Getting used to the idea (of being the first self-published author shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize)

It’s been ten days since the news broke, and I’m gradually getting used to the idea. Ideas, plural. That my book has been shortlisted for a major literary prize. That, whatever else happens, I have won £3000 to spend on foreign travel. That people whose writing I admire a huge amount have read my book. That people whose writing I admire a huge amount liked my book. Joanne Harris. Michèle Roberts. Simon Brett.

I’m pretty sure that this will turn out to have been life-changing, but in the meantime life goes on. I cycle to the station and I catch my train; I reset some passwords and I design a flyer or two. And I get used to the idea.

So do the people around me: the ones who knew before that I’d written a book, and the ones who didn’t. I’d kept it reasonably quiet at work, at church, in the extended family. People who followed me on Twitter probably knew; people who didn’t, probably didn’t.

And I have to admit that it’s suddenly become a lot easier to tell people. It’s not just, ‘I’ve written a book.’ It’s ‘I’ve written a book, and some very good writers think it’s good.’

One of the most important requirements of self-publishing, and one that I really didn’t appreciate until I did it myself, is a sheer bloody-minded refusal to give a damn what anybody else thinks. Or, less aggressively, the willingness to accept that every aspect and defect of the book is my own responsibility.

I appreciate the apparent contradiction between those two paragraphs, believe me.

I can only speak for myself, but I found that the bloody-mindedness didn’t land until just after I turned thirty. (Which may go some way towards explaining why I’m the first self-published author to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. The upper age limit is 35.) Up until then I was looking for somebody else to affirm my sense that my book was good, that it was worth putting out into the world. I was looking for somebody else to take responsibility. In the end, I had to do it for myself.

Of course I can see now that it would always have been my responsibility, no matter how many other people were named on the acknowledgements page, no matter who took the final decision to put the thing out into the world. It’s come into starker focus for me, that’s all.

I have this sense that I’m trying to get to the point where I genuinely, honestly, don’t care what anyone else thinks, no matter who they are, no matter what their qualifications. In the meantime, however, a judging panel composed of Joanne Harris, Michèle Roberts, and Simon Brett likes my book. I think that’s going to keep me smiling for a long, long time.

 

A couple of links

I’m still a little bemused by the fact that I now exist in a universe where I’m a headline in The Bookseller, but here it is: Self -published debut on Betty Trask Prize shortlist

And while I was away this very touching review appeared on Love Bytes Reviews. Becca says:

I love this book also because even though the book was fictional it reflects real life. So many people today struggle for so many reasons and being told you are bad or disgusting when the opposite is true can be crushing. People are still worthy of love no matter what they do or how they live their lives, as Lydia learned and finally accepted. The people who love you are who matter.

On top of the world

Santiago de Compostela

Well, on top of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, to be precise…

 

We made it to Santiago, we had a great deal of fun along the way, and I’ll tell you all about it when I’m typing on a proper keyboard.

And I know I said that you wouldn’t be hearing much from me until I got home, but I’ve had some immensely exciting news. In fact, I’ve had to keep it quiet all the way from Ferrol, but I’ve had plenty of other things to keep my mind off it. 1 in 5 gradients, leaking boots, ordering meals without meat in Spanish. That sort of thing.

Today, however, the press release has come out, and I can tell you that I’m the first self-published author to be short-listed for the Betty Trask Prize. I’m absolutely delighted.

Good news

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Speak Its Name was a finalist in the 2016 North Street Book Prize for self-published books (scroll down to the bottom of the page – then scroll back up and read about the actual winners). I’m very pleased about this indeed.

News from the Church of England is also good, though I find myself less excited than I might perhaps have been a couple of years ago. This time around, I got so frustrated by the bi erasure from both sides that I never managed to get into the debate. And I can’t help feeling that things have come to a pretty pass when Synod opt not to note a report that was so dreadful that the Bishops felt that they had to apologise for it and we feel obliged to be grateful for this.

I’m thinking a lot about the Syro-Phoenician woman, thinking about the tables that I sit at and the ones whose legs I prowl around hopefully. Some time over the last few years, it seems, I started wanting more than crumbs.

The first year

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Thursday was Candlemas, which means several things:

  1. It’s spring! At least, it is according to the medieval calendar, which I’m choosing to follow. Having lost most of January to illness (two rounds of this flu-like virus that’s been afflicting people across the country, as I hear) and only got back to normal this past week, it feels like a good time for new beginnings.
  2. I’ve put the crib away at last.
  3. Speak Its Name has been out for a whole year.

I’m pleased with what it’s done during that year. It’s sold. It’s sold to people I don’t know. It’s had excellent reviews, from people I don’t know and from people whose judgement I trust.

I, meanwhile, have become much more confident. These days I admit to writing! These days I think nothing of contacting random bloggers and offering review copies or guest posts.

And I’ve got the first draft of the next book down. That’s not bad going for a year’s work.

In the interests of honesty I have to admit that I’m just coming out of a gigantic wibble about the next book.

It was a twofold wibble:

  1. Who am I going to upset with this? I remember worrying about upsetting people with Speak Its Name, and if I did upset them they never told me. I’m addressing the possibility by asking friends with relevant experience to read the thing.
  2. What if it’s not as good as Speak Its Name? This, of course, is the flip side of getting good reviews for Speak Its Name: I end up convinced that I’m never going to do anything so good ever again. Of course it stands to reason a first draft of one thing isn’t going to be as good as the final version of the previous thing, but you try telling that to my brain.

Maybe I’ll get over my gigantic wibbles with experience, or maybe the occasional gigantic wibble is just part and parcel of writing.

Or maybe it was just the end of the flu.

It’s been a good week for reviews

movement

Lisa at the Student Christian Movement was kind enough to send me a copy of this term’s Movement magazine, which includes a 10/10 review for Speak Its Name. The reviewer says:

Kathleen Jowitt conveys the issues of being a Christian student involved in Christian Societies well, and as I was reading it I felt that so many of the issues raised were issues that many Christian students who are active in various Christian Societies would face during their time at University.

And, over at The Good, The Bad and the Unread, Speak Its Name gets a Grade A. Stevie says:

This really was a fabulous book… Highly recommended for anyone who has ever been involved in student or local politics, has sat on a committee or has even the vaguest passing interest in how other faiths and denominations work in the 21st Century.

I’ve also had some pleasing news on a related front, but I’m going to keep quiet about that until confirmation appears online…

 

The colour of curtains

Here’s a meme that’s been annoying me:

The curtains

The curtains…

I have never written any blue curtains, so I can’t comment on those. In fact, I think I’ve only written two pairs of curtains, and specified the colour of one of those pairs. They were yellow.

This is what my English teacher told me:

Every word on that page is there because the author wanted it to be there.

The curtains are only in the book at all because the author wanted them to be there. If they described every item of furniture, every fixture and fitting, in a room, then the reader would die of boredom long before any action could begin. Instead, the author has to trust that the reader will fill in the background details subconsciously. This can cause problems for someone trying to convert a textual work into a visual one. In fact, it’s called the Jane Austen’s curtains problem.

Given that, why mention the curtains at all? Why make them blue, if not some other colour? There’s probably a reason, and it’s worth thinking about what it might be.

Colette’s room looked out over the back garden, down towards the railway and across the town. The terraces ran in neat russet lines down the hill; on the other side of the river, the beech trees in the park were vivid amber, and the yellow-grey stone of the old town glowed gold in the October light.

‘Wow,’ Lydia said, ‘you get a lovely view of the cathedral from here.’

‘I know; I’m very lucky. It’s my reward for having the smallest bedroom.’

The window was open, a cool breeze stirring the yellow curtains. Down in the garden they could hear Peter bellowing, ‘Fa-ac me-e te-e-cu-um plangere!’ as he put his laundry up on the clothesline.

When I gave Colette a pair of yellow curtains – and, almost more importantly, when I didn’t take them out again during editing – there were various things in my mind.

Real curtains

I don’t have a particularly visual imagination, and find that inventing objects doesn’t come naturally to me. Consequently, I do tend to appropriate real life objects. The horrible red leather sofa at Balton Street, for example, is real; it was an eyesore in a university friend’s flat. Colette’s curtains belonged to one of my own housemates. (No, that doesn’t mean that she’s the model for Colette. If it comes to that, the friend with the red leather sofa is nothing like anybody at Balton Street.)

Autumn

The yellow curtains call back to the first paragraph in that extract, where there’s already a lot of colour. Russet, amber, yellow-grey, gold: Stancester in autumn. Autumn is traditionally associated with decay, but this is the beginning of the academic year and the beginning of the story. I had to make it all glow very brightly. And yellow can be autumnal but it’s also strongly associated with spring: jasmine, daffodils, primroses, and so on. The beginning of the year. Things awakening.

Liturgy

In the Church (not Lydia’s church, but she doesn’t need to know this) yellow equals gold equals white: the colour of rejoicing, the colour for feasts, for Christmas and Easter, for weddings and baptisms. In most of the rest of the book the dominant colour is purple. Partly because I like purple, yes, but partly because it’s associated with waiting, penitence, mourning, fasting. Colette, the out bisexual character, could very well have purple curtains. But she doesn’t. She isn’t waiting or penitent or mourning or fasting at the moment, though she’ll do all of those things over the course of the book. She’s content in who and what she is in a way that Lydia can’t understand yet. And the curtains are yellow.

Did I do all that consciously, deliberately? I doubt it, at least in the first draft. As best I can remember, my thought process went something like:

looking out of the window – oh, better have some curtains, then – any particular curtains? – A’s curtains – yellow curtains

That’s not really the point. The point is that they remained yellow. This mention of yellow was a lot less deliberate than any mention of purple, but I kept it because it worked.

Later, when Lydia recalls the incident, the curtains are mentioned again, but their colour isn’t:

And the clear autumn breeze lifting the hem of the curtain, and Peter singing in the garden, and her soul standing on the threshold of its self-made prison, not yet ready to step out, but knowing for the first time that there was a world outside it.

Because their colour isn’t relevant here. The point now is that the window’s open.

It’s always worth thinking about the curtains.

And this approach goes for any detail. Why is Peter singing that particular line? Because it’s a lot of fun to sing, and I know that because I’ve sung tenor in the Dvorak Stabat Mater myself. Because it does sound a bit dirty if you don’t immediately realise that it’s not in English, and this scene needed to go a little way beyond Lydia’s comfort zone.

One could also say that the meaning of the Latin is relevant. Make me weep with you. The speaker is asking to enter more fully into the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, and there is certainly a sense in which the book is about expanding one’s spiritual experience.

But that’s a bit of a stretch. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t thinking of that when I put it in. So I don’t know, maybe the maker of that meme has a point after all.

Yes, the curtains were fucking yellow. But if there hadn’t been a reason for that then they wouldn’t have existed at all.