Mitch Jennings had always harboured ambitions to write a novel, but he says that working fulltime as a journalist meant that writing at home after work wasn’t very appealing because he had already been writing all day. He knew that he needed structure and accountability, so he enrolled in Novel Writing Essentials at the Australian Writers' Centre.
“Sometimes the hardest part is getting started and I knew this course would get me to do that,” Mitch says. “Any process designed to get you 20,000 words into a manuscript is worth doing. The course, more than anything else, gave me something to run with.”
And Mitch is most certainly up and running, with his debut novel A Town Called Treachery to be published by HarperCollins in mid-2024.
“When I was told by the brilliant publisher Roberta Ivers that HarperCollins will be publishing my novel, the feeling was pure, unmitigated elation. I'd always hoped, dreamed, imagined it would happen, but it was only in that moment I let myself realise it was what I'd wanted more than anything else in the world.”
Rediscovering the love of writing
When he started his career as a journalist, Mitch also studied creative writing at university and wrote a manuscript. But the constant writing and editing required from his day job left him with little desire to work on his fiction once his degree was finished.
“That study program proved the genesis of my first novel manuscript, one I later dispensed with and chalked up to experience. I always planned to start work on a fresh manuscript but never quite found the time or motivation, which was just an excuse. Deep down I always knew if you have the latter, you'll always find the former.”
That’s why he was drawn to the Novel Writing Essentials course. It offers the accountability of a course structure, the mentorship of a tutor and the process of both providing and receiving feedback from like-minded types – but in a shorter, more condensed form than a degree.
“The wisdom and warm guidance of [my tutor] Angela Slatter was invaluable, as was the feedback of classmates, but I think people really underestimate how beneficial the process of providing feedback to others is for your own work. Training that constructively critical eye is as important as anything else, and working through a program that allows you to do that was more valuable than I had anticipated.”
Mitche’s debut novel is A Town Called Treachery, a crime novel set in a small town on the NSW North Coast.
“An inquisitive 11-year-old boy and a disinterested local journo prove the unlikeliest of detective duos when a brutal murder shocks the town and reopens old wounds. A murder mystery drives the narrative, but it's a coming-of-age story at heart with some very unconventional heroes and alliances,” Mitch explains.
He had originally been drawn to literary fiction, but discovered a love of crime audiobooks as he went on long walks. The crime fiction struck a new creative nerve and so began the idea for A Town Called Treachery.
“It evolved into a crime novel, but I initially set out to explore familial bonds, particularly the father-son variety, and the inevitable loss of innocence that comes with growing up,” Mitch told us. “Crime fiction has always held such perennial appeal for readers, but it's such an exciting genre to work in as a new writer because it can be taken in so many different and interesting directions and explore such complex themes.”
After completing Novel Writing Essentials, Mitch worked with a mentor, author Malcolm Knox, to finish his manuscript before sending it off to agents. While none of them picked up his manuscript, he got some positive feedback, so decided to turn to unpublished novel prizes.
“I had a good feeling about the HarperCollins Banjo Prize. Looking at the previous winners and their books (I loved The Torrent by Dinuka McKenzie), I really thought it was a good fit for my manuscript. I submitted and didn't think a whole lot more of it, though the date on which shortlisted writers would be contacted – September 5, 2022 – stayed plastered on my brain. I still somehow missed the call from Catherine Milne at HarperCollins to tell me I'd been shortlisted for the award. It's a tad embarrassing, but I still have her voicemail on my phone more than a year later so I don't forget the feeling I got that day,” Mitch told us. “Win or lose, it was the ultimate feeling of validation. It was a stellar list, with Steph Vizard winning with The Love Contract that was published in August. It was Roberta Ivers who called me to let me know I hadn't won, and it turned into an hour-long chat about how much she loved my manuscript and wanted to publish it. There was a lot of hard work that followed through the editing and acquisitions process, but her enthusiasm, guidance and belief in me and the manuscript have been unwavering ever since that phone call.”
With his first publishing deal secured, Mitch says the impact of Novel Writing Essentials on his writing was ‘monumental.’
“I've always leant pretty hard on [author] Neil Gaiman's analogy equating your writing dreams to a mountain in the distance. You can't see a direct path to the top, but you'll always know if you're moving closer to it, or drifting further away. There's no real linear path to becoming an author and it can seem like a lonely pipe dream. There's nothing wrong with dreaming but, if you want it to be more than that, I think you have to start treating it more like an ambition and do things that make it real. I think enrolling in any course offered by AWC is a step closer to the mountain.”
Courses completed at AWC:
Novel Writing Essentials