Relatable: writing the real world, and The Real World

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Last week I told my faithful beta reader Sam that I would have something ready for him to read fairly shortly, and gave him the blurb (at least, as far as I could remember it off the top of my head).

He said,

Well, there’s a story I can relate to! Not the being a lesbian part, or the doing the PhD, or wanting to talk to a dead person… just the real world being a bit of a confusing mess! And that seems like it might be the joy of the story. Personally, I can’t relate to anything you just said in that blurb other than the real world being a crazy place, but I do feel I can relate to the whole thing still. So something’s right with it all!

And this strikes, albeit at something of an angle, at something that has been worrying me a little bit about my book. It’s something that worries me a little bit about every book that I write: what if X reads Y and thinks it’s about them?

I don’t mean the deliberate things. I borrowed the wheelchair conga line in the last book knowing exactly what I was doing. (I still have very fond memories of that party!) This time round I emailed somebody to ask, ‘Do you mind if I appropriate your church’s backstory?’ I don’t mean things like that. I mean the occasions when I go, ‘hang on, that thing happened! to X! I wasn’t thinking about X when I wrote it! oh shit! what if they think it’s about them and then they hate me?’

It’s usually something that was quite an obvious way to take the story, something that was quite easy to write. It hits me when most of the plot’s nailed down and I can’t easily take it out.

The thing is, whatever Y is, it probably also happened to several other people.

One’s early twenties are a confusing, difficult time. It’s the combination of having to deal with money, large amounts of money, or the lack of large amounts of money when one needs them to survive, and coming to understand that one’s parents are human and have human failings and are mortal and will eventually die, and wondering what on earth one’s going to do with the rest of one’s life, and encountering failure, and learning how to deal with serious relationships, and, and, and…

For some people it happens earlier; for some, it happens later. Personally, I spent the year after I turned 21 letting go of what I thought I was meant to be doing, and 22-23 just about clinging on to what remained. There are whole chunks of time that I just can’t remember at all. (This is a little irritating, because some of them would have made good material for this!) I look back at diary entries from that period and think, goodness, I really should have talked to somebody about that. And of course some people have more going on, more to deal with, than others.

But it’s very likely that what I’m writing about is going to match up with somebody’s history more closely than I’d intended. And on the one hand that’s good – as Sam points out, I’m trying to write things that people can relate to! And on the other I am hoping and trying not to inflict needless hurt.

Which brings me on to something that was originally going to be a separate blog post, but what the hell.

Yesterday the House of Bishops released some ‘pastoral’ guidance responding to the fact that opposite-sex civil partnerships are now possible in the UK.

It didn’t say much that we didn’t already know, but it said it in a spectacularly insensitive fashion, which has inevitably and deservedly been reported as ‘sex only for opposite-sex marriage, say bishops’. And there are a lot of LGBT+ Anglicans who are feeling pretty hurt and angry, and a lot of allies who are being very vocal too. It hurts. I have dodged a load of bullets and it still hurts. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are right in the firing line.

Meanwhile, lit Twitter was talking about American Dirt, which I don’t think I shall bother reading. I was particularly struck by this piece, which actually predates the current kerfuffle, but which got linked to illustrate the point that books about marginalised people don’t need to be trauma porn to be important. Life isn’t, and literature doesn’t have to be, wall-to-wall misery for immigrants, for queer people, for anyone. And the message that you’re doomed to unhappiness simply because of who you are is… not one that I would wish to endorse.

This is a balance that I’m trying to strike.

One of the major points of conflict in The Real World is the fact that ordained ministers in the Church of England are not allowed to marry someone of the same sex. This is a source of grief and pain in the real world; it’s destroying relationships and distorting lives. I have done my best to work with this and still write a book in which the richness and beauty and joy and delight of queer relationships can be discerned.

Whether I have succeeded… is the wrong question. Whether I will have succeeded, we’ll find out. It still needs work. I’m still filling in holes in the text, even as Sam looks at what I’ve done so far (‘seventeen pages of red marks’, he says). It is a way off being finished; a long way off being as good as I can get it; further away still from being as good as it can be.

(And then sometimes I think that all I’ve done is written a less posh, more liturgically accurate, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But that’s another story.)

Welcome to The Real World

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I’ve been ignoring The Real World (my book, I  mean, not the actual real world) since October, in order to get a bit of distance. Last week I printed the manuscript out and (when I wasn’t standing in the rain for three hours waiting for a rail replacement bus) read it through and scribbled on it.

It isn’t bad at all. It isn’t done, but what’s there is OK. If all goes to plan, it will come out in September.

In the meantime, I wrote a blurb for it, and here it is:

Colette is trying to finish her PhD and trying not to think about what happens next. Her girlfriend wants to get married – but she also wants to become a vicar, and she can’t do both. Her ex-girlfriend never wanted to get married, but apparently she does now. Her supervisor is more interested in his TV career than in what Colette’s up to, and, of her two best friends, one’s two hundred miles away, and the other one’s dead.

Welcome to…

The Real World.

December Reflections 15: best decision of 2019

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I’ve made (or received) two fairly major decisions this year, but I don’t yet know the outcome of either of them, so it seems a bit premature to call either of them the best. Not least since they appear to be pulling in opposite directions… It’ll be interesting to see how that all works out.

Taking the first week of December as annual leave, and then doing absolutely nothing in it, is a very good decision, but it’s one I’ve made every year since at least 2014 now, so I’m not sure that I can really count it as a decision of 2019. It’s more a very longstanding tradition.

After growing my hair out to a bob last year, I got it cut short again in May, and immediately felt 500% more like myself. But I wouldn’t say it was the best decision.

Going to the work disco on Friday night was a good decision, since it meant spending the evening with a group of other despondent people, none of whom were going to attempt to tell anybody else to cheer up, but also being able to dance and dance and dance. And staying off Twitter and Facebook was also a good decision. Some people need a good rant/vent/whinge, and I respect that, but I find that listening to or reading other people’s ranting/venting/whingeing just gets me (even further) down, and actively gets in the way of my doing anything to improve matters. So I danced instead. Anyway, that feels too depressing to be the best decision of the year.

But in fact I have had a moment this year where the rightness of a thing seemed to sing and sizzle and settle: of course this is the right thing. And that was the evening when everybody was talking about ‘the real world’, about whether or not they lived in it, about whether or not other people live in it, about whether anybody really lives in it. And I realised that in fact this was the title of my next book. That’s my best decision of 2019. The Real World. More on that next year.

December Reflections 10: gold

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I’ve had a phrase wandering in and out of my head this year: the documented life. I spent a lot of time in the spring going back through diaries and journals and online spaces locked and unlocked, pseudonymous and otherwise, updates for friends and rambling for myself alone, looking for clues about new (but familiar) exciting (but daunting) developments in my head. There were more of them than I’d remembered. It seemed that over and over again I’d sidled up to these thoughts, and written them down, and shied away again, and forgotten.

If I didn’t write it down, I start to wonder, how can I know who I was?

Then I wrote more, trying to work through the new developments. I forced my realisations into fiction, and rewrote whole sections that suddenly didn’t seem true any more. In my own private writing, I risked more honesty than I remember managing in times past, finding it suddenly important to know what was going on, and what was really going on.

(It wasn’t just text. There were delicate conversations around pints of beer and tears over gelato. But a lot of it was text. Often I think I let people see more of myself in text. Often I think it’s easier to control what people do see.)

In May I started writing in this spiral-bound notebook, trying to collect all my thoughts on one particular subject all in one place. It has worked to a certain extent, though I keep having to retrace my steps across the internet and copy paragraphs, whole entries, sometimes, into an Evernote document. But most of what I have written since on this one particular subject is in this little blue book with the gold spots.

 

December Reflections 4: white

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Today I had to buy a box of tissues, as the cold which has been making me lethargic, despondent and irritable for the last two weeks has finally got to the ‘runny nose’ stage, which for me means nosebleeds too.

Actually, the current bug aside, 2019 hasn’t been too bad for me health wise. A slight iron deficiency got picked up in the summer when I attempted to give blood, and there was another bug which had all the symptoms of a nasty cold except the cough and runny nose, but I think that was about it.

Most excitingly, there was one morning this year when I woke up with the motivation, energy, enthusiasm, everything, squashed by depression, and managed to be kind to myself about it. This is revolutionary.

I think I know how it happened, too. I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing from the perspective of a character who spends much of the action becoming increasingly depressed. I have had to take care to differentiate between her perception of reality and actually reality. It’s hardly surprising if that has helped me get a bit of perspective myself, to remember that what’s really there is bigger than the space in my head. Even if that’s a little bit more difficult when that head is completely bunged up.

Two historical f/f fiction podcasts

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If you like having other people read you historical f/f fiction written by me, November was the month to do it. I don’t think there was any particular reason why it was November; it just worked out that way. But, because the internet is, if not forever, at least reasonably long-lasting, you can still listen to two podcasts featuring stories that I wrote:

  • Prima Donna featured on A Story Most Queer a couple of weeks ago:

Everybody knows why the great Signora Valli left the Licorne opera company. Everybody, that is, except Monsieur Perret, who has taken the brave—some would say, foolish—decision to cast her opposite rising star Delphine Vincent-Leclerc in Rossini’s Tancredi. But what everybody knows is only half the story.

It’s narrated by Julia Rittenberg and you can listen to it here (34 minutes). The story also appears in the anthology Upstaged from Supposed Crimes.

  • The Mermaid was the last of this year’s Lesbian Historical Motif Podcast fiction series:

Salvaging shipwrecks on the coast of the Isle of Wight in the eighteenth century can lead to unexpected treasure.

It’s narrated by Heather Rose Jones and you can listen to it here (18 minutes). You can also read a transcript here.

I’ve always been a bit hesitant about attempting historical fiction: so much to get wrong! So much more research! I don’t know whether I’d ever have the guts to attempt a full-length novel. At any rate, in both of these stories I found a way in through that old chestnut write what you know.

With Prima Donna, what I know is what it’s like to be an alto, to come to terms with the fact that even if you get really good (I never got really good, and also I have the acting ability of the average house brick) you’ll never get the biggest bouquets. It’s also the reading I did about the time when that wasn’t the case: the first few decades of the nineteenth century, when the castrati were dying out and the heroic roles that they had previously sung were now going to female singers. (Actually, those weren’t necessarily altos, either.) Signora Valli is one of those versatile sopranos who could play either hero or heroine. Delphine represents the new order (soprano heroine, tenor hero, villainous bass, and any other women relegated to confidante or crone) – or does she?

(I recommend Voicing Gender by Naomi André, by the way, if you want to know more about this period of opera – and you feel up to some fairly impenetrable academicese.)

Prima Donna

As for The Mermaid, what I know is the south coast of the Isle of Wight, the way that you don’t really trust the sea even on a calm day, the stories of wrecks and wreckers. This is a coast I’ve walked – except it isn’t, because the cliffs that Alice knows in my story will have long since crumbled into the sea. This is the Island before the tourists, before Queen Victoria, before Keats. This is the south west coast before the Napoleonic Wars prompted the construction of the Military Road, when it was even more remote from the rest of the Island, and anything could happen…

The Mermaid

How much is an honest review worth?

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There’s been some discussion recently about the fact that Publishers Weekly is now offering paid reviews to self-published authors – for $399 a pop.

No, I haven’t mislaid a decimal place. Four hundred – as near as damn it – American dollars.

As I remarked on Twitter, for that sort of money I’d expect wing walkers, and a solo extolling the merits of my book at the Last Night of the Proms.

Now, there are various schools of thought around paid-for reviews. I don’t buy reviews myself (except that one time when it was a friend trying to get a service off the ground), and, from the other side of the counter, I’ve recently resolved only to review books that I’ve bought with my own money. (Because a refusal often offends, but not nearly so much as the bad review that you would otherwise be posting.)

Actually, I do believe that most book bloggers are basically honest, and tend to say nothing at all if they can’t say anything nice. I’d recommend this pair of posts from Jo Linsdell and Lovely Audiobooks which debunks the myth that book bloggers are all rolling in free money. Which is hardly surprising, when most of them don’t charge.

And that’s the thing: whichever way you slice it, $399 is a lot of money. Do I believe that I’d get an honest review for $399? Perhaps. Do I believe that anyone else would believe it was an honest review? Perhaps not. To be blunt, the more an author spends on a review, the more flattering everyone else (and perhaps the author too) expects it to be.

But I think that what’s going on here is slightly more than paying for a book review (you can get them a lot cheaper on Reedsy or Fiverr or all sorts of other places, or so I understand) or even plain old advertising.

They’re selling credibility – or trying to. They’re offering you the chance to say, ‘This is my book, and a review of it has appeared in a Publishers’ Weekly supplement, therefore it must be good, right?’

The thing about credibility is that you can’t just rock up and buy it.  Sooner or later the reader is going to catch on to the fact that a Publishers’ Weekly review can be bought. Even if your book actually is as good as all that, the reader will look at some of the others (which, to be frank, are already looking a bit amateurish) and start to wonder… The lowest grade on offer is a C: that means that some truly terrible stuff is going to come out marked ‘average’.

You have to earn your credibility. And the way you earn it is by making your book good. As good as it possibly can be. Oh, it does appear that the review may include suggestions for things you could do better in the future. But you could spend your money on making your book good now, before you put it out into the world.

(The other thing about credibility is that it doesn’t, in itself, make any money. It takes credibility plus hard work. Actually, it’s mostly hard work.)

Here are some other things that a self-published author might – note, I don’t say should – do with $399:

  • get a really good cover… for the next few books
  • get a really good editor… for the next few books
  • get a really good typesetter, proofreader, publicist… oh, you get the idea
  • get really nice gin for the people who do those things for you but refuse actual payment
  • buy Facebook ads from here to kingdom come
  • buy a couple of dozen copies of the book from Amazon to push it up the sales rankings
  • buy a couple of dozen copies of the book and leave them on honesty bookshelves and railway station bookswaps (I have long wanted to do this, just for the hell of it)
  • go on a research trip for the next book
  • any other ideas?

I mean, don’t take financial advice from me. I’ve just spent a chunk of my most recent writing income on a rainbow skirt, but I think I’ll get a good deal more joy out of that. It cost me $35.00.

And yes, that decimal point is in the right place.