Good luck to everyone attempting NaNoWriMo! I haven’t been able to make NaNoWriMo work for me since I started working full-time, and also I’m in the middle of a non-writing fortnight, so I’m not taking part. I’m reading instead.
And what I have been reading, among other things (Ankaret Wells‘ Anna Chronistic and the Scarab of Destiny came out yesterday, just saying…) is Speak Its Name. This is partly in search of details I’ve got wrong in The Real World (Rory never went to St Mark’s! Gabe has always had a surname, and it isn’t Murtagh!) but mostly because I happened to pick it up and start flicking through, and then decided I might as well keep reading…
Then I remembered that an early draft had an epic ecumenical argument about Hallowe’en, which might have made a good deleted scene. I couldn’t find it. I did find that all the early drafts meandered all over the place (which I had remembered) were quite unbelievably camp (which I hadn’t).
So all in all this seemed like a good moment to answer a Q & A that I’ve been meaning to do for a while: Niamh Murphy‘s ‘The Debut Novel’ Q & A tag.
What is the title and genre of your debut novel?
Speak Its Name is a contemporary f/f novel about a Christian student finding her way out of the closet against a backdrop of student politics.
What gave you the idea to start writing it?
Originally I wanted to tell the story of an episode of the great Christian Union wars of the early 2000s. If you weren’t at university in the early 2000s, or didn’t get involved in student politics if you were, then you may well have missed these entirely, but they still crop up from time to time. There’s almost always more going on than makes the press. This was certainly the case in the kerfuffle that I got involved in, and I wanted to tell what really happened.
Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately!) ‘what really happened’ was actually quite boring. Looking back, I feel like Lord Palmerston:
“Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
How long did it take you to finish?
A long time! I wrote the first word of the first draft in November 2007, having spent much of the summer planning. By the summer of 2014, I thought it was more or less done. I eventually published it in February 2016.
What was the biggest challenge you had when writing it?
The moment when I realised that actually the whole thing needed to be written in the point of view of a character who at that juncture had absolutely nothing. And who wouldn’t come out even to herself until half way through the book.
This development had its advantages, though: for one thing, it made it much easier to incorporate the political storyline. And it made the book much better overall, much tighter, and less susceptible to in-jokes and digressions.
How did you get it published, indie or trad?
After spending a summer trying to interest agents in the book, I gave up and decided to self-publish – a decision I’ve never regretted. Speak Its Name was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize in 2017, after which I did get some more interest from the traditional publishing world, but we decided pretty much simultaneously that it wasn’t an avenue that any of us wanted to pursue.
What was the most important thing you learnt from the process?
How to write a novel. That might sound flippant, but I’m serious. I started with a string of real life events and a handful of characters. Over the years I learned: to let my characters make their own mistakes; how to harness my own emotions to make my characters’ reactions convincing; how to get characters to drive plot; what to leave out; what to take out; how much I really enjoy editing.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on the sequel. It’s called The Real World and it picks up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name. As the title suggests, the characters are having to adjust to life after graduation, and none of them have picked a particularly easy path (if such a thing even exists). There are difficult decisions to be made and challenging situations to work through.
But I’ve actually got to the stage where I put it away for a few months and try to ignore it, so that I can return to it with fresh eyes.
In the meantime I’m writing some shorter pieces, a couple of which are also set in Stancester. One is a prequel to Speak Its Name – Becky’s first term at university – which I’ll be offering as an incentive to sign up to my email newsletter, when I actually get around to setting that up. The other is more of a standalone, and I’m aiming to submit it to the Reconciling the Rainbow anthology.