The third dimension: when a book comes to life

A cardboard cut-out character from a toy theatre in front of a backdrop from same

I love the moment when it turns out that the book I’m working on is, in fact, going to turn out to be a book.

The first time this happened to me was with Speak Its Name. That was my first book and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had the backdrop (student politics) and I had the characters (students) moving in front of it, occasionally affected by it, but never affecting it. It was flat. Boring.

Then I realised that what I needed to do was to get my most political character involved in the politics.

It sounds so simple. Perhaps it was. All I can say is, it took me a very long time to realise, and it changed the whole book for the better. It turned it from two dimensions into three, like inflating a bouncy castle, or sewing a pair of trousers together. It wasn’t just that my characters were now joined to the background at the point where one of them decided to involve the Students’ Union. It joined all sorts of other bits together, and it made the whole thing neater, more coherent. More interesting. It made the whole book work.

A Spoke in the Wheel and The Real World were, so far as I can remember, better behaved. Oh, getting The Real World nailed down was rather like wrestling an octopus that was also Tam Lin, but it always felt like something, well, real, if I could only get a handle on it. And with A Spoke In The Wheel both characters and plot landed more or less fully formed, bar a giant hole in the middle that I had to work out how to fill.

This time it happened at about the 50,000 word mark. No, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I decided to take advantage of the general #AmWriting mood to make some progress on the Ruritanian thing. This is the project that I’ve been working on, off and on, for the last three years if not more. It seems to prefer being a side project. It modestly shuffled out of the way to let me concentrate on The Real World. It refused to be written at all earlier this year, and only started cooperating when I got swept off my feet by the historical thing. Nine months further on – nine months in which I’ve been trying to add a sentence to each project each day – it’s suddenly taking itself seriously.

Now this, being a Ruritanian thing, requires plot. It requires plot on a level that I’ve never contemplated before. There are double-crosses and Chekhov’s guns and timetables. The action of the last book happens over the course of a year. The action of this book takes place over the course of five days. I discovered the other day that I had my main character drinking five coffees between midnight on Saturday and Sunday lunchtime. I’m counting the espresso martini here, but still.

Of course, that’s easily fixable. I’ve already turned one of those coffees into a slice of cake. The real challenge has been getting the characters to do the things that are needed for the plot to happen in ways that make sense for them. Because if the characters don’t work, then the plot doesn’t work.

When I’m stuck on a book, one thing that helps me is writing down why I’m stuck. Sometimes I like to make an occasion of this. This time, I was just on the train. (Not that taking the train isn’t an exciting novelty these days.) I wrote down the things I needed to invent or research. Then I wrote down the thing that was bothering me, the thing I knew I’d have to fix sooner or later:

George shouldn’t be involving his untrained relations and he knows that.

Or, as paraphrased for Twitter,

Bringing Milly back makes George looks like a callous dimwit.

And yet Milly has to come back (she’s the narrator!) and George has to be both decent and competent. That’s the whole point of his being in this book at all.

So I kept writing.

He doesn’t have a choice with Amelia. But he needs a damn good reason for Milly to come back… There’s got to be more to it than ‘it might come in useful’.

I went down a couple of dead ends. Something that Amelia tells George that Milly doesn’t know about? Something that brings in a couple of other characters? My brain was working faster than I could write, so it wasn’t coming out as great prose.

Milly is the only person who has seen several key players by sight, so it makes sense to keep her on the spot. But that’s what’s putting her in danger. Sending her home is for her own safety.

I kept writing. Half a page later, it hit me.

Hang on. What if they do get Milly to share – and then don’t act on that? Yes. Milly spills the beans and thinks it’s all cleared up. George arrives, wants to find out more. Milly is the obvious candidate to find out more.

Bingo.

That adjusts the stakes just enough to make everyone’s actions plausible. It makes sense for Milly to come back. It makes sense for George to let her.

A (really encouraging) bonus: I now have a much better idea of at least one of the villains. And the [plot goes here] bit in the antepenultimate (there’s a good word) chapter.

Of course it’s going to demand a whole lot more changes – because most of the 54,000 words I had down were written on the assumption that Milly didn’t share – but I don’t care about that. It makes the whole thing work.

I love that moment.

Weston-Super-Anthology

Cityscape with several spires and pinnacles poking up into a grey sky

November’s become very busy for me, and I’m not quite sure how it happened. From ‘absolutely nothing’ I’ve suddenly got two or three things in my diary on some weekends. And I’m having to write KEEP FREE in large letters across the other weekends, because otherwise I’ll be an exhausted sobbing mess before we get to Stir-Up Sunday.

One of the events that I’d really have liked to attend had I not already got something in the diary is Weston-Super-Lesfic, which is coming up on 21 November. However, I’ll be there in spirit, in the form of my short story The Sisters’ House, which appears in the Weston-Super-Anthology.

There’s a broad range of forms and genres represented in the anthology. Mine is a fantasy story set in a landscape inspired by the flat ground and watery cities of Flanders. (That’s Ghent in the picture, standing in for my fictional Drakenrey.) There are warrior women, a commune, some ill-advised magic, and a dragon.

I know there are going to be hard copies on sale at the event, raising funds for North Somerset LGBT Forum. I’m not sure whether those will be available more widely. You can, however, get an ebook edition from Amazon.

SOLD BY NOBODY: an unintentional affirmation from a tiny book

Two tiny books: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Church Seasons in Verse by Christina Rossetti, with a penny for scale

In my lunch hour today I went to the British Library and looked at an exhibition of tiny books. (These are not from there; the British Library frowns on people taking photographs in their galleries of precious books. These are the tiniest books that I have in the house.)

Two of the tiny books were by the Brontë children. There was an issue of the Blackwoods Young Men’s Magazine by Charlotte and Branwell. And there was The Search After Happiness by Charlotte, with the following magnificent title page:

THE SEARCH AFTER HAPINESS

A TALE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE

PRINTED BY HERSELF

AND SOLD BY

NOBODY

Now, that is an attitude I aspire to. Never mind fretting about taking one’s books off Amazon; this is SOLD BY NOBODY and proud of it.

Charlotte Brontë was thirteen when she wrote this. Jane Eyre was several years in the future. Even if she could have foreseen the millions of cheap paperback copies of that, I don’t think she could have dreamt that after a couple of centuries the stories of Angria and Gondal and Gaaldine would have prompted scads of scholarship, books, fanfic, and a small moral panic. And going by this, I’m not sure she’d have cared.

Thank you, tiny book, for a new perspective.

Lint rollers: or why you can’t find my paperbacks on Amazon any more

A model of planet Earth hangs in the nave of a cathedral

I went to my local homes and gardens shop the other day, looking for a lint roller. The man on the till explained that they did not stock them, as the peel-off sticky bits can’t be recycled. He offered me a clothes brush instead. I said that so long as it would get cat hair off the sofa that was fine with me.

I publish my paperbacks through Lulu. It can be a massively frustrating process, but I have yet to hear of any other print-on-demand service being noticeably better. There are two ways to get your books out there. Or one and a half, really, I suppose. You can sell them through the Lulu bookstore. You can also choose ‘global distribution’, which makes it available through all the big retailers.

The snag – and this has become much more of a snag in the five years since I started doing this – is that the big retailers also wish to take their cut along the way. Which is fair enough. But printing costs have gone up, and so, I think, has the cut, and the gap is getting wider and wider.

Take The Real World. The minimum I can sell it for on Lulu is £6.90. If, however, I want to put it in for global distribution I have to whack the price all the way up to £13.72. Which is a silly price, so I put it as £13.99.

So I was in the slightly ridiculous situation of having to charge four pounds more than I considered reasonable for a paperback in order to sell the item on a platform that made me feel skeevy (because it was almost always Amazon) to make a few pennies on the sale.

And then nobody was buying them. Quite reasonably. I wouldn’t spend fourteen quid on a paperback. (OK, I do spend thirteen quid on the Girls Gone By reprints of the Marlows series: but have you seen how much they go for second-hand?)

One solution would have been to dump Lulu and go with KindleDirect Publishing. Or go with both. I couldn’t face wrangling a third platform, so ‘both’ was out. And going exclusively with Amazon would have made me feel very skeevy indeed, and probably also have lost me a few sales.

(I don’t avoid Amazon entirely, but if I can get a book somewhere else, I will. For various reasons. And it does make a difference as to whether I get it in the first place. There are a couple of authors who’d be instabuy for me if only they weren’t Amazon exclusive. As it is, I only buy the books that really, really, really appeal to me.)

Anyway, I was fretting about this for months. Then Lulu emailed to say they were putting their prices up. And I realised: I could pull my books from everything except Lulu.

I know, I know. It doesn’t seem fair to react to ‘Lulu putting their prices up’ by ‘removing my books from everything except Lulu’. But see above. Lulu drive me up the wall, but they don’t make me feel skeevy. And actually, a company being honest about the true costs of something was surprisingly refreshing. Stuff does cost money, and if we’re not paying for it, chances are someone else is.

So. The best place to get paperback copies of my books is now Lulu. It’s worth waiting until they run a 10% or 15% sale, which they do quite frequently; this ought to go some way towards covering the cost of postage. (Alternatively, my mother has six copies of The Real World which I got sent to her address and then forgot to sell when I was there, and then forgot to take away with me. Sorry, Ma. Do you want to post them?)

The ebooks of the two Stancester novels are on Smashwords, from which you can download them in every format I’ve heard of and some I hadn’t. I have made my peace with their not being on Kindle: when these ones sell, it’s usually because someone’s enthused about them on Weird Anglican Twitter, and the denizens of WAT tend to be sufficiently net-savvy to track them down. A Spoke In The Wheel is still on Kindle. I have no idea why the others broke and this one didn’t, but for the moment I’m going to let well alone.

But what of my principled local homes and gardens shop? Well, I didn’t buy a lint roller. I didn’t buy a clothes brush, either, but only because I phoned home and discovered there was one on order. I did buy a garlic press, a potato brush, and an ash bucket in which to keep the dried cat food. The cat meanwhile, has decided that she prefers sitting on the windowsill, which is much easier to sweep.

Fluffy black and white cat curled up on a cushion

C.A.T.S.: Cycling Across Time and Space – Kickstarter live now

Fluffy black and white cat seated on top of a bookcase, in front of a model bus

This is Port. As of last Monday, she lives with us. She has spent most of the intervening week sleeping, eating, mewing for attention, being generally gorgeous, and climbing up to high places. It is very good to have a cat around the house; previously we have had to make do with talking to other people’s cats. Which is not the same thing at all.

In other exciting cat-related news, the Kickstarter for the latest Bikes In Space anthology is now live, and the theme of this edition is CATS, and I have a story in there. In Miss Tomkins Takes A Holiday it’s some time in the 1930s and a union organiser sets out on a well-deserved cycling break, accompanied by her cat Aster. Trouble follows them, but the two of them are very well-equipped to deal with it.

There are ten other sci-fi/fantasy stories in there, all featuring cats and bicycles, and all looking like they’re going to be a fun read. The Kickstarter offers all sorts of combinations of formats and rewards, depending on whether you prefer paperback or ebook or fancy getting a T-shirt or sticker as well. Have a look.

A kid on a BMX bike flies across the moon with a cat in the basket shooting lasers out of their eyes

Responding creatively: what I’m not writing

Stained glass window hanging of seven blocks in the colours of the rainbow

When a friend reported that she’d been invited to “respond creatively to Living in Love and Faith“, my immediate response was, “I’m not writing another bloody novel.”

Living in Love and Faith (LLF hereafter), for those who haven’t come across it, is the Church of England’s latest contribution to the LGBT+ debate. I use the word ‘debate’ deliberately: it’s still ongoing and LLF is explicitly a set of resources designed to provoke discussion. My last church (look, you try moving churches during a pandemic; it’s harder than you’d think) did it as a Lent course this year. I didn’t take part due to a combination of the following reasons: a) moving on from that church; b) having led the 20s/30s group through the previous two Lent courses and needing a break; c) having seen it all before.

I wasn’t entirely accurate. I am writing another novel. In fact, I’m writing two. What I meant was I’m not going anywhere near church discourse in either of them.

While I have a vague idea of how the Stancester gang deal with the Covid year(s), I don’t really have a plot to hang that idea off so if I were to write it now it would just be Georgia and Natalie making Frankenstein recordings of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater and Peter worrying about his family in London while Lydia waits for the other shoe to drop. Anyway, Catherine Fox has already done the coronavirus ecclesiastical liveblog novel. More to the point, I just can’t face it. In some ways, The Real World already was a creative response to LLF; I just wrote it before the fact rather than after. (There was a reason it came out on the same day: I thought people might like something different to read. Actually, I’m not sure that was great for sales, particularly after the year we’d all had, but it’s easy to be wise in hindsight. My novels tend to take me a couple of years to write, and I couldn’t have known in 2018 that I’d really need to be releasing something light and fluffy in late 2020.)

At the moment I really don’t feel like doing it again. And at the moment I’m just writing things that I feel like writing, regardless of whether they feel worthy, or how deeply they engage with current affairs. (One of them does, albeit obliquely; the other is set in the early 1920s.)

Moreover, I seem to have no interest in writing in response to any particular call for submissions. Part of that is not wanting to be left with a very specific story with no obvious market beyond the one that’s just turned it down, but that’s not all there is to it: one particular outlet has accepted the last two pieces I submitted, but their current call isn’t generating so much as a spark. (Caveat: if a new, compelling idea attacks me overnight and results in 5000 words by Tuesday I shouldn’t be at all surprised. The thought experiment that goes I’m not writing this, but what would it look like if I did? has always been an effective one for me.)

Anyway, that’s where I am at the moment. I’m not writing another bloody novel; I’m writing two. I’m taking them both very seriously but also doing exactly what I feel like. I’m writing a lot, one sentence at a time, but none of it is engaging creatively with LLF. And you’ll see the results… sometime.

Two promotional things

Blue flower with feathery foliage

It is warm! It’s ten to ten at night and I’ve just been out in the garden, watering plants. This photo is from last year; the self-seeded offspring of this love-in-a-mist flower are merrily blooming away without my having done anything about them. That’s my kind of gardening.

In similar vein, I have a couple of book promotion things to mention that have happened without my having done much.

iReadIndies lesfic giveaway

Firstly, iReadIndies.com, a community of independent ff/wlw/lesfic/etc authors are running a giveaway over on Facebook, and The Real World is one of the titles on offer. To be in with a shout, you need to be a member of their Reader Central group; you’ll find the giveaway poll under Announcements.

(Or if you don’t like the odds you could just buy it on Smashwords.)

In all seriousness, iReadIndies is doing some excellent work pulling together a somewhat underrepresented group of writers, and I do recommend taking a look if you’re into books about women loving women.

A Spoke In The Wheel, on sale

Secondly, Amazon seems to be doing that thing it does from time to time and knocking an arbitrary chunk off the price of the paperback of A Spoke In The Wheel. At the time of posting it’s down to £7.12 (from a list price of £10.99). So if you’re after a paperback this is a decent chance to get it at a discount. (They don’t knock it off my cut!)

I should say that I’m rethinking my relationship with Amazon (longer post to come on that in the next few weeks) but it’s too hot for anything drastic. In the meantime, I hope you’re all staying cool and have some good books to read.

Time is cyclical

I’ve been feeling quite ill these last few days (not COVID – I got the test results back this morning) and was looking back through my locked journal to see how long it took me to get over it the last time I was feeling this awful. Quite a while, it turns out – the thing kept coming back – but it reminded me that I was feeling much worse then than I am now, so on the whole I found cause for hope. What I also found was the following, which amused me rather, given the fact that I didn’t properly get going on the, er, sequel to Speak Its Name until September 2018. And it didn’t have a title until September 2019. Or so I thought. Just have a look at that last line. Apparently there was some little part of me that knew all along.

Jan 28 2017, 12:58pm

A Spoke in the Wheel

65K; first draft finished. I read it through this morning, having been avoiding it all January, and discovered that it’s neither as bad nor as miserable as I’d though it was. There is, as always with my first drafts, too much talk and not enough action; there’s a break that doesn’t need to exist between the middle and final thirds; but there’s nothing that isn’t fixable.

I’d got very hung up on the fact that it’s not going to be as good as Speak Its Name (whatever that means); and probably it isn’t, but that’s not really the point. It’s definitely going to be different.

Sequel to Speak Its Name

About a thousand words worth of oddments. Real-world developments in the Church of England are depressing, and look like they’re going to settle down into a sort of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell stalemate. I can work with that, plot-wise – in fact, it means that I could continue bimbling along in the vague non-timeline that I was using in the original, though having thought about it I’m not sure that I do want to do that any more – but you know, given the choice, I’d rather the real world sorted itself out.

Small patchwork quilt of hexagons in primary colours
No particular reason for this picture, beyond the fact that it’s cheerful and also dates from January 2017.

Me and Warren Barguil [filk]

Stained glass artwork showing a cyclist in a yellow jersey traversing a hilly, sunlit landscape, with text 'Yorkshire Grand Depart'

So, the Tour de France. As usual, there seem to be at least two races going on, except one of them isn’t really a race any more. I’m enjoying the other one.

Anyway today’s stage ends in Carcassonne, and this prompted me to spend yesterday lunchtime scrolling back through Facebook to find the following filk, which wrote itself gently over the course of the 2017 and 2018 tours. It didn’t start out being about the 2018 Carcassonne-Bagnères de Luchon stage, but it rather ended up that way. Enjoy.

Busted flat at the flamme rouge, caught up by a train,
feeling cooked as I approached the line,
The peloton came past me while I fumbled with my chain
And I followed them a minute ten behind.
I'd been in a break of two for two hundred K of mountains,
The bunch had let us go because they knew
I was twenty minutes down on that shining yellow jersey
And the other guy was out for mountains too

Stage win's just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean, honey, if it ain't GC,
Feeling good was easy when I was in that break of two
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Warren Barguil

From the walls of Carcassonne to the slopes of Col de Menté
Me and Warren shared the brotherhood of the road
Through all kinds of weather, riding hard to get away
We shared the pace, yeah, took turns to bear the load
But once we'd cleared the summit he let me slip away
He wants the KOM and I hope he finds it
But I'd trade all of my stage wins for one shot at the GC
And to wear that yellow jersey 'cross the line

Oh, stage win's just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing, I mean, honey, if it ain't GC,
Feeling good was easy when I was in that break of two
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Warren Barguil

Credit for the Stage win’s just another word for nothing left to lose line ought to go to my partner, but since he didn’t actually know the rest of the song I’m assimilating it.

Apologies to Kris Kristofferson. And to Warren Barguil, obviously. And to the narrator: actually I think this is a little unfair on him.

Other things I have written about cycling include: a story in the next Bikes In Space anthology, a story in the one after that, and an explanation of how I got into cycling in the first place. And a novel.

Historical fiction, knowns and unknowns

Three herring gulls on a shingle beach

This year I’ve read more historical fiction than I thought. I’ve just looked back down my booklist and found that about 20% of 2021’s reading has been historical fiction; it’s just that there are a couple of historical fiction books that have stuck in my head for the wrong reasons and they’re crowding out the other, really well researched, well written, ones.

The third somehow manages to be both. Last night I sat up until midnight (well, 23:57 if we’re going to be pedantic, which I am) to finish The Heiress (Molly Greeley). Which, if you can get past the Britpicky Angliquibbling gripes that I’ll get to in a bit, I do recommend.

The problem with both The Quickening (Rhiannon Ward) and Turn Again To Life (A. Zukowski) was that they knew they were historical fiction. The characters didn’t live in their now; they lived in the author’s nineteen-twenties. We get lines like this:

A wonderful story, except the fairies were dressed in 1920s clothes, copied probably from a magazine.

At this point it’s 1925. Now, I might describe the dress I wore yesterday as ‘a bit eighties’ or the one I wore on Tuesday as ‘vaguely fifties’. I wouldn’t call the one I’m wearing today ‘2020s’, or even ‘twenty-tens’. I might say ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’, or just skip straight to calling it ‘a v-necked cotton jersey dress with a flared skirt’. And the reason for this is that I am living in the twenty-twenties. For me, it’s now.

In the case of Turn Again To Life, it was a case of too much research and insufficient mixing. One kept coming up against solid lumps of history: a summary of the suffrage movement plonked into the middle of a love letter, for example. I couldn’t decide whether the book needed to be twice as long or to have half as much plot, but either way it needed a better editor. A pity, because it had a really intriguing premise.

This was not at all a problem in The Heiress. This is a riff on Pride and Prejudice in which Anne de Bourgh’s invalid state is caused by involuntary laudanum addiction: a great premise, and one which is delivered on. It’s a peculiarly immersive book, and the immersion in Anne’s surreal mental landscape is a neat escape from having either to pastiche Austen or explain one’s more departure from her voice. Anne felt at once very human and very much of her time.

However, I got thrown out quite violently when she mentioned having read the Book of Common Prayer through several times and finding it ‘dull’. There are two problems with that. Firstly, I have never known anyone read the BCP cover to cover: that’s not what it’s for. The only scenario I can think of is someone who has nothing else to read: in which case it surely shouldn’t be as dull as not reading it.

The second is this: it isn’t dull. Parts of it are, yes, and if you’re reading the Calendar and the General Rubricks straight through then you deserve everything you get. But there’s an awful lot more in there, and the author just didn’t seem to know about it. One wouldn’t even need to have an unequivocally positive view of it. One could be horrified by the Commination or perplexed by the Athanasian Creed just as well as charmed by Psalm 19. Anne’s aunt dies giving birth, and yet the pain and peril of child-birth doesn’t come to mind. The Book of Common Prayer (she always calls it that, not the Prayer Book) just doesn’t live in Anne’s head the way you’d expect it to if she’d read it several times. And yet she reads The Seasons and suddenly discovers the joy of words.

It was at this point I nearly DNFed. It felt very much as if it was heading straight for Not Like Other Girls Anachronistic Atheist Feminist territory. (It didn’t get there.)

And all that made me a lot less inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt when Brighton beach was sandy and when they came back from Brighton it was snowing. The snow is just about possible. The sand… well, see the picture at the top. That was Brighton in June 2016. There will have been some geological upheaval, but still…

The problem here is not so much the historical research as the geographical research. And that’s social geography, religious geography, as well as physical geography. I know the landscape that Greeley is trying to write in, and every mistake jars. Not, admittedly, as much as that Alyssa Cole book where the hero turns out to be the Duke of Edinburgh (now that’s something you really should look up before you start writing), but it jars.

Fortunately, things got a lot better after that, and I got to the end with only a couple of hiccups: wondering when the word ‘orange’ was used to describe the colour (the 16th century apparently, so that’s a pass) and thinking that it’s slightly odd to talk about Kent being ‘only forty miles away from London’. I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at those if I hadn’t been so annoyed about the BCP thing. And everything else about it really was very good. The depiction of addiction and coercion, the challenges of entering society a decade late and massively underprepared, the convincing depiction of a same-sex relationship in that particular context, the physicality… I do recommend it. But.

All this gives me much to think about as I embark on long-form historical fiction for the first time. Can my Yorkshire Quaker shop steward call his much younger boss ‘thou’ in 1919? (Actually, he probably would, and get away with it, but I can’t have him doing it, because it will throw the reader out for as long as it takes them to wonder the same thing – which might be all the rest of the book.) I was going to send my main characters to Hastings on honeymoon, but it turns out there was a blooming great U-boat cluttering up the beach all that summer. Which I think might be a bit too, er, metaphorical. I think I’ll send them a mile or so down the coast to repent at St Leonards instead.