100 untimed books: friends are so cute

9. friends are so cute
9. friends are so cute

‘Cute’ is not a word that I use. Ever. At least, not since I was about six and was reproved for bringing it home from school, having picked it up from one of my friends.

This was my favourite book at that time, and I went on liking dolls and dolls’ houses for quite a long time after that. It’s always irritated me that dolls are seen as ‘creepy’ while other, less gendered or differently gendered, toys are not. The one in the picture is my first doll; she’s called Katie.

100 untimed books

Unlikely writing techniques 7: find an encouraging writing group

This is rank heresy in the church of People Who Tell You How To Write. The doctrine, as I learned it, went something like this:

Seek only criticism. If you seek encouragement, you will find only people who tell you what you want to hear. That way lies egotism, laziness and dreadful writing.

There are two reasons for ignoring this, or, at least, taking it with a giant pinch of salt.

Firstly, a lot of self-appointed critics of other people’s writing are… not very good at it. They tend to have subscribed to a rigid interpretation of supposed ‘rules’ for good writing, many of which they don’t even know how to apply properly, and the results are ridiculous.

This is what Ann Leckie says about rules:

Weigh writing advice carefully. Anything presented as a rule is not a rule. At best it’s general advice presented as a rule. At best. Half the time it’s bad advice to begin with. But always consider advice. Consider it seriously, and if you find it won’t work for the project at hand, put it aside.

Secondly, accentuating the negative is depressing. In every piece of writing there will be good things and there will be things that could do with some more work. This applies all the way from My Immortal (and I’m linking to the TVTropes entry there because it always cheers me up; very funny, very NSFW, also don’t blame me if you lose the rest of the day, you’re welcome) to War and Peace. Most writers know that their writing needs work. Some find it easy to work out what particular work it needs, and how to do it. Some don’t. Either way, random people on the internet (or, for that matter, random people in the library; this applies to offline writing groups too) aren’t necessarily the best source of advice. (See reason one, above.) And once someone has had a piece of writing ripped apart by enough people they’re much less likely to show it to anybody at all. And that way lies sticking it up unedited, and nobody wants that.

I am a member of an online writing group, and it is one of the most supportive, encouraging communities that I’ve ever been part of. People are delighted when you’ve had a good day’s writing and can report a wordcount of 2000. They commiserate when you’ve had a bad day, and written three words, or nothing, or have spent the entire day down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and aren’t even sure you can call it ‘research’. Nobody tells you that Jane Austen wrote with all her family bouncing off the walls so why can’t you. They will find something nice to say about whatever you post. And even a supportive comment can make you realise that something isn’t working. ‘You’ve really nailed the fifties atmosphere,’ for example, when the story’s set in the present day. No, sharing writing with this group doesn’t make me lazy. It makes me want to come back, and to come back with something more positive to report.

Later – much later, when I’ve got a story that’s as close to perfect as I can get it unaided – I bring out the big guns. I email the people I know I can trust to tell me what needs doing and where, and I promise them a bottle of gin apiece, and tell them to do their worst. But the cheerful, uncomplicated support of my online group in the early stages of a project is invaluable in getting the thing off the ground.


Talk of the Town


University survival kit

'it is also shiny, which is always good!'
‘It is also shiny, which is always good!’

My mother used, whenever one of my cousins (and I have a lot of cousins) turned eighteen with the intention of going to university, to buy them an electric kettle as a birthday present. We, the children, would get mugs to go with it. The result was a gift that was both symbolic and practical.

When I turned eighteen, one of my cousins returned the favour and gave me the purple box in the picture above. It contained:

  1. a mug, and two teabags
  2. a packet of instant soup
  3. a tin of baked beans
  4. a jar of Marmite
  5. a tin opener
  6. a potato peeler
  7. two tea-towels
  8. a bar of chocolate

It also contained two pages of (hilarious) instructions on the use of the above items, which has allowed me to reconstruct the contents at over a decade’s distance, and concluded:

9. The box. This will be useful for keeping things in. During your years at university you will come across many things that cannot be defined or categorised. Put these things in the box, to avoid having to define or categories them. It is also shiny, which is always good!

The contents have gone the way of all flesh – actually, the tin opener might still be knocking around – but the instructions and the box itself survive.

The things that I have apparently been unable to define or categorise, as evidenced by their inclusion in the box, are:

    1. my last pair of glasses
    2. a previous pair of glasses
    3. six fabric floral corsages
    4. a luggage label in the shape of a cat’s face
    5. two CDs of wedding photographs
    6. an enamel rose-shaped brooch
    7. a monocle
    8. one of those fancy plastic combs that’s meant to make it easier to do a French pleat, now completely useless to me
    9. an elastic band with a sequinned flower on it, which I suppose I could use as a bracelet these days
    10. seven bottles of nail varnish
    11. a pillbox full of glass-headed pins
    12. more safety pins than I can be bothered to count
    13. two small scallop shells
    14. a pair of nail clippers
    15. a quantity of small change in euros
    16. a toy car
    17. a badge saying ‘Altos prefer it underneath’
    18. a magnetic bookmark with my name on it, telling me that I’m ‘A female tower of strength’
    19. a brooch made of buttons and wire
    20. a cross and a fish made of clay, which date from the Methodist and Anglican Society Welcome Week event 2005, at a guess
    21. a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary, provenance unknown.

Gosh. That was illuminating. And it saves me from making a cheap point about how the only thing I found that I was unable to define or categorise was myself, which I would otherwise be tempted to do.

No, my cousin attended to my practical needs. My aunt on the other side of the family, meanwhile, presented me with a stack of useful books and newspaper supplements. They included, as I recall, The Bluffer’s Guide to University, the Cambridge University Student Union guide to pretty much everything (my cousin – I have, as I’ve mentioned, a lot of cousins – was an elected rep of some sort), and several years’ worth of the ‘how to survive at university’ insert the Sunday Times produces annually. To this I added Gaudy Night and Dear Bob, which I think I must have received the previous Christmas, and which was an amusing, if incomplete, guide to being Christian at university.

Armed with all that, I did reasonably well, academically and socially, at university, and mostly enjoyed myself hugely. But the book I was missing was the one that said ‘there’s more than one way to be Christian, and that’s not incompatible with not being straight…’

So I wrote it. I’d love to think that it’ll make it into someone else’s university survival kit one day.

Unlikely writing techniques 6: leave it hanging

This happens for me automatically: I quite often run out of writing time before I get to the end of the scene I’m writing. I can’t, obviously, sit on the train and finish it off, or I’d end up being taken straight home again, so I have to stop. Mid-sentence, sometimes.

Also, sometimes I run out of steam at or around Finsbury Park, so I shut the notebook and look to see whether there’s an update from Lady B-, the Comfortable Courtesan as was.

On the train home, I often find that the morning’s part, which I’d thought would only take a paragraph or so to wrap up, wants to run on and on into the next scene. Or a different part of the book entirely. I’m not fussy.


Mapping Barchester

Strelsau, recreated from textual evidence in ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’, ‘Rupert of Hentzau’ and ‘The Heart of Princess Osra’

I’ve always had a thing for fictional countries. Ruritania, Evallonia, Syldavia, you name it. Gondal, Gaaldine and Angria. Slavonia. (Points if you can name the works they appear in.)

More recently – fine, over the last fifteen years – my focus has narrowed and I’ve become interested in fictional cathedral cities. Fictional English cathedral cities. I’m not aware of examples from outside my own country, but I may not have been paying attention.

There seem to be two main ways to create one.

You can rename an existing city and all its environs, as Susan Howatch does to make Salisbury into Starbridge. Or, to take a more extreme example, you can rename everything in an entire region, as Thomas Hardy does. Even Oxford – sorry, Christminster – isn’t safe.

Or you can be a little bit fuzzy about geography. You can imply that you’re referring to a real city –

The Rev. Septimus Harding was, a few years since, a beneficed clergyman residing in the cathedral town of ––––; let us call it Barchester. Were we to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford, or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. Let us presume that Barchester is a quiet town in the West of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments than for any commercial prosperity; that the west end of Barchester is the cathedral close, and that the aristocracy of Barchester are the bishop, dean, and canons, with their respective wives and daughters.

The Warden, Anthony Trollope

– or you can swear that you’re not . You can stretch the map and squeeze in an extra county or two:

The diocese of Lindchester is not large, squashed as it is between Lichfield to the south and Chester to the north; so don’t worry, we will not be travelling far.

Acts and Omissions, Catherine Fox

(Incidentally, I’m convinced that this is the only possible way to fit Ruritania in where Anthony Hope puts it: between Germany and Bohemia. Most adaptations make it far too small and far too far east. Roll up that map of Europe: this is fiction.)

My own approach is somewhere between the two. I plonked Stancester down on top of a real town (Ilchester – the crossroads is a dead giveaway if you look at a map of Roman Britain, though I appear to have drawn the below map of Stancester before visiting Ilchester and writing the chapter headings that deal with its history). The geography is plausible, but the rest is pretty much all made up. I suppose I think of it as a slightly alternate universe, where the railway went through there instead of through Yeovil, though I still haven’t worked out what that means for the Great Western line. I may have inadvertently erased Wells in the process. I didn’t mean to, but I’m not sure it’s plausible to have two cathedrals of such antiquity so close to each other.

Stancester: the map I worked from, though it probably didn’t end up being entirely accurate

Or, of course, you can borrow somebody else’s, as Angela Thirkell did.

Or not put any thought into the matter at all, supplying no identifying detail. Kate Lace, I’m looking at you. And your Westhampton. Look, I know The Chalet Girl is filed under ‘romance’ or ‘chicklit’, but if you’re going to do Barchester you might put a little effort in. And do some research, and by ‘do some research’ I mean ‘not sending your Bible-bashing eco-warrior fundie bishop to a fundraising event wearing a “soutane”.’ I’m comparatively High Church – I once went to Sainsbury’s wearing a cassock – and I had to Google ‘soutane’. Turns out it’s a cassock.

Sorry, rant over.

For some reason there’s a lot more going on in the south and west than there is in the north and east, and if one assumed these cities all existed in the same universe England would have to reach further out into the Channel than it currently does. The Archbishop of Canterbury* (even Thomas Hardy didn’t overwrite Canterbury, so far as I know) has far more fictional dioceses to look after than does the Archbishop of York**. ‘Write what you know.’ Or, rather, ‘overwrite what you know’.

But where are they really? They’re not anywhere really, because this is fiction. Even if they started out being based on somewhere ‘real’, they become very different in their passage through the author’s head. Even if they keep the original name – Morse’s Oxford, for example – they remain a portrait of a city of thousands of souls as seen through a single pair of eyes.

And authors get things wrong, and so do readers. A recent reviewer thought that Speak Its Name had a very convincing Oxford atmosphere. I fear that Oxford would disagree. In fact, the point of Stancester is rather that it isn’t Oxford. Of current British students, only an extremely bitter Cambridge one would mistake Stancester for Oxford, and even they would only be pretending.

Besides, if I’d meant to write about Oxford, I’d have called it Christminster. Or would I? Never mind. The lovely thing about fictional places is that they aren’t real. You can write them any way you like, and write anything you like about them. Just make sure you get your soutane straight.


*Barchester; Christminster (plus everywhere else in Wessex); Starbridge; Westhampton (I would guess, unless maybe it’s meant to be somewhere in the Midlands?); Stancester, sorry…

** Lindchester… er, that’s it.


Talk of the Town


Unlikely writing techniques 5: write whatever the hell you like

This is not exactly a new idea. I have heard it expressed thus:

Write drunk. Edit sober.

Google tells me that Hemingway didn’t say that. I don’t write drunk myself, because if I’m drunk I’m either in company or about to fall asleep. None the less, it points towards a helpful concept.

Or – which perhaps gets closer to the point that Hemingway might have been trying to make, assuming he’d said anything like, Write drunk, edit sober:

Begin by putting in everything you like. Finish by taking out everything you can.

I don’t know who said that, but I owe them a lot. Do you know? Google’s no help at all; it’s just sending me to sanctimonious anti-procrastination blogs.

Here are some important principles:

  1. Nothing is going to be perfect on a first attempt.
  2. If something is not fun, people are less likely to do it.
  3. There is nothing wrong with making it fun.

There is a lot of suspicion about this kind of thinking. Received wisdom says If It’s Not Difficult, It’s Not Worthwhile, and No Pain, No Gain, and other upright, joyless maxims.

To all of which I say, well, maybe. But I feel very strongly that the reverse does not hold true. The fact that a writer made themselves absolutely miserable during the writing process does not automatically make the finished project readable. In fact, it makes it very likely that there will never be a finished project.

What writing whatever the hell you like looks like will vary. Here are some examples.

Skipping the difficult bits

I’ll say more about this another day, because I suspect it’s of limited application, but I am living proof that there are more ways to approach writing than –

Begin at the beginning, and go on until you get to the end, and then stop.

If what’s in my head at the moment is the climactic battle scene, then I write the climactic battle scene and trust that the rest will follow. Personally, I find it very useful to have something to aim at.

You might not want to skip straight to the climactic battle scene, but if you’re having trouble working out how your antagonists meet in the first place, it’s worth beginning with the very vivid picture that you’ve had in your head for weeks, with one of them hiding up a tree and the other eating a picnic underneath it. Or whatever it is.

But really, when the entire internet is banging on about how important it is to nail the first line, is it surprising that many writers never get to the second line? Skip the first line. It’ll come in its own good time.

Writing ‘unpopular’ themes

Anyone who’s interested in being published conventionally by somebody else should probably skip this section, because I’m writing this from a place where I don’t give a damn about pleasing anybody else, and I’ve never worked out how to please a publisher.

Nobody this side of the Pond wants to publish a book about an evangelical Christian lesbian at university, with bonus internecine student politics. But I wanted to write it, and it turned out that a fair few other people wanted to read it. And it may sound like a statement of the obvious, but if I hadn’t been writing what I wanted, I doubt I’d have been able to finish it.

If all of us stuck to writing what publishers thought would sell, fiction would be very pale, male and stale. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag exists for a reason, and if you have more patience than me and are prepared to persuade a  mainstream publisher to pick up a story that looks a bit different from everything else on the shelves then I wish you the very best of luck.

And, not to seem too serious, if you want to write about Romans when conventional wisdom says it’s going to be Vikings for the next five years, then go with the Romans.

Writing ‘unnecessary’ things

I also put in all sorts of self-indulgent in-jokes, trying-too-hard symbolism, author filibusters, and mots d’escalier, because it amuses me to do so. Sometimes ‘what I’d have said to Mrs Smith about my missing homework if only I’d thought of it in time’ becomes a piece of sparkling dialogue. Once, writing under a different name, I gave the heroine a Cousin Teresa in a nod to the Saki story, and Cousin Teresa ended up a very important character. There’s a bit in Speak Its Name that got there purely because I’d been dealing with too many standing orders committees and wanted to relieve my feelings by writing a truly incompetent motion.

Sometimes… Well, that’s where we get to:

The second half

You will have noticed that I’ve talked a lot about the ‘putting in’, the ‘drunk writing’, and not much about the ‘sober editing’, the ‘taking out’. That’s partly because you may end up taking out less than you expect of what you put in when you were writing what the hell you felt like. Or you may not. I don’t know. Rory’s dreadful motion to the Students’ Union stayed in; Peter’s thoughts on Bristol VRs didn’t. Nor did quite a lot of stuff that seemed very necessary and worthy when I wrote it.

But it’s mostly because my main point today is about having fun, and giving oneself permission to have fun. I might talk more about editing another time, but in the meantime I’m going to refer you to Joanne Harris, who talks more sense about writing than pretty much anyone else on Twitter.

None of which is to say that editing cannot be fun, or at the very least satisfying. I rather enjoy it, myself (and don’t think I don’t know about cutting huge chunks that I really loved writing); I understand that for others it can feel like cutting off one’s own arm. In which case, changing the metaphor may help.

I try to think of it like this: collecting a hundred thousand words was like quarrying a block of marble out of a hillside, and the editing is removing everything that doesn’t look like a story.


Talk of the Town


100 untimed books: road trip

66. road trip
66. road trip

If Swallows and Amazons was among the best children’s series of the twentieth century, the Casson family series has got to be up there for the twenty-first. Saffy’s Angel remains my favourite, mostly because Saffy herself is.

And the sequence where Caddy, having eventually and reluctantly passed her driving test, is prevailed upon by her younger siblings to drive to Wales to look for the eponymous angel, is hysterical.

I thought about taking the label off, but it seemed disingenuous to pretend either that I don’t buy books in charity shops, or that I always remember to take the price tag off things.

100 untimed books

Purple Prose is on its way


I was delighted to receive my print copy of Purple Prose: Bisexuality in Britain a couple of weeks ago. It’s a great book about what being bisexual is really like, as told by people who are, and who aren’t apologising for it.

It tackles some of the most biphobic myths head-on and equips the reader to reject them. It talks about being bisexual and disabled, being bisexual at work, being bisexual as a person of faith, being bisexual as a person of colour, about different configurations of relationships… the list goes on.  There’s a real sense of community about it. I wish I’d read it years ago; it would have saved me unutterable quantities of angst.

My (admittedly still somewhat angsty) poem on bisexuality, marriage and vocation concludes the chapter on bisexuality and religion, and I’m proud to have been part of this project.

It’s published by Thorntree Press and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.