Degrees of stuckness

The Real World is currently sitting at 83,000 words. This ought to be enough words, but of course not all of them will end up in the final version.

At present I’m wondering whether I’ve got to the point where I put it away for three months. I probably have. At the beginning of the year I told myself that I was aiming to have a first draft in October, and, apart from a few [insert science fact here] notes, I’ve filled in most of the gaps.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to compare it with its two predecessors – not in terms of word count (that wouldn’t take long) or in terms of what precisely I was panicking about, when (that’s a question for another post), but in terms of what you might call the emotional arc.

Thus far, I have always written about what one of my friends called ‘people sorting their heads out‘: characters who are stuck in their own assumptions, their own worldviews, and how they get unstuck.

What makes The Real World different is the fact that I show much more of the process of getting stuck.

Here’s a diagram:

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Speak Its Name chugs along for the first hundred pages or so with Lydia operating within the same narrow constraints that she’s known all her life. When she takes a long, hard, look at herself, everything suddenly opens out – and keeps opening.

What we can’t see, of course, is how the increased exposure to people outside her own social group is affecting her without her knowing it.

In fact, all three diagrams show only what’s going on in the protagonist’s head, and only what they’re conscious of (or would be, if they thought about it). They don’t show the external circumstances or other characters’ decisions that are working on them. Nor do they show all the little accumulations and releases of tension that drive a story. Just the perceived stuckness, if you like.

In A Spoke in the Wheel, the most stuck part is actually before the opening of the book. When we meet Ben, he’s not quite at his lowest point: he’s just coming out of it; he’s made a major change in his life. He still has a very long way to go, and the process isn’t quite as smooth as the diagram implies, but the only way is up. Or, to put it another way, it’s all uphill from here.

The Real World starts out in Colette’s head with a reasonably broad worldview, and then compresses and compresses things until it’s almost intolerable. But, as you see, it finds a bit of space right at the end.

I’m a bit apprehensive about what people will make of it. Will it all be hideously depressing (or, worse, boring) – or will the increasing stuckness drive the tension up?

The answer is, I honestly don’t know, yet. It’s difficult to tell when I’ve been buried in the text. That’s why I’m putting it away until the new year. I’ll let you know.

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.

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.

Exeter Novel Prize

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It’s always good to have an excuse to go to Exeter – to stay with family, to catch up with friends, to see what’s changed since I was a student, and to take this shot of the west front of the cathedral, which was something that apparently I never managed to do in the three years I lived in the city.

And it was very good to attend the awards ceremony for the Exeter Novel Prize, and to read out the first page of A Spoke In The Wheel. As always, I was struck by how happy everybody – shortlisted authors, guests, judges, and audience – was to be there. We were all genuinely pleased to have got on the shortlist, and pleased for the overall winner, Rebecca Kelly, who unfortunately wasn’t able to be present to collect her trophy.

After that, of course, there was the gentle joy of a train journey back through the lush green contours of the West Country, with the setting sun striking the landscape in front of me and turning everything gold. I spent most of it staring out of the window.

I’m calling that ‘research’ for the next Stancester book’.

On the Exeter Novel Prize shortlist

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Exeter is one of my favourite cities. It’s where I went to university; it’s where a lot of my friends still live; it’s a lovely place to go back to.

And – as I’ve been fortunate enough to be reminded this year – it’s always nice to be on the shortlist for a literary prize.

So I’m doubly pleased to have had A Spoke In The Wheel shortlisted for the 2018 Exeter Novel Prize. I’m very much looking forward to going down to Exeter for the awards ceremony. It’s a good excuse to revisit old haunts, catch up with some people I haven’t seen for ages, and, I’m sure, meet some new ones.

Incidentally, the price of the paperback edition of A Spoke In The Wheel at Amazon.co.uk continues to drop. At the time of posting it’s down at £4.55. I’ve no idea how long that will last…

 

Another #IndieAthon done

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IndieAthon is done for another year. I got further through that rather spontaneous TBR pile than I expected, reading:

I also read, but have still to write up:

  • Love/War (Ebba Witt-Brattström, translated by Kate Lambert)
  • Go The Way Your Blood Beats: on truth, bisexuality and desire (Michael Amherst)
  • Smash All The Windows (Jane Davis)

That makes a book for each day of the readathon week, which isn’t bad going.

I will note that those boots let me down, and the water in, during a rainy but pleasant short break in Lille. I’ll have to save them for dry days in future.

And finally, the UK Amazon store has the paperback edition of A Spoke In The Wheel marked down by 40% at present. I’ve no idea why. The inner workings of Amazon are a mystery to me!