Late to the #IndieAthon party


On Monday my mother texted me to say ‘Looks like ASITW is very timely’. I texted back to say, ‘Haha, it always is’, and felt slightly smug about being with it for once.

Yesterday I looked at Twitter and discovered that I’d missed a good thirty per cent of an initiative that’s very relevant to my interests, as they say, and now I feel less smug.

#IndieAthon is a month-long celebration of self-published authors and small presses. The organisers have this to say:

Throughout the month you can read however many books you want, not all of them have to be for the readathon of course, but the goal is to read as many indie-published or self-published books as you want! The only limitation to what you can read is that it has to be either self-published or published by a small or independent publisher to count for the readathon. The books can be old, new, popular, unpopular, fiction, non-fiction, anything!

We also would really like you to post reviews of the books you read on Goodreads, Amazon and wherever else you want to post it! Reviews are so important for authors, and especially for smaller authors it can make a huge difference!

There’s a bingo card and everything!

So, hello, #IndieAthon, here I am, sneaking in through the back door, hanging my coat over a chair, grabbing a drink from a tray, and pretending I’ve been here all along.

Um. Er. Yes. Hello. I’m Kathleen Jowitt, and my book Speak Its Name* was the first self-published book ever to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. I’m in the middle of preparing my second novel, A Spoke in the Wheel, for publication, and that’s my excuse for not having looked at Twitter properly all month.

I’m self-published and very glad of it. Why? One word. Freedom. Self-publishing gives me the freedom to do my own thing, and to do my own thing at my own pace. I’m only answerable to myself. I don’t have to worry about whether anybody actually wants to read a book about a Christian lesbian university student finding her way out of the closet, or, if they liked that, whether they’ll then be interested in a disgraced professional cyclist.

I don’t have to please other people to get my book into print. I just have to put the work in myself. I’m free to experiment, to tell the stories that nobody else tells.

And I’m free to do my own thing at my own pace. I’m the only person who gets to set me deadlines. If I decide that something needs an extra six months’ work to get it really good, I’m free to put those six months in. Conversely, if I have a spare couple of hours and I want to get going on the back cover copy or the front cover design, then I can do that. I don’t have to wait on decisions from anybody else.

Sometimes it’s a scary thing, this freedom. It means taking responsibility for every little thing. Every word that makes it into the finished book is there because I put it there, and it stays there because I didn’t take it out. I can – and I do – ask other people to read for inaccuracy and insensitivity, but the decision whether or not to respond with changes remains with me. The cover, typesetting and formatting, are exactly as good as I can get them.

Any errors or infelicities remaining, as it says on my acknowledgements page, are my own. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Reflecting life: the Staunch Prize and writing honestly

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There’s been a little bit of controversy this week around the new Staunch prize for thrillers where ‘no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. And about time, says one side of the argument. For too long, lazy writers have been fridging women for the sake of a cheap plot point, and exploitative writers have been using violence against women to titillate male readers. The other says, No. Writers need to be free to explore and subvert difficult themes. Women should not be told that their own experience is off-limits.

As a reader, I can see myself falling on either side of the fence depending on my mood. It might be quite nice to read a book in the knowledge that it’s safe to get attached to the female characters. On the other hand, if I pick up a book knowing that a character, or several characters, must get to the end of it alive because otherwise it wouldn’t have been eligible for this prize, that would spoil the suspense a little.

‘Does a woman die in this?’ is a bit of a blunt instrument, but then so is any means of categorizing books.

As a writer, I don’t have a horse in this race. The books that might possibly end up being eligible for this prize are third and fourth in the ‘to write’ queue, so we won’t be seeing much of either of them for a good five years, I’d have thought – by which point this prize will have become well established, or else have disappeared entirely.

I don’t really see much point in getting upset about this. Establishing a prize for books that don’t include one particular plot point doesn’t stop anybody writing that plot point, it just stops their book being entered for that prize. I’m sure that 2018 and 2019 will see just as many dead women on the bookshelves as previous years, and that many of those books will still engage with the question in a thoughtful or angry manner. If we start to see an increase in people arguing that the only right way to write something is not to write it, that’s when I’ll start getting worried.

No prize is for everyone. I’m not just talking about criteria that restrict entry according to age or whether one’s been published before. Most prizes are out of bounds to me because of my self-published status (and it’s an absolute delight to find one that isn’t). What I mean is, not every book will be suitable for every prize. In 2007 I thought briefly about entering (a very embryonic version of what eventually became) Speak Its Name for a Scripture Union writing competition in memory of Patricia St John. I’ll pause here for you to read up on Scripture Union and Speak Its Name. And then laugh.

No, there’s no point in my getting irritated by a prize that I’m not going to enter. It does raise a more interesting question, though. How do we respect our own and others’ experience? How do we give an honest portrayal of the problems that a [member of a marginalised group] is likely to encounter without giving the impression that being a [member of a marginalised group] is wall-to-wall awfulness? Where is the line between representation and exploitation? Can we say that we’ve dealt with enough of all this bullshit in the real world and just give ourselves a night off?

This is something that I’m thinking about quite a lot as I work through the final edits on A Spoke In The Wheel, and as the sequel to Speak Its Name unfolds itself in my mind. How do I show the grinding misery that is the modern British benefits process without buying into damaging assumptions about what makes life worth living for disabled people? How do I show Lydia engaging with the institutional homophobia of the Church of England and its vocations process (yes, we’re going there) without undermining her integrated identity as a lesbian Christian? It is something that I think about as I watch Yuri!!! on Ice, where homophobia just doesn’t exist, and as I read Check, Please!, where homophobia exists but never touches our heroes, and the ways that those work and don’t work for me.

I’m still thinking, and still writing, and really, the best answer that I can come up with is that no single book is going to do this. We need the escapist books that can be opened in the confidence that everybody’s going to be OK. We also need the books that expose the awful things that people do to other people. We need the books in the middle, where we know that awful stuff will happen or might happen, but that the characters we love will come through somehow. That middle space is where my books – or at least the ones that have emerged so far – sit, and all I can do is write them the best I can. And, so far as I’m concerned, people are very welcome to establish prizes for any of them.


Many places we don’t know


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.


Down the rabbit hole: reading in 2017


I’ve read some great books this year. In fact, I can’t remember enjoying a year’s reading so much since I was a teenager. I started out with a whole lot of comfort reading to get me through the New Year virus and the associated sleepless nights (fanfic; the Richard Hannay series), and… kept on with the comfort reading. No, not necessarily comfort reading. Some of it was distinctly uncomfortable. But this year I’ve read far more things just because I wanted to read them.

I picked things up because they were old favourites that I wanted to revisit (White Boots), or because I’d heard of them years ago and had always meant to get around to reading them (The Towers of Trebizond), or because someone gave them to me (A Good Hiding), or because someone mentioned them in passing on something totally unrelated and I liked the sound of them (The Hare with Amber Eyes). I read some new things by authors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past (Trouble for Lucia and Meet Me at Beachcomber Bay), and I experimented with some new authors (Four Steps).

This year I read thrillers (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) and mysteries (The China Governess). I read fanfic (Blackbird). I read memoir (The World of Cycling According to G) and biography (though I’ve yet to reach the end of the giant Rudolf Nureyev one). I read chicklit (To the Moon and Back). I read literary criticism (Literary Allusion in Harry Potter). I read children’s books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). I read non-fiction. I read poetry (Listen to the Green; Four Quartets; Measured Extravagance).

I read fewer things for motives of self-improvement (La Dame aux Camélias). I read a couple of things just to get them off my shelves (Mulligan and The Widow). Next year I’d like to get more things off my shelves without reading them.

I followed rabbit holes and felt less guilty about enjoying what I read (pretty much everything, but particularly the Victorian and early twentieth century British stuff). I think I’ll write more about that tomorrow. The only book that I deliberately abandoned was Snuff – to my mind it’s the point in the Discworld series where the quality takes an obvious and understandable turn for the worse, and I just couldn’t bear to keep going with it. I may also give up on Will Grayson, Will Grayson before the year’s out, because I’m finding the chapters without capitalisation rather an effort to read.

Last year I decided not to bother recording my reactions to books, and just wrote down what I actually finished. This strategy continued to work this year, and I find that the memorable ones are memorable and the rest of them aren’t, and my reactions don’t make much difference, really. And then of course there are the books that are enjoyable but not memorable, and looking back at previous years’ records I can’t actually tell the difference between those and the books that I was pretending to enjoy because I thought I should.

I’ve finished sixty-six books so far, and will probably get a couple more in before the end of 2017. (Last year I managed seventy-eight, but more of those were things that I Felt I Ought To Read, either for self-improvement reasons or because I’d got them free and felt I should get my money’s worth… yeah.) Most of my reading time was on the train, with a little bit at lunchtimes or bedtimes.

I think this year I’ve come to understand that I’m not reading for anybody else – not for friends, not for colleagues, not for my own readers or even for my future self. I’m reading for me, now.

It’s fun.

Ways to help your author friend sell a book

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Pass it on

Assuming, of course, that this is something that you want to do. Many of my friends have very little interest in my book, and this is absolutely fine. We are friends because we have a shared interest in something totally different. These tips are only for people who actually want them!

Talk about it

Not in an ‘I’m my friend’s unpaid salesperson’ way, because that’s a very good way to lose all your other friends, but just in a natural, ‘if we’re talking about books, my friend wrote a book [and it got published/won a prize/got a good review]’ kind of way. Word of mouth is a wonderful thing. Nobody can want to read a book if they haven’t heard of it. You get to brag about your author friend. Your author friend gets someone else hearing about their book. Apart from anything else, it builds credibility. The more people who talk about them as an author, the more seriously they get taken.

And by ‘talk’, of course, I also mean ‘Tweet, post about on Facebook, include in shelfie picture on Instagram, leave casually on coffee table when expecting company, etc’.

Lend it

This one divides opinions among authors. There is a school of thought that says that every book lent is a sale lost. I don’t agree with that. As a reader I can point to dozens of books that I’d never have bought at full price, but which I came across some other way (book swap shelf at work/charity shop/lent by my mother/ and which I loved so much that I went on to seek out more by the same author.

As an extreme example, I know someone who shoplifted his first Discworld book – then bought all the rest of them full price. I don’t actually recommend this course of action, but it does go to show… something.

Anyway, if you buy my book and then lend it to someone else, I won’t mind at all.

Order it

Ask your library to get it in for you – then it might reach other people when you’ve finished it and taken it back. Authors do receive a small amount of money when their books are borrowed from libraries.

Or you can order it from a bookshop, and if bookshops get the idea that this is something that people want to buy, they might start stocking more copies, and other people might then see it and buy it. Well, we can dream.

Give it

Only to people you think might like it, obviously. Books can be surprisingly tricky presents, but, depending on the book and the occasion and the recipient, they can work well.

I’d recommend mine for: the person who’s about to go to university; the person who is simultaneously LGBT and Christian; the person who would benefit from knowing that LGBT Christian people exist; the person who likes Catherine Fox’s books. Extrapolate for the book that you have in mind. (You might have to read it first. You might not.)

If you’re fed up with having your own copy knocking around the house, then by all means give it to a friend or a jumble sale or charity shop. See ‘Lend it’, above, for my rationale on this – and if you want my opinion on which particular charity shop to give it to, see this post and extrapolate for your own home town.

Review it

The more (honest, balanced) reviews a book gets, the more credible it becomes. And for those of us who don’t get into the Times Literary Supplement, reviews by real people are particularly valuable. Review it on your blog, review it on Goodreads or LibraryThing or Amazon.

Nobody quite knows how Amazon works, but I have seen a hypothesis that if an author reaches a certain number of reviews, they start popping up in the ‘Customers also bought items by’ recommendations. (Authors currently popping up in this manner on my Amazon page are Kate Charles, Winifred Peck, Simon Park, and Kate Charles. I don’t know how many Kate Charles has sold to be there twice, or, indeed, if that’s got anything to do with it at all.)

In this case you really should read it first. Although with some reviews, one does wonder.

Nominate it

This is only really recommended if you have a thick skin, as it is a well-known fact that book clubs can get vicious. Favourite books, and books by favourite authors, can come out shredded. Having said that, selling a dozen copies all at the same time is really exciting for us small-time authors. Maybe nominate it and then stay in bed with a heavy cold when the time comes to actually discuss it? Or perhaps show up at the meeting the far side of several gins?

If you’d rather not be present when it gets shredded, then there are quite a few literary awards that accept nominations from the general public. If you think it merits an award, obviously, but your opinion is as good as anyone else’s. A nomination can make an author’s day. Actually winning something can make their year.

Any more ideas?

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something! Tell me in comments.

No, it *is* about enjoying it


A very grainy photo of some books I’ve enjoyed. You might not enjoy these. That’s fine!

On Thursday I took part in a workshop for union learning reps, exploring ways of promoting reading and writing for pleasure in the workplace. One of the initiatives that they work with is the Reading Ahead challenge – members are encouraged to choose six reads (which could be anything from a haiku to War and Peace) and write a brief review of each of them. The idea is to make reading less off-putting, to demonstrate that it’s for everybody.

One of the ULRs told a story about someone who had managed to put one of her recruits right off joining in the challenge.

‘And what are you reading at the moment?’ he’d asked. She’d told him, had said, a little apologetically, that maybe it wasn’t the most intellectual thing in the world, but she was enjoying it.

‘But it’s not about enjoying it, is it?’ he said. ‘It’s about challenging yourself, learning something new.’

That person was wrong. WRONG.

It is about enjoying it.

I’m going to write that bigger:

It *is* about enjoying it

And if the person who said that it isn’t was the person I think it was, I’m going to tell him so when I next see him.

This person is also wrong, or, at least, missing the point spectacularly. If we try to make people read because it is good for them, they will never enjoy reading. It’s like eating enough vegetables, or getting enough exercise: if you do it because you think you should, you’re constantly fighting with yourself and sooner or later you give up because you just hate yourself so much for making yourself do it.

The world is full of things that we read because we have to. Bills. Textbooks. Contracts. Procedures. They are not fun. Why should we extend that misery to the rest of our reading life?

The more people read for fun – read because they genuinely enjoy it, because they would rather be reading than doing something else – the easier they will find it when they come to reading what’s dull, or difficult, but essential.

Can we enjoy reading challenging material? Of course we can. Personally, I have just downloaded Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingt Jours – yes, in French – which is going to be a challenge, and also something that I will enjoy. As one of my friends says, ’embrace the power of AND’. We can also keep reading things that we’re not currently enjoying in the hopes that we will enjoy them eventually.

But to deliberately seek out things to read that we don’t expect to enjoy… no. No, thank you.

In much the same way as one gets tired of doughnuts very quickly if one eats nothing but doughnuts, it’s unlikely that people will read nothing but [that book you’re thinking of] and [that other book you’re thinking of]. And really, if they did, would that be such a problem?

The more we read – the more we read for pure pleasure – the more we will find our horizons expanding and our tastes diversifying. If we just let people read what they want to read, and keep reading what they want to read, they’ll probably end up reading something that comes up to the exacting standards of the person who terrorised that poor potential Reading Ahead challenge participant.

But that’s not the point. Enjoyment comes first. Life is too short to drag ourselves through things we’re not enjoying just because somebody thinks they’re good for us.

It is about enjoying it. In fact, enjoying it is the most important thing.

Our Witness: the unheard story of LGBT+ Christians


I’m looking forward to the release of Our Witness: the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians later this month. As a contributor, I’ve had the chance to glance through the proofs of this collection of personal essays, and I’ve been impressed by the sheer breadth and depth, as well as the honesty, of the content.

Too often, the debate in the Church around gender and sexuality assumes that the question begins and ends with gay men. Lesbians are ignored. The rest of us might as well not exist. Even among allies, there’s a depressing tendency to write ‘LGBT’ in the first line and then revert to ‘gay’ for the remainder of the article/sermon/book, as if that covered everyone’s experience. Terms like ‘gay marriage’ are thrown around with, er, gay abandon. One gets the impression that the middle-aged cis white gay men are the only ones in the Church with any problems.

This book goes a long way to redress that balance. There are stories from gay Christians, yes – but there are stories from lesbian Christians, bisexual Christians, and trans Christians too. I’m in there as The Amazing Invisible Bisexual Christian – the woman who’s been married to a man for getting on for a decade and still stubbornly refuses to forget that she’s queer. There are stories from ordained ministers and from laypeople; from many denominations; there are stories of hurt, and stories of hope.

Some stories are not found in there: how could they be, when there are as many stories as there are LGBT+ Christians? Some will appear in the US version, which is coming next year. Others, of course, won’t. But there are more stories in here than I have ever seen before.

Our Witness: the unheard stories of LGBT+ Christians is published on 29 October by Darton Longman and Todd.