Dr. Gina Newton was one of the few writers selected for Bryce Courtenay’s last-ever masterclass. From initially nervous participants, the class produced better, wiser, more-driven writers. Rather than keep the experience to herself, Gina’s has given us, and our readers a taste of the experiences she had. An excerpt of this piece can be found in the upcoming November ACTWrite.
21 to 25 September, 2012. Five surreal days – of learning, of bonding, of primal storytelling magic! That was the Bryce Courtenay Last Writing Master Class experience for 22 fortunate participants, including me.
Two days earlier I was driving to work when I heard Bryce being interviewed on Canberra radio. I was saddened to learn that at 79 he had terminal stomach cancer, with only months to live. (Bryce’s first book, The Power of One, had a profound impact on me). Bryce told listeners of his wish to have a final Master Class, to pass his knowledge and experience one last time onto the next generations of storytellers. Bryce believes that storytelling is an art that is vital to a healthy society – “Without storytellers the world collapses, nothing happens.” But, it is an art that is currently under threat (e.g. the recent canning of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Prize). Bryce also said that a space had become available on the sold-out Last Master Class and encouraged people to apply by email.
As soon as I got to work that is what I did. On receiving the application form and explanatory material I started to doubt my worthiness to attend. Although the author of a published children’s picture book, I did not have a well progressed manuscript for a novel. I applied anyway – this was too good an opportunity to pass up. Indeed it was the opportunity of a lifetime for any aspiring author. To my great surprise and delight I was accepted. Two days later I was in the zone, ensconced in a spacious room in the National Library with the other trepidacious participants. Not only were we there to learn from Bryce, we had also agreed to be filmed. Bryce had a DVD made of the Last Master Class by renowned film-maker Kyle O’Donoghue, of Four Corners Media. Kyle travelled from Norway to undertake this unique and poignant task. Bryce’s wife, Christine, his good friend Duncan, and technician Adam, made sure that we were comfortable and that everything ran smoothly during this momentous occasion.
Day One – The Journey Begins
From his first words Bryce had us captivated. Despite his grave illness he was a man of energy and passion – a man of conviction. His inspirational and motivational style captured us immediately, and was with us the whole way. Not only was he Master storyteller, he was Writing Teacher, Mentor, Coach, Entertainer, and Father-figure. He was also an unassuming Man of such generosity of spirit and high integrity that one felt truly honoured to be a part of this shared experience – even those of us who had met him for the first time, despite reading many of his 21 books (written in 23 years from the age of 55 no less!). Over the five days Bryce’s illness occasionally took its toll, however he determinedly made the experience unforgettable and profound. We were well on our way to writing and publishing commercial fiction.
From Day One we wrote new material and learnt the imperative of letting go of superfluous descriptive narrative – writing briefer, simpler and better. We were guided how to capture a reader from the first page – to hook them in. The reader being, in Bryce’s words, the 4th Protagonist. For Bryce, that means, in general, a 35 to 55 year old woman with kids, work, mortgage, etc., who reads a chapter or two before she goes to sleep at night and wonders what will happen next in the story. For us, the 4th Protagonist may be a different demographic – depending on our preferred genre of fiction, for example young-adult, fantasy, historical fiction, chic-lit, crime, etc. Bryce told us to get the visual atmosphere right and to use the ‘Thinking Well’ (one’s special place or retreat) and see the story in your head to help you write. Above all, the story is about providing entertainment to the reader.
Days Two to Five – The Writing Ride of our Lives
From then on we were on a roller-coaster ride of wisdom, surprises, treats, hard work, and emotions (including several tears shed by all at various times). Time seemed to stand still in that National Library conference room. On the other hand it was over way too fast. And when it was, none of us wanted it to end.
Bryce hit home to us that for commercial fiction “character is plot” – what the character says and does will decide where the action goes. We need to care about our characters, as the 4th Protagonist will care for or alternatively hate them. He highlighted that we need to know a character’s POV (point of view) and be consistent about this. Bryce also stressed that the most important word in a writer’s vocabulary is ‘why?’. We write what we know – so we need to have lived and experienced things. Alternatively, we can research what we don’t know (hence the ‘why?’). Bryce told us that he spent about seven months writing a book (10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week), with the intervening 5 months dedicated to evolving his characters and undertaking research.
To start our major piece of writing for the Last Master Class, we undertook a ‘What if’ exercise. Around a suggested theme, we had to come up with a ‘proposition’ for our story consisting of 26 words or less and starting with ‘What if….’. In doing this exercise we were reminded by Bryce “Don’t tell me. Show me.” Then we had to come up with nine more propositions. We were told to focus on the one that was the most outlandish or unlikely – as that is the one that usually makes for the best story. Hearing the different propositions from the workshop participants was amazing – so much variety and creativity. Over the next couple of days, these would bloom into the first two pages of our manuscript. The elements in the storyline of the first couple of pages should include introducing your major characters into the time and place, and hint at or create crisis or misadventure that makes the 4th Protagonist interested in wanting to know more. Bryce recommends that one of the best ways to help achieve this is to turn your text into dialogue where possible.
Bryce also shared two insightful diagrams to assist our storytelling:
- The ‘Story Boat’ starts with ‘inspirational’ rain over mountains that drain down into a winding river – the ‘narrative stream’, which creates continuity and excitement. Our job is to keep the Story Boat in the fastest flowing part of the stream – that maintains the tension in the story. If we get side-tracked we wander off to the ‘dreaded marshes’ at the side of the stream, and out story loses tension.
- The ‘Saw Tooth’ (like a typical saw lying on its side) shows how the tension line keeps rising until the satisfying climax at the end of the book. Each ‘tooth’ is a chapter (a story in itself) with a beginning, middle and end, and which peaks with a ‘relevant surprise’ or ‘wow factor’.
The third and fourth day of our course brought a wonderful bonus. We had the pleasure of having Fiona McIntosh teaching with Bryce. Twelve years earlier, Fiona was where we were, doing a Bryce Courtenay Master Class. She has since written and published 25 books across several genre (fantasy, childrens, crime, historical) and is now one of Australia’s leading authors. Fiona writes two books per year. She advocates being disciplined and “Just do it!” She showed us that in order for us to achieve a manuscript of around 120, 000 words in a year, we needed to write some 625 words per day for four days per week. A schedule that should be achievable, particularly if we commit and practice Bryce’s ‘Bum Glue’!
Both Fiona and Bryce stressed the need to find a rhythm in our writing – which requires both a disciplined routine and an appropriate set-up to write in. Unlike Bryce, who ‘vacuums’ yesterday’s text before he starts writing each day, Fiona suggested not to look back, just keep writing ahead. Bryce thought that was a great approach, and one that would have saved him a lot of time over the years. But sadly he won’t be able to put it into practice. His last book ‘Jack of Diamonds’ comes out in November 2012.
Like Bryce, Fiona believes that character is plot and she is not a planner or plotter. Rather she writes in free fall. Your story basically revolves around three questions – ‘Who wants something? What do they want? and Who is standing in their way? (i.e. know your conflict). Characters wi
ll give you the whole architecture for your story. Both Bryce and Fiona agree that it’s best to never know your ending – rather it should be a delicious surprise or reward. Bryce actually interviewed his characters before he started writing to help to get to know them. Both authors advocate that ‘Story is King’ and that we should aim for ‘Showing not Telling’. Bryce quoted his grandfather who said that “A good story should have a belly full of laughs and a bucket full of tears.” Both these successful authors stressed the essential ingredient of a good ‘Editor’ in the writing and publishing process.
Highlights and Gifts
A professional highlight of the Last Master Class was having both Bryce and Fiona critique our two page manuscripts after we read them out to the group. Their feedback was invaluable,
as were the many and varied lessons we learnt from the readings of other class participants. Other highlights included hearing from distinguished publisher, Julie Gibbs of Penguin Australia, Justine Molony a Senior Publishing Editor (Justine also gave us editing feedback on our two page manuscripts), and Jacquelyn Richards an acclaimed Choreographer (who showed us the magic of blending movement and text).
The best highlight, however, was Bryce bringing along the original typed manuscript of the Power of One (originally titled The Tadpole Angel) and reading for us the first two pages – his first time in twenty years. The Editor had not changed much at all! Bryce also told us of his love for sunflowers and how he believes they bring people and communities together through conversation. He has already given away 20,000 plants and gave us each one as a parting gift – with the proviso that we keep the legacy going. Finally, an unexpected gift we received from the Last Master Class was each other. An instant writing ‘family’, bonded by our shared experience of revealing our vulnerable writer selves, and from our unique and emotional final journey with a true Master storyteller, Dr Bryce Courtenay*.
* Bryce was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Canberra for his outstanding contribution to writing having published 21 novels, and for his contribution to community projects, and humanitarian causes
By: Dr Gina M Newton