The patchwork analogy

For some people, writing a novel is like knitting. You begin at the beginning, and you go on until you get to the end, and then you stop.

Personally, I’m very glad that I was born into the age of the word processor, because I absolutely cannot do that. Oh, I’ve tried. But if a scene, a moment, a phrase, from chapter thirty-two is dancing around in my head, then I can’t settle down to write chapter one.

For me, it’s more like patchwork. Or one particular project, anyway, which was more of a freehand effort than most of my quilts. Let me demonstrate:

You have a general idea of what you want to create, and you start with an idea that takes your fancy. In this case, it was the four seasons, and I thought I’d begin with a jolly yellow sun for summer.dscf9859

You might want to incorporate something that wouldn’t quite fit into a previous project. (I made more of those blue flowers than I needed. Never mind! The spares will do for spring!)

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(This is a bit meta. Any patches in here which are in English, as opposed to gobbledegook, are from the now-deleted first chapter of Speak Its Name.)

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You get all your ideas down and then move them around a bit, seeing how they fit best, what needs to come after what.

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As you go along joining things together, you see where things can be tightened up.

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You see where the gaps are, and you start filling them…

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… until you get something that’s more like the right shape.

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At that point, you can start tidying it up, taking out the things that were only there to hold it in shape during construction.

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Now comes the backing and the pinning and the quilting, the crawling around on the floor and swearing a lot. You feel like you’re nearly there, but there’s still a frustrating amount left to do. (This is where the analogy falls down a bit. This is, oh, I don’t know, the proofreading. And waiting for people to get back to you to tell you where you’ve got things wrong.)

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But once you’ve done that then there’s just the finishing off. And then you can feel rather pleased with yourself. Because the thing’s done, and while it doesn’t perhaps look exactly the way you once envisioned it, it’s not nearly as bad as you once thought it was going to be.

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Good news

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Speak Its Name was a finalist in the 2016 North Street Book Prize for self-published books (scroll down to the bottom of the page – then scroll back up and read about the actual winners). I’m very pleased about this indeed.

News from the Church of England is also good, though I find myself less excited than I might perhaps have been a couple of years ago. This time around, I got so frustrated by the bi erasure from both sides that I never managed to get into the debate. And I can’t help feeling that things have come to a pretty pass when Synod opt not to note a report that was so dreadful that the Bishops felt that they had to apologise for it and we feel obliged to be grateful for this.

I’m thinking a lot about the Syro-Phoenician woman, thinking about the tables that I sit at and the ones whose legs I prowl around hopefully. Some time over the last few years, it seems, I started wanting more than crumbs.

We’ll turn it around

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I’ve spent quite of lot of 2017 being ill. The boomerang virus has hit me three times since New Year’s Eve. At the moment it’s manifesting in a hacking cough, set off by a) singing anything longer than a bar and a half in one breath; b) laughing; c) breathing in cold air. Previously it’s made itself known in extreme lethargy, fever, sniffles tending to nosebleeds, headaches, lack of sleep, a sore throat, and a cough. Not, fortunately, all at once. Or, at least, not for long.

Consequently, I’ve spent quite a lot of 2017 wrapped up in a blanket and occupying myself with things that haven’t needed much energy. In what is perhaps not a coincidence, I have fallen hard for Yuri!!! on Ice, which is a very sweet and optimistic anime about figure skating. This despite my having had no prior interest in either anime or figure skating. It just seems to appeal to the same part of my brain that likes epaulettes and grand opera and dark chocolate. And Ruritania.

It’s probably also significant that Yuri!!! on Ice takes place in a universe where there’s no homophobia and where the sport system can be trusted. By contrast, I have spent the last year writing in a universe where sport chews you up and spits you out, and several years before that writing in a universe where homophobia is depressingly and devastatingly real. So perhaps I just needed a break.

There are parts of my brain that think it is absolutely appalling of me to be watching anything at all light and fluffy (not to mention admitting to it in public) when As We All Know The World Is Going To Hell. (There are other parts of my brain that don’t like my admitting to liking anything at all, including epaulettes, grand opera, and dark chocolate, because that’s really embarrassing, apparently. And another one that’s pointing out that I promised myself several years ago that I’d never apologise for my reading or watching material, because if an English Lit degree doesn’t give you the right to read what you like without feeling guilty about it, what does? Brains, eh?)

The thing is, it’s not as simple as that. In the same way that one can’t (at least, I can’t) read The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau without reflecting that Rudolf V is actually a pathetic excuse for a king who deserves everything he gets, and wondering whether there’s a Ruritanian Communist Party, it’s difficult to watch Yuri!!! on Ice without acknowledging that, sadly, Russia doesn’t work like that, and China doesn’t work like that, and probably skating doesn’t work like that either. Which makes for some genuinely interesting fanfic; but I’ve been reading a lot of fluff, too.

It’s a constant push and pull: between escapism and realism (but how real is the realism?), between optimism and pessimism; the tension between the world as one would like it to be and the world as one fears it is; the question of what truth looks like in fiction. I feel the urge to complicate the simple stuff; and to give the miserable stuff a happy ending; to question whether an ending that an author clearly intended as happy is as happy as all that; and to  It’s a question with which a consumer engages as much as a creator. Actually, I find that the lines are blurred, and that I’m arguing with something with everything I write: some other book, something someone else said, adding another layer to the debate.

On which subject: I’ve got back into the editing process for A Spoke In The Wheel this week, after spending all of January too knackered and too scared to look at it. It turns out that it’s neither as bad nor as miserable as my mind had made it out to be. (Again, I say, brains, eh?) And I find myself wondering, now, where it falls on that continuum between realism and escapism. I’ve tried to set it in the real world, where zero hours contracts and sexism and burnout exist. I’ve got a friend checking it at the moment for errors in my portrayal of the notoriously dreadful UK disability benefits process. It’s fairly cynical about sport, or, at least, the narrator is.

But I find, re-reading it, that on the whole it’s hopeful. And I’m glad about that. Apart from anything else, it occurs to me that if we can’t let ourselves imagine a better world, we’re unlikely ever to get one.

The first year

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Thursday was Candlemas, which means several things:

  1. It’s spring! At least, it is according to the medieval calendar, which I’m choosing to follow. Having lost most of January to illness (two rounds of this flu-like virus that’s been afflicting people across the country, as I hear) and only got back to normal this past week, it feels like a good time for new beginnings.
  2. I’ve put the crib away at last.
  3. Speak Its Name has been out for a whole year.

I’m pleased with what it’s done during that year. It’s sold. It’s sold to people I don’t know. It’s had excellent reviews, from people I don’t know and from people whose judgement I trust.

I, meanwhile, have become much more confident. These days I admit to writing! These days I think nothing of contacting random bloggers and offering review copies or guest posts.

And I’ve got the first draft of the next book down. That’s not bad going for a year’s work.

In the interests of honesty I have to admit that I’m just coming out of a gigantic wibble about the next book.

It was a twofold wibble:

  1. Who am I going to upset with this? I remember worrying about upsetting people with Speak Its Name, and if I did upset them they never told me. I’m addressing the possibility by asking friends with relevant experience to read the thing.
  2. What if it’s not as good as Speak Its Name? This, of course, is the flip side of getting good reviews for Speak Its Name: I end up convinced that I’m never going to do anything so good ever again. Of course it stands to reason a first draft of one thing isn’t going to be as good as the final version of the previous thing, but you try telling that to my brain.

Maybe I’ll get over my gigantic wibbles with experience, or maybe the occasional gigantic wibble is just part and parcel of writing.

Or maybe it was just the end of the flu.

It’s been a good week for reviews

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Lisa at the Student Christian Movement was kind enough to send me a copy of this term’s Movement magazine, which includes a 10/10 review for Speak Its Name. The reviewer says:

Kathleen Jowitt conveys the issues of being a Christian student involved in Christian Societies well, and as I was reading it I felt that so many of the issues raised were issues that many Christian students who are active in various Christian Societies would face during their time at University.

And, over at The Good, The Bad and the Unread, Speak Its Name gets a Grade A. Stevie says:

This really was a fabulous book… Highly recommended for anyone who has ever been involved in student or local politics, has sat on a committee or has even the vaguest passing interest in how other faiths and denominations work in the 21st Century.

I’ve also had some pleasing news on a related front, but I’m going to keep quiet about that until confirmation appears online…

 

Delaying

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For me, the new year came in with a whimper, not with a bang. I was in bed long before the bangs started, knocked flat by this virus that everyone’s been getting. And it’s taken me a while to get up and running. There’s a lot to catch up with, or, at least, there could be, if I were thinking in terms of needing to catch up with things.

The crib should have gone away. It didn’t. It’s going to have to stay up until Candlemas now, and for once the Magi get to stay by the manger for more than a day. (The parrots were a present from a friend, who’d seen this crib and got ideas about how to improve mine.)

The printer is out of toner. Which means that I haven’t printed off the current draft of A Spoke in the Wheel. Which means that I haven’t read the current draft of A Spoke in the Wheel. And I’m aware that there’s more to it than the simple fact that the printer’s out of toner.

The snag is the usual one. I am scared of reading it because I am worried that I will come across a problem that is unfixable. Perhaps I have failed to do some essential bit of research and have made a mistake that’s going to kill the whole plot. Perhaps I have managed to be unintentionally yet monumentally offensive. It’s always a variation on one of those two. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

There are two potential ways to deal with this. The first is to wait it out. I’ve lived with myself long enough to know that I do get things finished, eventually, and that if the book and I want to spend two months hiding for each other then perhaps that’s just what we need to do, and we’ll find each other in good time. The second is to get somebody else to read it for me. Sooner or later I would anyway, but this is a much earlier stage in the process, and I find myself reluctant to pass it out before it’s as good as I can get it unaided.

At the moment, while I’m still getting over this illness and blessed with a contented lack of urgency, I’m going with the first option. I spent far too much of last year worrying that I hadn’t done enough, that I wasn’t writing fast enough, and, now that feeling’s a long way off, I’m going to enjoy its absence. The book can wait.

The colour of curtains

Here’s a meme that’s been annoying me:

The curtains

The curtains…

I have never written any blue curtains, so I can’t comment on those. In fact, I think I’ve only written two pairs of curtains, and specified the colour of one of those pairs. They were yellow.

This is what my English teacher told me:

Every word on that page is there because the author wanted it to be there.

The curtains are only in the book at all because the author wanted them to be there. If they described every item of furniture, every fixture and fitting, in a room, then the reader would die of boredom long before any action could begin. Instead, the author has to trust that the reader will fill in the background details subconsciously. This can cause problems for someone trying to convert a textual work into a visual one. In fact, it’s called the Jane Austen’s curtains problem.

Given that, why mention the curtains at all? Why make them blue, if not some other colour? There’s probably a reason, and it’s worth thinking about what it might be.

Colette’s room looked out over the back garden, down towards the railway and across the town. The terraces ran in neat russet lines down the hill; on the other side of the river, the beech trees in the park were vivid amber, and the yellow-grey stone of the old town glowed gold in the October light.

‘Wow,’ Lydia said, ‘you get a lovely view of the cathedral from here.’

‘I know; I’m very lucky. It’s my reward for having the smallest bedroom.’

The window was open, a cool breeze stirring the yellow curtains. Down in the garden they could hear Peter bellowing, ‘Fa-ac me-e te-e-cu-um plangere!’ as he put his laundry up on the clothesline.

When I gave Colette a pair of yellow curtains – and, almost more importantly, when I didn’t take them out again during editing – there were various things in my mind.

Real curtains

I don’t have a particularly visual imagination, and find that inventing objects doesn’t come naturally to me. Consequently, I do tend to appropriate real life objects. The horrible red leather sofa at Balton Street, for example, is real; it was an eyesore in a university friend’s flat. Colette’s curtains belonged to one of my own housemates. (No, that doesn’t mean that she’s the model for Colette. If it comes to that, the friend with the red leather sofa is nothing like anybody at Balton Street.)

Autumn

The yellow curtains call back to the first paragraph in that extract, where there’s already a lot of colour. Russet, amber, yellow-grey, gold: Stancester in autumn. Autumn is traditionally associated with decay, but this is the beginning of the academic year and the beginning of the story. I had to make it all glow very brightly. And yellow can be autumnal but it’s also strongly associated with spring: jasmine, daffodils, primroses, and so on. The beginning of the year. Things awakening.

Liturgy

In the Church (not Lydia’s church, but she doesn’t need to know this) yellow equals gold equals white: the colour of rejoicing, the colour for feasts, for Christmas and Easter, for weddings and baptisms. In most of the rest of the book the dominant colour is purple. Partly because I like purple, yes, but partly because it’s associated with waiting, penitence, mourning, fasting. Colette, the out bisexual character, could very well have purple curtains. But she doesn’t. She isn’t waiting or penitent or mourning or fasting at the moment, though she’ll do all of those things over the course of the book. She’s content in who and what she is in a way that Lydia can’t understand yet. And the curtains are yellow.

Did I do all that consciously, deliberately? I doubt it, at least in the first draft. As best I can remember, my thought process went something like:

looking out of the window – oh, better have some curtains, then – any particular curtains? – A’s curtains – yellow curtains

That’s not really the point. The point is that they remained yellow. This mention of yellow was a lot less deliberate than any mention of purple, but I kept it because it worked.

Later, when Lydia recalls the incident, the curtains are mentioned again, but their colour isn’t:

And the clear autumn breeze lifting the hem of the curtain, and Peter singing in the garden, and her soul standing on the threshold of its self-made prison, not yet ready to step out, but knowing for the first time that there was a world outside it.

Because their colour isn’t relevant here. The point now is that the window’s open.

It’s always worth thinking about the curtains.

And this approach goes for any detail. Why is Peter singing that particular line? Because it’s a lot of fun to sing, and I know that because I’ve sung tenor in the Dvorak Stabat Mater myself. Because it does sound a bit dirty if you don’t immediately realise that it’s not in English, and this scene needed to go a little way beyond Lydia’s comfort zone.

One could also say that the meaning of the Latin is relevant. Make me weep with you. The speaker is asking to enter more fully into the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, and there is certainly a sense in which the book is about expanding one’s spiritual experience.

But that’s a bit of a stretch. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t thinking of that when I put it in. So I don’t know, maybe the maker of that meme has a point after all.

Yes, the curtains were fucking yellow. But if there hadn’t been a reason for that then they wouldn’t have existed at all.