Pottering

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You know those Saturdays when you don’t really have anything scheduled, but you find yourself busy all the time, and can occasionally display a finished task as proof of your effort? That’s what January has been like for me so far. I’ve been pottering around, doing a thing here, a thing there, hoping that something will get finished sooner or later.

What have I been working on?

  • Well, there’s been the tedious day-to-day stuff of life: cooking, cleaning, keeping the wolf from the door. Sometimes it feels like all my brain goes on the day job and all my time is spent keeping the hamster wheel turning.
  • Speaking of the day job, I’ve been doing a little more at work with my author hat on. Watch this space.
  • A Spoke In The Wheel is out with several different readers, editors and checkers at the moment, so I’m not worrying about it too much. Which is not to say I’m not worrying about it at all. Any of us might miss something! What if I’ve made a mistake, and look stupid? (Then I’ll be no different from the rest of the world, says my partner, and he’s right. But still…)
  • Various elements of the sequel to Speak Its Name have been gathering in my head. Some come in the form of sentences or paragraphs, or even entire pages, which I write down; some are more general insights like ‘Oh! Abby has a blog! An anonymous one!’
  • That means research. I’ve been looking up things like ‘can an international student be a Cambridge choral scholar?’, ‘chemistry PhD subjects’ and ‘Church of England: vocations process’. I’m regretting a few choices I made in Speak Its Name, but I’m stuck with them now.
  • Fandom stuff. I’m very glad to have got back into fandom last year, but it doesn’t half take up a lot of time if I let it.
  • Spending my prize money on an epic European rail adventure. My plan is to book the expensive Scandinavian portion of the trip in advance, and spend the remainder of the time following my nose around central Europe, but this does rather rely on me and my rail map and my diary being in the same place at a time when I have sufficient brain power to know that I’m not going to do something stupid that I can’t cancel. And I still haven’t written up my last epic European adventure. (Which will be worth doing. The photo at the top of this post comes from that, and the tractor sculpture wasn’t even the weirdest thing we saw.)

In February I’ll get going in earnest on the launch procedure for A Spoke In The Wheel. Cover reveal? Blog tour? Who knows? We’ll find out!

The tipping point

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As has probably been obvious, I’ve struggled quite a bit with this book, with believing in its quality and in my ability to make it happen. Expectations are higher than they were last time. For a start, there are expectations. Last time round I kept everything under my hat until I had something that I knew was good. This time I’ve had people looking at my work almost from the very beginning. (Next time, I’ll put my hat back on and keep things under it.)

I’ve discovered that with every book there comes a point during editing – for me, anyway – where

‘this can’t go out looking like that!’

tips over into

‘good, yes, let’s polish the rough spots and get the thing out of the door!’

It coincides pretty much exactly with the point where I’ve gone through so many edits myself that I can’t see what’s good and what’s bad any more. The point where I know something still needs fixing, but heaven alone knows what it is.

What I know now is that this is the point at which it makes sense to bring in the editing party, because otherwise the poor things get bombarded. There were times this year when they were getting a new draft every month, although I don’t believe any of them tried to read every one of those. Thank goodness.

Anyway, I reached that tipping point a couple of weeks ago. I can’t see what more I can do with this book. I’m hoping that my editors can. If they can, they’ll be getting gin. (If they can’t – they’ll be getting gin.) But I’m beginning to believe that it might actually be OK.

Things I know people won’t like about A Spoke in the Wheel

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Don Quixote and Sancho Panza deciding that today is not the day to go tilting at wind turbines

(This concept stolen from the fabulous Ankaret Wells – whose books I like very much, incidentally.)

  • the first person narrator. This is a turn-off for a surprising number of people; personally, I feel that if it was good enough for Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens, it’s good enough for me.
  • the swearing. There was a bit of effing and blinding in Speak Its Name; there’s a whole lot more in A Spoke in the Wheel, for the simple reason that this one isn’t coming from the point of view of an Evangelical Christian with a very good reason for keeping a close watch on what comes out of her mouth.
  • our hero isn’t falsely accused. Oh, yes, he is accused, but it isn’t falsely. This isn’t really a spoiler, as he admits to his doping history in the second line. However, if you were looking for a squeaky-clean athletic Adonis forced to fight to clear his name, you won’t find him here.
  • a disabled character who has a sex life and actually quite likes being alive.
  • it’s very political. This was meant to be a gentle, fluffy, boy-meets-girl romance, but with characters I could actually believe in. It turned out political. Everything I write turns out political. One of these days, I keep saying, I will write a gentle, fluffy book with no politics in it, but it hasn’t happened yet.
  • not the sort of politics I wrote about last time. Barchester this ain’t. This time we’ve got the hell that is the benefits system, the social model of disability, zero hours contracts; the fine line between carrying out an effective boycott and depriving oneself of one’s vital goods and services; and whether sport can ever really be ethical. There’s not a monstrance or a worship committee in sight. (Maybe next time…)

To which all I can say is, oh well. I’ve enjoyed writing it. Some people have enjoyed reading it; and some others may enjoy reading it too. And really, that’s all you can say of any book.

You Are Here: style and substance

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At least somebody knows where they are…

I’m half way through the latest set of edits on A Spoke In The Wheel. Latest of how many? I’ve lost count. It feels like about six, but it can’t really be as many as that. Three or more, anyway. And I am still finding scenes where it isn’t clear which room the characters are in, let alone whether they’re standing, sitting, or swinging from the lampshades.

Dialogue is easy for me. It’s the first thing that appears as the book begins to materialise. I start out with indeterminate blobs in an indeterminate landscape exchanging stinging banter with each other. Perhaps I should write radio plays instead. I have no regrets about my Write Whatever The Hell You Want policy, but sooner or later the time comes when I have to fill in the gaps. And that time is now. I’m working my way through A Spoke in the Wheelagain – and asking myself where people are, and what they’re doing, and then putting in things to indicate that.

I write a lot about characters who are stuck in their own heads. But heads are attached to bodies, and bodies have to be somewhere in space. I’ve had to think more about that this time around, since these particular characters have more reason than most to be aware of their bodies, but even so I keep running across scenes where I can’t tell whether people are in the kitchen or the living room, or which pub they’re in, or what’s happened to the character who must have been there three lines back, because they said something hilarious. Did they tidy themselves out of the way, and, if so, why?

The only way to fix it is piece by piece: adding in a chair here, a glass there, some TV noise in the background. And then, of course, I have to go back to the beginning and see whether my use of chairs and glasses and TV noise is consistent through the book. Every little change can have consequences, rippling forwards and backwards through the text. If I mention a coffee table in chapter 14 (because the bowl that held the jewellery that gets stolen in the burglary has to sit on something) then I have to go back to chapter 3 and make sure it’s there when my characters are eating pizza in front of the telly, or else explain how it comes into the house somewhere in between. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but it’s got to be done.

In a year or so I might try writing a murder mystery: something where I have to know exactly where everyone is, and exactly what they’re doing, all the time. In the meantime, I’m getting there. I am. On this edit, some pages have ended up without any red ink on them at all.

Second novel syndrome

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I thought I’d escaped second novel syndrome. By the time my first novel was out, I already had the first words of the second novel queuing up in my head, clamouring to be written down.

Speak Its Name didn’t make much of a splash, and that was something of a blessing. I was able to keep plugging away at A Spoke in the Wheel, here a word, there a paragraph, and by about April I had something that resembled a first draft.

Then I won a Betty Trask Award. And that was amazing and brilliant, and I am at this moment planning to spend my prize money on an epic Interrail trip around Europe, but it hasn’t half given the monsters a lot to talk about.

Here is a sample of some monster views on A Spoke in the Wheel:

  • this one’s not going to win you any awards, you know
  • it’s not as good as Speak Its Name
  • it is NEVER going to be as good as Speak Its Name
  • and everyone who reads both will know that and you will DISAPPOINT THEM
  • you’re a one-hit wonder
  • everyone who was impressed by the award? NOT IMPRESSED ANY MORE!
  • you have to create a COHERENT BRAND!!!
  • write what you know!!! why are you not WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW???

But that’s monsters for you. They don’t want you putting a substandard product out there, because then PEOPLE WILL LAUGH AT YOU.

And you know, it’s a reasonable point, if only they could make it without all the screaming. Nobody wants me to put a substandard product out there.

What I’d forgotten – what I always forget, every time – was that I’d been here before. I’d already run into moments of self-doubt, several times over the course of writing that first draft. I’d always been able to talk myself out of them. I thought this time was different, that this time it really was going to turn out to be unsalvageable.

That always happens, too. I always think it’s going to be unsalvageable, and it never is.

Second Novel Syndrome was only a recurrence of what had happened during the writing of the first. It’s always the same. I get a horrible sense of its not being good enough.

Then I see what’s wrong with it.

Then I see how to fix it.

And then I remember that all that the yelling really means is this:

It isn’t finished yet.

Questions that have arisen in the latest editing pass

  • Why does our hero have no male friends?
  • Shouldn’t he talk to his parents at some point?
    • Why do I write such appalling parents?
      • Am I turning into Mary Renault? (I wouldn’t mind her prose style, but I can’t stand her politics.)
  • Is Michael a strawman?
  • How common is it for garages to have taps?
    • Can we manage without a tap? Yes? Good.
  • What does Andy look like?
  • Does the geography of this town even work?
  • Do these thoughts actually need to be in italics?
  • Why, when the action occupies most of a year, does only one character celebrate a birthday?

Some of these I will attempt to answer or remove in the next editing pass. Others are left, as they say, as an exercise for the reader.

You do not have to read my book

DSCF2408Occasionally a friend or family member will say to me, rather apologetically, that they haven’t bought my book. Or that they’ve bought it, but they haven’t got round to reading it yet. ‘It’s not my usual kind of thing, you see…’

I usually remark in reply that, had I started a business knitting and selling babies’ bonnets, for example, I would hardly expect my entire acquaintance to start sporting infantile headgear merely to show solidarity with me and my enterprise. Oh, if they happened to have a baby, or know a baby, and they bought one of my bonnets to present to this baby, I would be pleased and grateful, but I wouldn’t expect them to wear something so, um, unsuited to their personality or state of maturity.

Not everybody is going to like my book. Not everybody is going to be interested in Christian politics or student politics. Not everybody is interested in reading F/F (in fact, hardly anybody seems to be interested in reading F/F, and on the LGBT review blogs my purple passionflower cover looks very incongruous in amongst all those shirtless torsos on the explicit M/M works).

And that is absolutely fine. Not everybody has to like my book. Not everybody has to read my book. You don’t, if you don’t want to. ‘It was written by this person I know’ isn’t, in itself, a particularly good reason to read anything. (Although ‘It was written by this person I know, and I want to see if I recognise any mutual acquaintances’ might be; though you’ll be disappointed, in the case of my books.)

This goes for the next book, too. In fact, if what you liked about Speak Its Name was the Christian politics and the student politics, and you are not interested in cycling, chronic illness, or the parlous state of benefits in 21st century Britain, you are entirely at liberty to skip A Spoke in the Wheel. I hope you don’t need me to tell you that. You always were at liberty to skip any or all of my books, no matter how close or longstanding our relationship.

On the other hand, if you did like Speak Its Name, you might find that in A Spoke in the Wheel:

  • you like my prose style more generally
  • the overall theme of ‘finding out that you are, in fact, not such a terrible person as you feared you might be’ is also significant
  • the jump from a claustrophobically tight third person narrator to an unintentionally unreliable first person one isn’t actually all that huge
  • it’s still all about integrity