Author James Phelan teaches the next generation of writers

Swinburne alumni and author James Phelan

Swinburne alumni James Phelan backed himself and took a year out to write his first novel in 2001. Now a full-time author, he writes a thriller and young adult novel each year, and in 2016 has returned after 10 years to teach first year fiction at Swinburne.

“I completed a Master of Arts in Writing through Swinburne in 2005. The beauty was that it was online, which allowed me to finish my novel, while working full-time as a staff writer at The Age. Towards the end of my masters I put together a proposal for a non-fiction book involving a series of author interviews. I sent it out to John Wiley & Sons and was an overnight success – four years in the making.

I soon had fiction publishers fighting for me and signed a two-book deal with Hachette, and left The Age just before my first novel came out. This was 2006, coinciding with undertaking my PhD, which I undertook part-time.

My supervisor was Josie Arnold and she always challenged me and pushed me to learn. To become a good writer, aside from reading widely and practising your craft, you need to broaden your knowledge and practice – Josie did that for me.

I undertook my masters and PhD for my own professional development, while at the same time being aware the qualifications had cache with publishers and agents.

"My advice to young writers is to interrogate your text. Is the story good? Can it be better? How can it be improved? Keep interrogating."

I now teach first year fiction at Swinburne. To be good at writing long-form narrative is a skill. You can develop it and make a good writer a better writer, but canonical greatness is almost unobtainable. To be at that level, like a Hemingway or Shakespeare, you need to break the mould. Your voice needs to be unique and hit upon something that becomes everlasting. It’s vital that new writers are aware of what’s come before them: books are born of books.

If I think of voices in my life-time, like Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel García Márquez, they are so rare. They each leave something on the page so utterly unique and everlasting.

My novels are commercial fiction. While that’s always been the mainstay of literature, I’m very aware my work has a shelf life – it’s something written in the here-and-now, but I hope it will have a life at least in my lifetime.

My advice to young writers is to interrogate your text. Is the story good? Can it be better? How can it be improved? Keep interrogating. Never stop. Question all of your choices. This process becomes innate the more you practice. Every scene, page, paragraph, needs to ask ‘Why is it happening? Does it make sense for my characters?’. Your characters have to have plausible motivation at every turn.

The bulk of the best writers today are working in television. Not only is it paying well (money attracts talent), it is an interesting time to be in that medium for all the commercial reasons that has forced change upon that mode of content delivery. People in TV today have opportunities to experiment with the form. Traditional publishing will be next.

With any university education, what you’re prepared to put in is what you will get out of it.”