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

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

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

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

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

You Are Here: style and substance

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At least somebody knows where they are…

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

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

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

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

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

Second novel syndrome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I see what’s wrong with it.

Then I see how to fix it.

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

It isn’t finished yet.

Questions that have arisen in the latest editing pass

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

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

You do not have to read my book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for something completely different: A Spoke In The Wheel

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The first thing I saw was the wheelchair.

The first thing she saw was the doper.

If you’re thinking that I’m the one who comes off looking like a dick, I couldn’t disagree with you.

Ben Goddard is an embarrassment – as a cyclist, as an athlete, as a human being. And he knows it.

Now that he’s been exposed by a positive drugs test, his race wins and his work with disabled children mean nothing. He quits professional cycling in a hurry, sticks a pin in a map, and sets out to build a new life in a town where nobody knows who he is or what he’s done.

But when the first person he meets turns out to be a cycling fan, he finds out that it’s not going to be quite as easy as that.

Besides, Polly’s not just a cycling fan, she’s a former medical student with a chronic illness and strong opinions. Particularly when it comes to Ben Goddard…

A Spoke In The Wheel will be released on 5th May 2018. Watch this space!