This book and the last book: a tale of two timescales

No particular reason for this photo, except that I took it in July 2013
No particular reason for this photo, except that I took it in July 2013

I’m a little awed by how fast this book has happened. Speak Its Name took me just over eight years. A Spoke In The Wheel is at eight months, and counting.

Speak Its Name went like this:

July-October 2007: planning. I fill a whole notebook with maps, family trees, and diagrams of what all my main characters – who, at the time, were the original six living at Alma Road – thought of each other.

November 2007: writing. 54,000 words. A very few of those are still extant: some of the chapter headings are extracts from a guide to running AngthMURC written by Peter, and most of those come from this first draft.

April 2008: writing again. Beginning a second draft. I didn’t get very far with this. It was in a much nicer typeface, but it was very self-consciously and archly Barchester, and I gave up after about 3500 words. Even less of this survives, though there are a few fossils in the chapter headings.

2011: another draft, incorporating sections of the previous two. The point of view is increasingly assigned to Peter and Colette.

November 2011: writing something completely different, I have a stoopid epiphany about how to plot.

I am at this moment bewildered and delighted by the way that two original characters have not only developed their own inevitable characters by means of nature and nurture, but have dragged their own plot in with them, because when A is the child of Y and Z, and B is the child of W and X, of course it follows that they will do F, G and H, because this is who they are, and this is the world they live in. And this is just as well for me, because goodness knows I can’t do plot.

November 2012: the House of Laity blocks women bishops. I am furious. I write a scene from Lydia’s point of view. I keep writing. I discover that Becky needs to be one of the movers and shakers in the political plot strand.

Two bits of plot joined themselves up in my mind, and suddenly the whole second half of the story has some actual structure and things are happening because of who the characters are. It’s like watching a bouncy castle get inflated, or making a pair of trousers, or something – all these shapeless pieces begin to fit together and make something that has three dimensions, and bits of which attach to other bits that you hadn’t expected.

July 2013: I discover that Lydia needs to be the hero of the story, and that more of it needs to come from her point of view. This is intimidating, because in the original concept she doesn’t come out until half way through, and now I have to spend the first half in her head? Thanks, story. However, it also becomes clear that if I do this it will be easier to incorporate the other side of the political story. I start writing more scenes from Lydia’s point of view. I blast through 40,000 words – and this is counting from November 2012, not any of the previous drafts. I make a timeline out of six sheets of A3 paper and of A4, and crawl around on the floor filling it in. I blast through 50,000 words. Then 60,000 words. I salvage some words from the 2011 draft.

August 2013: I spend a week on choir tour. When I’m not singing I’m writing. In the evenings, back in the dormitory, I’m cutting up the manuscript with a pair of scissors, rearranging the plot into a workable structure. I also take a trip to Ilchester, to get a feel for the geography of the place.

September 2013: I keep writing, though my pace has slowed a little. By the end of October I’ve hit 74,000 words.

November 2013: I start looking for holes – not necessarily plot holes, but bits where I’ve written [plot goes here] – and filling them. By the end of the month, it’s basically done. Or so I think.

December 2013: at an office Christmas party, somebody asks me, ‘But how did you get involved in all the church politics?’ I realise that the answer is too boring for words. Later, I realise that therefore I need to cut all the committee scenes. So why don’t I just take out everything that isn’t from Lydia’s point of view, and then see what’s missing?

May 2014: I come up with a title. I write a blurb.

June 2014: I edit.

July 2014: I start sending excerpts and synopses to agents.

This goes on for well over a year. Eventually –

September 2015: I decide to self-publish

November 2015: editors edit; nitpickers nitpick

December 2015: I set a publication date

January 2016: proofreaders proofread. I order ISBNs. I finalise the cover. I format the text.

February 2016: Speak Its Name goes live


And a picture from August 2015

By contrast, A Spoke in the Wheel has gone more like this:

August 2015: we are watching the Vuelta a España, and my husband makes a throwaway comment about how endurance athletes would be among the few people who would understand the spoon analogy of chronic illness.

After that, of course, I’m busy, until:

January 2016: I discover that that athleticism/chronic illness idea is developing a story around itself.

April 2016: I start writing and get to 8000 words.

June 2016: I hit 16,000 words and think it’s dreadful. I recognise that thinking it’s dreadful is probably a temporary state of affairs and keep on going.

July 2016: I devise and patch in a massive subplot

October 2016: I hit 50,000 words and think it’s dreadful. I recognise that thinking it’s dreadful is probably a temporary state of affairs and keep on going. I print out what I’ve got so far and attack it with a red pen.

November 2016: I think of a title

It has taken me ten months to get as far with A Spoke in the Wheel as I got with Speak Its Name in eight years. Of course, it’s arguable that I should start the clock in late November 2012, because very little of the final version of Speak Its Name was written before that. July 2013 was where the real action was. Then there’s the time I spent playing the waiting game with agents and publishers.

The other thing that strikes me, writing all this out, is how much of Speak Its Name happened in 2013, which was a difficult year in many other respects. My husband was finishing up his PhD, and I was supporting both of us. He was job-hunting, and I knew that, even if he was successful, the chances were that we’d have to move and I’d have to get another job myself (we did, and I did). And yet I wrote most of the book that year.

And it may yet be that A Spoke In The Wheel has some surprises for me, and I’ll have to do some serious redrafting before I’m done. All the same, I think the really serious lessons were the ones I learned last time round: how to plot; how to make the characters drive the plot; how to let characters make really terrible decisions even when I didn’t want them to.

I’m hoping to release A Spoke In The Wheel some time next summer, ideally during one of the Grand Tours, when the world has cycling on the brain. Looking at this, it feels as if this is perhaps going to be manageable.

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