The Page 69 Test

Messing around on Twitter a while ago, I came across the Page 69 Test. Apparently this has been popularised by John Sutherland’s book How To Read A Novel, and originates in advice from Marshall McLuhan:

Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.

But why does it work? I suspect that it’s because by the time you get to page 69 you’re past all the introductions and scene-setting, but not far enough to encounter any meaningful spoilers.

Actually, it’s often that section of the book that I find most difficult to write. There’s something about managing the transition out of the set-up that causes me a whole lot of trouble, and I end up with an awful lot of square brackets saying: [link] [expand!] [something about the parents] [but why?]

I was therefore a little hesitant to look up my own page 69s (pages 69?), but actually I was quite pleased with what I found.

Here’s page 69 of A Spoke In The Wheel:

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To make it easier for him to remember who he was actually meant to be dealing with, I turned my back while Polly told him what she needed to do. After a little while she wheeled herself off after him and I was left standing in the middle of the floor. I found an armchair and picked up one of the complimentary newspapers – though it wasn’t particularly complimentary. THE FRAUDSTER NEXT DOOR was the headline. I expected it to be about a conman raiding some poor old couple’s pensions or something, but it turned out to be some self-righteous hysteria about people claiming benefits they weren’t entitled to. Personally, having seen the hassle that Polly had to go through to get the ones she was entitled to, I couldn’t see why anybody would bother. I turned to the back page in disgust and wished I hadn’t. It was mostly taken up with a picture of a tennis player with her head in her hands. NO HOPER? NEW DOPE BAN FOR HOPE.

After that I gave up on the paper and sat there twiddling my thumbs and composing cutting replies to the woman on the bus, in case we ever had that argument again, until Polly came out.

I got up. ‘Sorted?’

‘Eventually,’ she said. She lowered her voice. ‘Come on, let’s see if we can get out the same way.’

We performed the previous manoeuvre in reverse, which was a little bit scarier because neither of us could get our heads under the top tape without Polly’s front wheels first being well onto the downward slope. I had visions of her sailing off down to the street below, clotheslining herself as she went, but she was too skilful to let that happen.

‘Right,’ I said when we were safely back at street level. ‘What a palaver. Library?’

She looked up at me, backwards, and I saw with a sudden shock that she was slumping in her chair, and her face was tense with the effort of controlling her fatigue. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And that had probably better be it.’

This comes in the middle of a chapter in which Ben accompanies Polly on some errands, and begins to appreciate some of the practical difficulties of life with a chronic illness. I think it would work well as a representative sample. There are quite a lot of ableist microaggressions in this book, and if that wasn’t what somebody needed to be reading about (and I couldn’t blame them!) then page 69 would be a reasonable warning. It also gives an idea of Ben’s personality, a more sympathetic and probably more representative one than the first page (he’s had time to unstick himself a bit). He’s well-meaning but clueless, clueless but willing to listen.

And here’s page 69 of Speak Its Name:

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Tim Benton’s a Catholic, isn’t he, and nobody seriously tries to claim that Catholics are really Christian. I mean, they pray to Mary, that’s idolatry for a start…’

Lydia wanted to say that nobody was praying to Mary at the Vigil, but judged it best not to draw attention to her own attendance. Instead, she ventured, ‘I’m beginning to wonder, actually – whether any of us actually have the right to claim that somebody isn’t a Christian when they say they are…’

Ellie sent the surviving portion of the STANdard the same way as the Letters page. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s perfectly obvious with some people, isn’t it? No, Lydia, the Devil is at work on campus. This isn’t the only sign of it. Jake told me last week that you hall officers won’t be allowed to live-in next year. It’s all very worrying. I think we should pray about this.’

‘We what?’ Lydia exclaimed in horror.

Ellie, intent on praying, did not answer. Instead, she shifted her chair so that she sat directly opposite Lydia and grabbed both her hands painfully tightly. ‘Father God,’ she intoned, ‘we see Your people under attack, we know that the Enemy is moving on this campus, we pray, Lord, we just pray for Your help and guidance today.’ Squeeze, squeeze. ‘We know that You are in control of all things and we ask that You would show Your power here today, Lord, we ask that You would reveal Your truth, that You would convince those who are doubting,’ squeeze, this time with nails digging in, ‘that You would complete Your great work at this university, so that every student here will know that You are Lord. Lord, we just ask this today. Lord, You said that whoever is not for You is against You. We ask You to protect us all against these attacks from Satan, by these people who claim to speak in Your name but who are working to undo the great things You have already done here. Amen, Lord, Amen!’

This one I’m not quite so comfortable with. It’s cringey, and it’s meant to be, and I suppose that it’s good for anyone with an active embarrassment squick to know that this passage exists. In fact, this is peak cringe. If the reader can cope with this, they can cope with the rest of the book. And it is a reasonably good picture of the dynamics in the wider book: Lydia advocating for a wider understanding of the word ‘Christian’, and experiencing a more violent pushback than perhaps she expects. Ellie doesn’t appear in The Real World: we’ve moved away from the (Evangelical) Christian Fellowship and on to the Church of England. I miss her. A bit.

One thing I can guarantee is that this will no longer be page 69 by the time The Real World comes out, but what the hell. This is Colette talking to postdoc James about his upcoming wedding, and, in its combination of marriage angst and science angst, it’s fairly representative. It’s missing the Church of England angst, though.

… they couldn’t get it in the right size for one of them, so the whole idea gets written off and we have to start all over again from square one.’

‘I suppose you couldn’t get away with having one of them in something different and calling it a contrast?’

‘I think that’s the point of the bride,’ he said drily.

Colette shrugged her shoulders. ‘Well, you’re the expert.’

‘Of course, the other problem is that they then have to get the flowers matched up with the dresses, and Giselle really wants irises, because it was her grandma’s name.’

‘That’s a really lovely idea,’ Colette said.

‘In theory, yes, it is. In practice, it’s yet another thing that we have to work around. Apparently it rules out a whole slice of the colour palette.’

‘Oh,’ said Colette, who had never thought about it.

The lab door opened with a gentle swish. Just in time, James closed the window on his computer with the Science Today story and maximised the one in which he was writing his own report.

‘Good morning,’ Barry said.

‘Morning, Barry,’ James said, in a remarkably natural way.

‘Morning,’ Colette mumbled.

He glanced at her. ‘You told me last week that you wanted to ask about something?’

‘Yes,’ Colette agreed, her mind blank. ‘I – I can’t remember what it was now.’

He looked distinctly unimpressed. ‘Hmm. Well, if you remember before about three o’clock, give me a shout.’ He disappeared into his office. James and Colette glanced at each other.

‘What did you want to ask him about?’ James asked. ‘Or can you really not remember?’

Colette wriggled uncomfortably. ‘I couldn’t put it into words in the moment. It was that weird [thing] that I asked you about…

As you see, I’m still in the [square brackets] phase. I’ll be back in a few months with the real page 69.

Titled.

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The sequel to Speak Its Name has been coming along very nicely in recent months. It’s now standing at 75,000 words, with only a few holes left to fill before I can move into the editing phase.

But I’ve been having to refer to it in just those terms, because I have had dreadful trouble coming up with a title for it.

At first I was thinking of it as Scandal and Folly, but I had to admit that this sounded too much like a bodice ripper. I thought of doing something with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but no variation on that seemed to work. Later I came up with Truth and Power, but that sounded too much like a political thriller. In between times, I’ve just been calling it ‘the sequel’.

On Tuesday I had a rather varied evening. First I went to the pub with some people I used to work with, and a few people I still work with, and ended up spending most of the time I was there talking to the boyfriend of someone who’d only just started working with the people I used to work with. Then I dashed off to catch a train and then lead a session on the Holy Spirit with a small group from church.

And through the evening there was one phrase that kept coming up. The real world. Trade union employees tend to be pretty much resigned to the idea that people think they don’t live in the real world. One of the church group felt that it was very important to live in the real world. In actual fact, it’s a phrase that I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with: unless this is the Matrix, all of us live in the real world.

Anyway, I was walking home at the end of the night and thinking how many times I’d heard the phrase the real world over the course of the previous few hours, and wondering whether it held any particular significance for me, or whether it was just coincidence.

And I realised: that’s my title.

The Real World

It works across several of the themes of the novel (we are picking up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name, with the characters in their early twenties and trying to work out what they’re doing next) and it has a good few layers of irony, too. Not least, of course, the fact that this isn’t the real world at all. It’s fiction.

But nobody in it knows that.

The Duke Is Dead: a conversation with Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley

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It is seven years since the Cousins’ War ended. King Roald has brought peace to the Three Kingdoms and driven the last heirs of the king he deposed into exile. His brother Thomas, Duke of Wharram, is a man for whom loyalty is the greatest virtue and family the highest cause. So when his sister Josiane, Duchess of Bergomance, finds herself widowed, her beloved stepdaughter Ambrosia beleaguered by suitors and her late husband’s coffers mysteriously empty, who better to send than Thomas?

But the ghosts of old wars are waiting in Bergomance, and new threats are rising. Some see heresy everywhere, and others look to an Empire in the east that has suddenly begun seeking allies.

And into it all, a ship driven off course by storms brings a young man fleeing King Roald’s mercenaries and throws him into Thomas’s path. Nicolas ás Ithel, a man with dark eyes and a love of numbers, and an inheritance in his veins that could reignite the Cousins’ War.

Kingsblood.

The Duke Is Dead, say its authors Ankaret Wells and Irene Headley, is a story of love, danger, intrigue, blood magic, vast amounts of sarcasm and a pygmy hippo.

I invited them over to this blog to ask how on earth any of that happened…

Irene Headley: Really, we can all blame this on the city of Bath.

Also, Bourgogne, Quelle Histoire!, which I picked up whilst on holiday in Burgundy in an attempt to improve my French. (See also that child’s book of Hapsburg Empresses in German in order to…you can guess.)

Ankaret Wells: It was 2013, the remains of Richard III had just been discovered under a car park, and Irene and I were sitting together in a café in Bath talking about it. I think IH might have had some copies of The Ricardian?

IH: I have a somewhat complex relationship with Richard III, best exemplified by the time when I was ten, I was at a castle day out decorating Wars of the Roses themed biscuits, and my mother leaned down and gently informed me that if I put the Red Rose of Lancaster on any of them, I was walking home. I’m still not entirely sure whether she was joking.

AW: I just read The Daughter Of Time at an impressionable age.

IH: Oh, I did that too. It’s the only Josephine Tey I’ve gotten through without screwing my face up because I was too young to recognise the weirdness.

AW: We were talking about the size of the Richard III Society compared to the plucky but outnumbered Henry VII Society, and somehow (I don’t think we were drunk at this point?)

IH: I think this was the trip to Bath where it was bucketing it down, not the one where I drank an inadvisable quantity of Pimms in the blazing sunshine, and then got very emotional about the memorial plaques in the Abbey*. We kept choosing cafés based on their proximity to the place we’d just left. This particular cafe was filled with plants.

AW: We somehow came up with the idea that the way to reconcile Henricians and Ricardians was to unite them in outrage against Richard III / Henry VII slash.

(Actually I’m sure the vast majority of both societies are sensible people whose attitude to m/m fiction is either ‘Not my thing, but why would I care what other people read?’, ‘Only #ownvoices, thanks’ or ‘Bring it on!’)

We spent a while composing letters between Henry trying to wrangle his uproarious uncles and being comprehensively outfoxed by Elizabeth Woodville and Richard being Sensible. And then IH suggested we set it after the death of Charles the Bold of Burgundy.

IH: I have always felt incredibly bad for Mary of Burgundy, Charles’s only child, and Richard III’s step-niece, who was married to the Archduke Maximilian of Austria just over six months after her father’s death, and died five years later in a riding accident. (This is where Bourgogne, Quelle Histoire!, comes in! It has a picture in which Mary appears to be declaring her love to her horse) We already knew that a world in which Henry and Richard loved each other wasn’t going to end in Henry killing Richard, and had somehow ended up shipping Elizabeth Woodville/Henry, while I was refusing to be parted from my OTP of Richard/Anne Neville. And then we thought: what if that’s when they fall in love? They’re not technically enemies yet, and we get to find Mary a different husband. Win-Win!

AW: So, we got them as far as meeting in Bruges – there was a joke about Henry saying his name was Richmond and Richard, in a hurry, saying ‘Oh, you’re Dick too?’ – and then I threw a spanner in the works and Irene, may any entities up there bless her, didn’t turn around and murder me.

I said ‘I think this ought to be fantasy’. We started renaming dynasties and kingdoms.  For me at least, that was when the characters started coming alive. In particular, the cardboard cutout of Jasper Tudor, boorishly considering courting the much younger Mary, turned into Morcant as Ithel, unshakeably poetic about all the wrong things but practical about most of the right ones, a man who would no more consider offering himself to a teenage duchess than he would change his religion for profit, but who fell in love like a ton of bricks with the most inconvenient person possible.

When we started out, some of the characters (mostly Yorkists) were Irene’s and some (mostly Lancastrians) were mine, but by the end we were both writing everybody.

IH: Making it a fantasy also meant that we got to do a lot with the Richard II and Henry IV figures. Richard II became Queen Sidonia and stayed that way, Henry IV went through a few changes before becoming irrevocably Queen Julia. We also got to create the Kosmotic Empire, which I may at one point have described as ‘basically matrilineal Byzantium’, which led to the existence of Melissa and Richza, my favourite diplomatic duo.

The only problem was that we had to cut out a lot of dynastic backstory and sidestory, at which point we brought in the chapter headings so that the reader got an idea of what got everyone to this point. (Admittedly, a number of the chapter headings are written by authors so biased as to be actively misleading…) This also led to Ankaret’s love affair with the town of Foswich.

AW: We have a lot more planned for this world, and we really hope you enjoy your visit.  Watch out for the pygmy hippos.

 

*In my defence, Irene adds, there is a plaque raised by a widowed mother who had lost her son in the Napoleonic Wars and her daughter to a fever which says something about how her only comfort is that God clearly needed them more than she did.

 

The Duke Is Dead is available now from Lulu and other retailers.

Quality, revisited

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Another day on Twitter (it’s just about bearable these days if you use Tweetdeck, I find), another free and frank exchange of views on the question of whether it’s fair to make a principle of not reading self-published books.

In one sense, it’s a pointless question. One can’t, and shouldn’t, force people to read books that they don’t want to read, and their reasons for not wanting to read them are surely their own business. But I do want to take issue with the underlying assumption that self-published books are necessarily terrible.

(Mandy Rice-Davies voice: Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?)

I would not deny for one moment that there are many appalling self-published books in the world. Earlier this week I read this thread from a professional editor with fascinated, delighted, horror. But, as I said when I shared it, there are plenty of traditionally published books that I’ve judged ‘Not bad, but could have done with a thorough edit’, and a few ‘This was so bad I couldn’t finish it’, as well as a lot more ‘Couldn’t be bothered’. The worst book I’ve read recently came from a small press. It was dire. It didn’t know which genre it was trying to be, and the worldbuilding was cowboy builder work. Needed a very thorough edit. Nor are the production values necessarily any better in conventional publishing. I still remember this horror with a certain sense of disbelief.

Conversely, the professionalism of self-published authors like Jane Davis and Ankaret Wells results in absorbing, enjoyable books that I look forward to reading and re-reading. And I know from my own experience that the choice to self-publish grants the great gift of control. I don’t have to put up with a terrible cover or a phoned-in edit. The power to improve things is mine. I make a point of never putting a book out until it’s as good as I can possibly get it. Quality is a subjective thing, of course. But it is not my judgement alone that puts my first novel on a par with some of the best of my generation; it was that of three authors whose writing I admire and who are big names in literature. It wasn’t lack of quality that meant I couldn’t get it published conventionally; it was the fact that there wasn’t a significant market for it. Too gay for the Christian market; too Christian for anything else. (I suppose I could have tried Darton Longman Todd, but then I don’t know what they’d have done with a novel with basically no religious content the next time round.)

Extrapolate from that, and one surmises that there are plenty of very good books out there that aren’t being published traditionally, and likely never will be, because the subject or the style just isn’t ‘in’ at the moment, or because the current trend is for debuts and the author didn’t hit the big time on their first attempt. I’d rather have the option of reading them. And I’d rather not be the one who puts that restriction on my reading material.

We all have our petty preferences, our likes and dislikes, both justified and unjustified. (Personally I’ve developed a violent hatred for that brushstroke calligraphy font that’s everywhere at the moment. I dare say that either my hatred or the fad will die off sooner or later.)

There are millions upon millions of books out there, and no human lifetime is going to be long enough to read all of them. We all have to find our own ways of prioritising. No matter what that is, we will inevitably miss something that we would have loved if we’d just given it a chance. Avoid books with predominantly pink covers, on the grounds that you don’t like chick lit? Miss out on the grittiness of Dorothy Koomson and the psychological insight of Marian Keyes. (I’m serious. I don’t think I’ve ever read an unreliable narrator that worked better for me.)

No. I choose books to read based on whether the subject matter interests me, what my friends are reading, and, above all, whether I like the writing style. And, as another Twitter self-publisher pointed out, that’s very easy to find out with a look inside, or, indeed, the ‘Look Inside’ feature.

If someone else’s chosen method of prioritsation is to exclude self-published works, then that’s up to them. But I will maintain for as long as I’m reading that it’s by no means a reliable filter for quality.

Back on the Book Bus (where do you get your ideas?)

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Last week I was back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe. I had good intentions about selling a lot and writing a lot. As it was, I sold very little and immediately spent all the proceeds on other books. I finished a short story (submissions deadline was today) and managed to get the current novel about a thousand words further forward and a little bit tidier.

Apart from that, I sat in the sun, and listened to and watched other people doing their thing. Poetry. Music. Theatre. Comedy. I looked for lizards (and found them) and drank Belgian beer.

In between times, I did quite a lot of thinking, and I noticed how my best ideas seem to come from thought experiments of the ‘What if?’ variety. For example:

I know the Society of Authors aren’t expecting a novel inspired by the three weeks of foreign travel their award funded, but, if they were, what would it look like?

(Answer: a modern Ruritanian adventure with ice dancing!)

Or, this week:

If I were going to write something that I could sell at a price point of £4 or under, so that buyers aren’t going to be put off it in favour of the cheaper, and excellent, second-hand books around it, what could that be?

(Answer: a little book that can double as a souvenir!)

So that’s two projects in the pipeline. I’m also attempting to write more short stories. Some of those I’m submitting them to other people’s anthologies and magazines; others, I have other plans for. For example, I’m thinking of setting up a mailing list, and I’d like to offer an exclusive short story as a thank you for joining it.

At the moment, though, my main focus is still the sequel to Speak Its Name, which is currently standing at just over 62,000 words. It still doesn’t have a title. I thought of Scandal and Folly (sounds too much like a bodice ripper). I thought of Truth and Power (sounds too much like a political thriller). I’ll just have to trust that I’ll come up with something before it’s finished. And that’ll be early next year, at a guess. I’ll keep you posted.

How to tell if you’re in a Kathleen Jowitt novel

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How To Tell If You’re In A Kathleen Jowitt novel*:

You’re not nearly such a terrible person as you thought you were. A red-haired activist from the North is trying to make your life better whether or not you wanted her to. You have devoted your life to this institution and it isn’t thanking you for it. You’re going through hell, but you come out the other side. Your friends spend their lives arguing on the internet. You can’t make any assumptions based on someone else’s religion, but you do anyway.

Oh, and you were never interested in the politics, but that hasn’t stopped the politics in being interested in you. And your parents are appalling.

The reader can also expect to find:

  • a fictional location
  • politics
  • a bisexual character
  • a reasonably optimistic romance which might or might not be the focus of the story

 

 

P. S. I’m trying to write less appalling parents.

* preserved from Twitter, and expanded slightly.

Engaging with the tradition

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A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend about what I was writing and what he’d been watching. I’m writing the sequel to Speak Its Name, which in its current state is mostly about vocations and relationships and what they do to each other. He’d been watching Fleabag, and thought that it had quite a lot to say to what I was doing, and had I seen it?

I said that I hardly watch any TV at all, because I lack the staying power. I can keep up with something for one or two episodes, but then life gets in the way and I get behind. (So I mostly watch Doctor Who, where you can dip in and out and it makes just as much sense as if you had managed to see last week’s episode.) So no, I hadn’t seen Fleabag.

But it’s a very good point. Whatever you’re writing about, whatever genre you’re writing in, someone will have been there first. (And if you don’t engage with that tradition, then there’s a very real danger of making yourself look like an utter plonker. See: Ian McEwan and sci-fi.)

Speak Its Name and whatever-the-sequel’s-going-to-be-called sit not quite comfortably within the Barchester genre. And that is a tradition that I’ve been engaging with ever since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation (Fit Persons To Serve In The Sacred Ministry of Thy Church: representations of Anglican clergy 1855-65) if not before (my mother, seeing me with a copy of Glittering Images shortly before my A-level exams, prudently removed it from me). Most recently, of course, there’s been Catherine Fox‘s Lindchester. Sometimes I think I’m engaged not so much in a dialogue with Lindchester as in a stand-up screaming match, while at the same time finding it intensely familiar and moving. So maybe I’ll get round to watching Fleabag, or more probably I won’t, but I think I’ve probably done enough homework there.

A Spoke in the Wheel is slightly different. Not so much in terms of genre – I suppose it’s somewhere between a romance and a social problem novel – but in terms of subject matter. I read loads of cycling books, but they were all non-fiction. Most of them were memoirs.

There isn’t really a tradition, you see. Elsewhere (and elsewhen – almost a decade ago, in fact) on the Internet, William Fotheringham has a list of the top ten cycling novels. They’re a mixed bag, and the diversity of genres represented suggests that he had to scratch around quite a lot to find any ten, let alone a top ten.

If I were feeling inspired I’d try matching the titles to the various roles within a team (sprinter, GC contender, domestique, grimpeur, rouleur, etc), but I’m feeling a bit too tired for that. And I’ve only attempted three of them in recent years. (I’m sure I must have had The Adventure of the Priory School read to me when I was a child, but it hasn’t stuck.)

  • Cat ought to be the sort of thing I’d love, but every time I’ve tried it I’ve foundered on the extended passages in italic type.
  • Three Men on the Bummel is not quite as good as Three Men in a Boat, and contains quite a lot of tedious national stereotyping.
  • The Rider was the one I saved for after I’d finished writing A Spoke In The Wheel, because when something’s been sold as ‘the best cycling novel of all time’, it’s a bit intimidating when you’re just trying to write a decent one.

And I’ve now downloaded The Wheels of Chance (thank you, Project Gutenberg).

Actually, the one cycling book I’m really glad I didn’t read before starting ASITW is Fotheringham‘s own Put Me Back On My Bike. I just don’t think I’d have had the nerve to write about fictional doping with that magnificent and uncomfortably vivid account of the tragedy of Tom Simpson always in the back of my mind.

 

* Having said that, I’ve now watched all of Good Omens, so it turns out that I’m perfectly capable of watching television when somebody else organises it and when it’s a day that I didn’t have earmarked for writing. I’m still two episodes behind on Gentleman Jack, though, and it’ll be three if I don’t get my act together this weekend.