The final stretch

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On Thursday I got the last email through from my horde of editors, beta-readers, and nitpickers. At least, the last one that I’m going to pay any attention to. At least, the last one that I’m going to pay any attention to until I’ve got the manuscript prepared for print, at which point I’ll bring in a proofreader. And I’m only paying attention to this one because I’d already heard most of the comments over a pint the previous week and decided that they were things that I could fix.

Because I’ve reached the point where I am just about ready to be done with this book. Next time I will schedule the launch for September or October, so that I’m not doing all the preparation during my busiest time at work.

Work know about my writing now – and are very supportive of it. Sometimes terrifyingly so. ‘Kathleen can run a creative writing workshop! And a self-publishing one!’ somebody said the other day. I responded ‘Self-publishing is mostly hiding under the table and crying.’ I haven’t yet reached that stage. Not quite. However, I really am very tired and very aware that I could have made this easier for myself.

The feeling of just having had enough, though, that’s one that comes with every book (at least, it’s been two out of two so far). As the last of the comments come in I find myself wanting somebody to say,

‘It’s fine. Stop worrying. Just put it out there.’

They don’t. They won’t. Quite right, too. I didn’t ask them to. I asked them to find things that needed fixing, that didn’t ring true, that held up the pace, and they’ve done that. And the thing about self-publishing is that there’s only one person who can tell me that it’s time to put it out there. And that person is me.

I’m not quite ready to say it yet. But I’m very nearly there.

Many places we don’t know

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A familiar London landmark

Here is what two thirty-something-year-olds, who have spent a lot of time in many various types of churches and who have often travelled into London by rail, sound like watching the last two episodes of Around The World With Willy Fogg:

– King’s Cross? From Liverpool?

– Westminster Cathedral? Really?

– Well, this is a Spanish programme. Maybe they’ve decided he’s Catholic.

– Why is he wearing vestments in the street?

– At least they’ve got the colour of the stole right.

– No, that’s Westminster Abbey. They’re just wrong.

You may well point out that the hero of Around The World With Willy Fogg is a lion who wears a top hat, and that’s a fair point. This is children’s television, and one might as well put the increasing price of stamps  down to the fact that Postman Pat now has a two vans, a motorbike, and a helicopter as expect logic. But sending the Liverpool trains to King’s Cross requires me to believe not only in a world where animals wear clothes, but also in one where all the northbound trains leave London from one sole station. Which would make much more sense than the real world, but there we go. Actually, thinking about it, I can’t fault Willy Fogg’s decision to avoid Euston. It’s one of my least favourite stations, ahead of Birmingham New Street and only slightly behind Gatwick Airport.

One of the other eyebrow-raising things about Willy Fogg was the way that Fogg’s acquaintances at the Reform Club seemed to know about his movements almost as soon as he does. This despite the fact that the action is set during a period of history where news cannot travel across the sea any faster than a human (or a top-hat-wearing lion) can. I can give Willy Fogg a pass on this one, but I’m less indulgent when Joseph O’Connor makes the same mistake in Star of the Sea.

We all have our own areas of expertise, our own sensitivities, our own knowns that may well be authors’ unknowns. And so, when a character is meant to know more about a particular subject than their author does, and when a reader knows more than the author, any mistakes are likely to come to the surface.

Apart from how to get to the North West and the difference between Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, I know enough about the career of Kathleen Ferrier, for example, to know that she was singing the role of Orpheus when she broke her leg on stage, not Eurydice, as Rose Heiney assumes in The Days of Judy B.. And that wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that it’s Judy B.’s singing teacher, who really ought to know better, who says that. I know enough about the Church of England to know that it’s unlikely that a bishop would wear a ‘soutane’ to a secular function, as Kate Lace assumes in The Chalet Girl, and very unlikely that he’d call it that.

I know enough to know that I’ve almost certainly missed something myself.

And so, as I wait for the edits to come in on A Spoke In The Wheel, I am nervous. I am nervous about what I may have got wrong about professional cycling and about disability benefits and about how flood defences work. I am nervous about what I may have got wrong about the road to Preston and about doping and about working for a charity. I am nervous about what other people will see that I cannot.

Where possible, I have asked people who know more about those things than I do to read the manuscript and advise me, but I know that it’s inevitable that something is still going to slip through the gaps. I can only hope that it’s not going to be something too embarrassing.

 

Pottering

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You know those Saturdays when you don’t really have anything scheduled, but you find yourself busy all the time, and can occasionally display a finished task as proof of your effort? That’s what January has been like for me so far. I’ve been pottering around, doing a thing here, a thing there, hoping that something will get finished sooner or later.

What have I been working on?

  • Well, there’s been the tedious day-to-day stuff of life: cooking, cleaning, keeping the wolf from the door. Sometimes it feels like all my brain goes on the day job and all my time is spent keeping the hamster wheel turning.
  • Speaking of the day job, I’ve been doing a little more at work with my author hat on. Watch this space.
  • A Spoke In The Wheel is out with several different readers, editors and checkers at the moment, so I’m not worrying about it too much. Which is not to say I’m not worrying about it at all. Any of us might miss something! What if I’ve made a mistake, and look stupid? (Then I’ll be no different from the rest of the world, says my partner, and he’s right. But still…)
  • Various elements of the sequel to Speak Its Name have been gathering in my head. Some come in the form of sentences or paragraphs, or even entire pages, which I write down; some are more general insights like ‘Oh! Abby has a blog! An anonymous one!’
  • That means research. I’ve been looking up things like ‘can an international student be a Cambridge choral scholar?’, ‘chemistry PhD subjects’ and ‘Church of England: vocations process’. I’m regretting a few choices I made in Speak Its Name, but I’m stuck with them now.
  • Fandom stuff. I’m very glad to have got back into fandom last year, but it doesn’t half take up a lot of time if I let it.
  • Spending my prize money on an epic European rail adventure. My plan is to book the expensive Scandinavian portion of the trip in advance, and spend the remainder of the time following my nose around central Europe, but this does rather rely on me and my rail map and my diary being in the same place at a time when I have sufficient brain power to know that I’m not going to do something stupid that I can’t cancel. And I still haven’t written up my last epic European adventure. (Which will be worth doing. The photo at the top of this post comes from that, and the tractor sculpture wasn’t even the weirdest thing we saw.)

In February I’ll get going in earnest on the launch procedure for A Spoke In The Wheel. Cover reveal? Blog tour? Who knows? We’ll find out!

The tipping point

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As has probably been obvious, I’ve struggled quite a bit with this book, with believing in its quality and in my ability to make it happen. Expectations are higher than they were last time. For a start, there are expectations. Last time round I kept everything under my hat until I had something that I knew was good. This time I’ve had people looking at my work almost from the very beginning. (Next time, I’ll put my hat back on and keep things under it.)

I’ve discovered that with every book there comes a point during editing – for me, anyway – where

‘this can’t go out looking like that!’

tips over into

‘good, yes, let’s polish the rough spots and get the thing out of the door!’

It coincides pretty much exactly with the point where I’ve gone through so many edits myself that I can’t see what’s good and what’s bad any more. The point where I know something still needs fixing, but heaven alone knows what it is.

What I know now is that this is the point at which it makes sense to bring in the editing party, because otherwise the poor things get bombarded. There were times this year when they were getting a new draft every month, although I don’t believe any of them tried to read every one of those. Thank goodness.

Anyway, I reached that tipping point a couple of weeks ago. I can’t see what more I can do with this book. I’m hoping that my editors can. If they can, they’ll be getting gin. (If they can’t – they’ll be getting gin.) But I’m beginning to believe that it might actually be OK.

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.