeks months, maybe years of your life - you sometimes need to say to someone else, "Am I mad? Will I finish? Is there any point?" The truth is only you know the answers to these questions, but to voice them sometimes in the safety of a group who feel exactly the same as you is an enormous comfort. It can keep you going that little bit longer.
On finishing the 'Writing A Novel' course, I did exactly what I had promised myself I would do. I wrote. Blindly, compulsively, sometimes happily, often miserably - but I did it. There were people on the course I could ring - sometimes we met - but a support network was in place. Nobody else is going to write a book for you, and in the end it is your choice whether or not you finish, but for me, doing the course was an essential part of the process.
Rachel Joyce's debut novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was published on 15 March 2012, and at the time of this feature going to press, had reached Number 6 on the Sunday Times Fiction Bestseller list. You can buy a copy here through Amazon, or from your preferred bookseller.
Faber Academy is now taking applications for the October 2012 Writing A Novel course - find more details and apply online here.