Don’t look down

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It’s been a while since I last began a book. I wrote down the first words of A Spoke In The Wheel in early 2016, just as I’d got Speak Its Name out of the door. It took me two years to get that written, edited, and published.

Then I decided I’d give myself a couple of months off writing novels, while I caught up on my travel write-ups.

Then I decided that actually I did want to get started on the next novels (yes, plural) after all.

Since then I’ve been very carefully not freaking out.

It honestly is like remembering how to ride a bike. (And I know what I’m talking about here.) It’s not so much that you forget how to do it, as that you lose your nerve. You don’t lose the physical ability; you lose the unthinking trust that you can take both feet off the ground and still not fall over.

Except in this case I’m not just riding the bicycle, I’m creating the very ground it’s traversing. I’m setting out into the unknown, knowing very well that the unknown doesn’t exist yet.

And it’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been writing blog posts; I’ve been writing short stories; I’ve been writing up my travels. It’s just that a full-length novel feels so much bigger, and until it’s written there’s so much empty space where I know there should be words.

It would be daunting, if I let myself think about how daunting it is.

I’m not a plotter, never have been. The best I can say is that I know where I’m headed. I know what needs to have happened for the ending to be satisfying. As to what’s between here and there, I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet. It’s a bit scary, really. I find myself wanting to go slower. I want to get off my bicycle and walk.

Don’t look down, I tell myself. Don’t look at the yawning chasm that represents all the research you haven’t yet done, all the words you haven’t yet written.

Just write a little bit.

Put one foot after the other. Get the notebook out. Take the cap off the pen. Open the notebook to the next blank page.

If the world of fiction is refusing to co-operate, write about Venice, or Bratislava, or the red-painted wooden houses of Sweden.

Writing about my own experiences is easy, and, sooner or later, fiction co-operates. I try to remember what I had for dinner in Ljubljana and find myself writing Lydia’s musings on the question of idolatry instead. And slowly, slowly, the novel begins to materialise. The snappy exchange, written down, brings its context in after it. Writing down the context raises questions. Why does she think that? Oh, hang on, does he really know that, or is it just a lucky guess? Answering those questions invokes new scenes. The more I write, the more I know what to write next.

At the moment, the sequel to Speak Its Name is standing at about 6000 words. More to the point, I’m beginning to see how the whole thing is going to fit together. I’m beginning to understand the dynamics between the different characters. Things that I’ve known for as long as I’ve been planning this book suddenly make sense: Oh. She’s upset because they turn up unannounced. And the bedroom thing is awkward because they’re not allowed to live together… Awkward facts that I thought I was going to have to work around turn out to fit in nicely. OK, the timing won’t work for the transfer, but instead we could have the RA quitting, maybe he was really stressed because he was about to get married and thought it would get better when that had happened, but it hasn’t, but he can also be the example of the marriage that does work. And I am beginning to get a better sense of what I still need to find out, and who I need to talk to in order to do that.

What I’m referring to in my head as ‘the Ruritanian thing’ is a way behind, with a scant thousand words on the page and only the haziest idea of what needs to happen in between the beginning and the end. Half of the characters are missing names, and the plot is missing all sorts of vital components like what and how and why. Maybe this one won’t happen. I hope it does. I think it’ll be fun. And I’m aware that a large part of my unease probably comes from the fact that I haven’t got very far into it yet, that, the further I get in, the better I’ll feel about it.

Heigh-ho. All I can do with either of them is keep on writing. The main thing is not to look down.

Fall In Love: autumn sale at I Heart Lesfic

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A heads up for fans of f/f fiction: I Heart Lesfic is hosting a very large sale over the next few days. There are over one hundred books up there, by more than sixty authors. Enjoy!

The eagle-eyed will notice that none of those authors is me. This is because Amazon refuses to recognise that I set Speak Its Name to free (in ebook form, at least) several weeks ago. Lulu, Kobo, the iBookstore and Barnes & Noble have all caught on, though, so help yourself. (And if you’re dithering, here’s a recent review to help you make up your mind.)

Charity vs piracy: my take on the second-hand books question

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As usual, I’m late to the controversy. As usual, I only have a hazy idea of what actually went down. But I think it was something like this:

  1. A site went up which shared pirated ebooks in PDF format
  2. Authors and publishers protested
  3. Users of the pirate site protested in turn
  4. Conclusions were jumped to (authors do not want people to read their books for free!)
  5. Assumptions were made (authors do not want people to read their books in any way that doesn’t involve buying the book new!)
  6. Somewhere in the middle of this, the site was taken down
  7. But the controversy kept running

If you happened to look at Twitter at the wrong moment, you might well be forgiven for concluding that authors disapprove of: libraries, charity shops, jumble sales, second-hand bookshops, those shelves you find in cafés and staff rooms and railway stations.

(Although if you looked a bit harder you’d find plenty of authors who’d disagree.)

There simply aren’t enough hard copies of my books out there in the wild for this to affect me. If there’s somebody currently scouring the charity shops of Britain in the hopes of picking up a paperback of Speak Its Name, then all I can say is, good luck to them. They’ll spend more on the petrol or the train fare than they would just buying the thing new.

So really, I’m talking as a reader here, as a browser, as a purchaser.

I’m talking about charity shops here, and about libraries, and about bricks-and-mortar second-hand bookshops. I’m talking about places with actual shelves. I’ve spent a lot of time in that sort of place over the years. And I have picked up books by authors I’d never heard of. My eye has been caught by a title, a cover picture, a half-remembered name.

And I wouldn’t have spent nine pounds ninety nine on this whim, but fifty pence, two pounds, seems like a decent gamble. Because it is a gamble. I might abandon it after one chapter. On the other hand, I might end up devoting the next five years of my life to finding everything else that author wrote and buying it – yes! perhaps even new!

And I have never felt remotely guilty about any of that; nor do I intend to start now. I am pleased to support a small business or a charity. (Well, most charities – but that’s another story.)

If I like a book, I might keep it and re-read it. If I don’t like it, am I expected to throw it away? Because I certainly don’t want it around my house. No. I will pass it on to a charity shop, or leave it on a swap shelf, or BookCross it, and if someone ends up selling it for fifty pence or five pounds, then they’re welcome to it. And, if I’m honest, the implication that all books should be new books (because that’s where the other way of thinking leads leads) appalls me on ecological grounds, quite apart from anything else.

Many of my clothes came from charity shops, and many have gone back to others. I don’t see the difference when it comes to books. Nobody apart from me can wear the dress that I am wearing. (They can wear a dress very like it, but that’s another story.) But I can lend, give, or sell it to somebody else without the manufacturer having any reasonable grounds for complaint. Likewise, nobody except me can read (for example) the particular copy of The Birthday Party (Veronica Henry) that’s currently on top of my chest-of-drawers. But I could lend, give, or sell it to you, and then you could read it.

And I don’t think that’s depriving Veronica Henry of any income that she could reasonably have expected, because I’d never heard of her before a BookCrosser sent me that book. On the other hand, if I were to start making and handing out copies of it to anyone who asked – people who were actively looking for her book, say – then that would be illegal and immoral. And that’s what the PDF distribution site was doing.

But the existence of any physical copy of any book implies that at some point, perhaps way, way back in the dim and distant past, the author (or the author’s estate, or whoever managed to get the rights off the author**) has been paid for that copy of that book. That is what makes the difference for me between the second-hand trade and piracy.

Incidentally, if you do happen to want a free ebook, then my Speak Its Name is free on Kobo, the iBookstore, Barnes and Noble, and Lulu until the end of September. And if anyone tells you off for downloading it, well, you can tell them that I wrote it and I published and I’m the one who gets to set the price. My apologies to Kindle users: I’m waiting for Amazon to catch up. If you don’t want to wait, you can get an EPUB copy and run it through Calibre with my blessing.

 

* I also make extensive and enthusiastic use of Project Gutenberg, on the grounds that the authors represented there are far too dead to care, and for the most part, so are their heirs.

 

Report from the Book Bus: new friends and old friends

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I am back on the mainland and back at my own computer, after most of a week at the Ventnor Fringe Festival, most of which I spent hanging around at the Book Bus.

I sold a few books. I wrote a few lines. But mostly I sat in a deckchair and chatted to Tom and Jen, who are in charge of the book part of proceedings (my father and brother look after the bus side of things), and to various family members and friends who were around for the week. I listened to poets and musicians. I bought some books I didn’t know I needed (a leather-bound copy of Prince Otto, which I finished in the form of a Project Gutenberg ebook a few weeks ago; an account of the Oberammergau Passion Play by Jerome K. Jerome; a Val McDermid so early it was published by the Women’s Press; a guide to the Offa’s Dyke long-distance trail).

And I reread my own book. I’m just beginning to work on the sequel to Speak Its Name, which will pick up on the action three or four years down the line, and I wanted to remind myself of what actually ended up in the book.

I knew most of what happened, of course, but I discovered that I’d got Colette’s brothers mixed up, and had given her a niece that I’d completely forgotten about. I discovered that the family dog appeared to be alive and well. I managed to distinguish the two separate parts of the Mel-and-Rose combination. I learned that Colette reads Trollope. I reminded myself of the names of all the churches in Stancester. I found that I’d already sown the seeds for one of the themes that I’m intending to develop in the sequel.

And I found myself filled with an unexpected affection for all my characters, but particularly for Colette and Lydia, who I put through hell and brought out the other side. I have found that all my major characters continue to sit in my head, and quite often I stop to think about what they would make of current affairs that affect them, but this felt rather different. This was more like sitting down with them for a long old gossip than following them on Twitter. It was lovely.

The next book will come from Colette’s point of view. I’m not planning any more Stancester books after this, but, you know, I said that last time. Either way, I’m looking forward to getting to know Colette and Lydia (not to mention Georgia, Will, and Peter) again. And it was great to have a week on a bus full of books to get things going.

Next time I’ll try not to bookend the week with the Discworld convention the weekend before and a wedding the weekend afterwards. But it was great fun, and I’ll definitely be back, so long as the bus is.

 

See you on the Book Bus

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Later this week I’ll be back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe, an independent arts festival that turns every conceivable nook and cranny in this delightfully higgledy-piggledy Victorian resort into a performance space. Ventnor is possibly my favourite town in the entire country, but I have never yet managed to make it down there for the Fringe. Until now.

You may well find me in the Book Bus in St Catherine’s churchyard, where I’ll have copies of both my books on sale. (Mine are new. Everything else on there is second hand.) The bus (which is the one in the picture above) will be there all week, and is open from 10am to 6pm; I have to eat and sleep and would quite like to see some of the other events as well, so I can’t guarantee that I’ll necessarily be there when you happen to turn up. But hey, it’s a bus full of books; you don’t need me to be around to have a whale of a time there.

All this talk of independent events reminds me of an initiative I came across via Twitter this week, Just A Card. The idea is that if everybody who came into a [studio/craft shop/art gallery/bookshop] bought ‘just a [card/brooch/fridge magnet/book]’, that establishment would be able to remain in business for rather longer than it would otherwise.

Obviously I’m not advocating filling your house up with useless crap that you hate, particularly not if money’s tight; but if you find something cheap and pleasing, something that you think that a friend or family member might appreciate even if it’s not your thing, then buying it might go a little way to keeping an independent business going.

(Connoisseurs of British seaside towns may legitimately point out that this is obviously Brighton, not Ventnor. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the bus in Ventnor, although by this time next week I almost certainly will have fixed that.)

Upstaged! anthology out today

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I’m very pleased to say that Upstaged!: an anthology of women who love women in performing arts is available now, and that it contains my story Prima Donna. It’s a delightful selection of short stories published by Supposed Crimes, who specialise in F/F fiction across a variety of genres.

The ‘performing arts’ in question are many and varied – my story is (of course) about opera, while others feature panto, silent film, burlesque, plays and musicals.

The genres are many and varied, too. We have steampunk, sci-fi, romance, slice-of-life, and straight (or not-so-straight) historical. Settings range from the 1830s to the far future, from Broadway to New Helsinki. Not all the stories will be to everyone’s taste – that’s the nature of such a diverse collection – but all the same I think there is something in there for everyone.

There’s an interview with me about the inspiration for Prima Donna and about my future projects over at the publishers’ site today.

As for the book itself, here it is at Amazon.com…

… at Amazon.co.uk…

… at Kobo…

… at Smashwords…

… at Barnes & Noble

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Learning, past, present and future: judging the UNISON writing competition

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Last month I had the very great privilege of announcing the winner of UNISON’s first-ever creative writing competition at National Delegate Conference in Brighton.

I’d never judged anything before, and this was an enjoyable, if intimidating, place to start. We’d asked entrants to work with the theme of ‘Learning: past, present, and future’. My fellow judges were Genevieve Clarke, from The Reading Agency, Andrew Jennison, UNISON learning rep at De Montfort University and mastermind of the #DMUReads scheme, and Kirsi Kekki, Policy Officer for English and maths learning at Unionlearn.

Reading through all the entries was a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and rereading and deliberating over my choices occupied my mind for the next couple of weeks. Names were removed, along with other identifying information, before the entries were passed to the judges. There were also a couple of genuinely anonymous entries, which we couldn’t consider. I took a look at those, too, out of interest, and I think one of them might have made the final six if it had only been sent in with a name attached. The moral of that is: be brave!

Interestingly enough, deciding on the winner was easy. There was only one entry that all four of us had on our own personal shortlists. It was agreeing on the rest of the shortlist that was difficult. Some of us had firm favourites that didn’t appear at all on others’ lists. And I certainly looked at a couple of other lists, saw entries that I hadn’t included, and said, ‘Yeah, good point…’ Writing is such a subjective thing to judge; readers’ tastes vary so much. At least, ours did!

What made the winning entry stand out from the rest of the field? In a word, consistency. Conservative Party Conference 2050 started strongly, with an attention-grabbing burst of onomatopoeia, and it never faltered. It built on that with a rousing testament to the power of learning, and finished with a twist that had more than one of us laughing out loud. There isn’t a weak word in it.

As for the rest of the shortlist, we tended to favour pieces that took risks, or that went in a slightly different direction from the obvious. Petrichor, for example, was the only entry that had a narrator who wasn’t human.

Three personal accounts of learning made it into the final shortlist, reflecting a heavy weighting of entries with that theme. However, one of those, A Teacher Prepares, was written from a teacher’s point of view rather than a student’s, and another, Learning: a love story, drew the theme of learning into all aspects of the writer’s life with rueful, self-deprecating humour.

With all that said, There, Inside Of Me didn’t try anything fancy, just told the poet’s own learning story in a few well-chosen words. And we had a few submissions involving post-apocalyptic visions of education; of these, A Different Class stood out because of its strong worldbuilding and bleak humour.

I got to announce the shortlist and the winner. My colleague Clair got to read the winning entry out, and had far too much fun pretending to be a Tory MP.

I very much enjoyed being a judge, although it did tie up more of my work time than I’d expected. Out of curiosity, I went Googling to see how the real pros do it. This is what one of the 2014 Man Booker Prize judges said:

All six judges read 156 books submitted by 94 publishing imprints, and argued about them. That sentence makes this part sound rather breezy. For just over six months, I read a novel a day.

Whew. Reading that, I’m very glad that we imposed a 1500 word limit on our competition.