There are many, many books that aren’t particularly engaging, and that could really do with a good editor, but shoehorning them all into the hero’s journey format isn’t necessarily going to help. In fact, I think a flat novel can be made more engaging by deepening the characterisation as much as by sharpening the plot.
And then in the replies to the second thread, someone linked this list of alternativestructures, and that ate some more of my day. There are plenty to choose from, even if one is writing an action hero. I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond novels lately, and it’s really striking how adventurous Ian Fleming is in terms of structure. OK, The Spy Who Loved Me is a complete dog’s breakfast in terms of pacing, and you might argue that From Russia With Love starts a bit slow and ends a bit abruptly, but he isn’t afraid to experiment.
Back to inactive protagonists. In at least two of my novels so far I’ve spent most of the book getting my protagonist out of their own head in order for them to appreciate the world around them and make decisions based on what’s really going on rather than what they think is going on. Is that ‘active’? The author of the second thread talks about ‘radical acceptance’, which I think is an important theme in all my books: being who you are, not who you or anyone else thinks you should be. All of my protagonists could be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as inactive. The closet, depression, disillusionment, prejudice and petty politics provide quite enough of a challenge to be going on with. Sometimes they need to become active. Sometimes they need to make their peace with inaction.
And yes, sometimes during the writing process those books felt sloooooowwww. Sometimes I’ve dealt with that by growling at the entity they call the Inner Critic: what do you want, a car chase? Other times I’ve chopped out scenes, characters, chapters. I’ve added bits elsewhere. I’ve rewritten an entire book to come from a different character’s point of view. I’ve taken literal scissors to a manuscript. And the book has been better for it. An inactive protagonist might very well be a valid choice for the story that needs to be told, but that choice doesn’t exempt anyone from editing. (In fairness, I don’t think I saw anyone suggest that it did!)
I’m fascinated by the way that the individual interacts with the system, but writing about that, for me at least, has meant that those individuals have a limited amount of control. As the author, I can pull a certain number of strings, but I can’t reform student Evangelical Christianity/professional cycling/the Church of England/academia through the actions of one character. I can have them make small changes to improve matters locally. (I’ve pulled an ‘And then everybody on the bus clapped!’ precisely once. If I were writing that book now I’m not sure I’d put it in.) Or I can let them step away on their own terms.
Now I’m trying to write a Ruritanian thriller (well, not at the moment, but you know what I mean) and, while I have a good idea of how the thriller beats ought to fall, I’ve been uncomfortably aware that it’s inevitably a bit… condescending? (And I’ve felt like that since before I read Inventing Ruritania.) I want to keep writing it, because it’s fun, and because I love the genre for all its faults. What keeps tripping me up is that the ‘plucky British youngster single-handedly saves the nation of Ruritania’ narrative does not feel truthful. Even throwing in a second plucky British youngster and her Ruritanian partner hasn’t helped a lot. It may be that I’ve worked for a trade union/been a member of the Church of England/followed sports for too long, but I’m very aware of just how many people it keeps to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.
And that, I think, has given me a way in, a way to save this. I’ve ended up with a structure that’s something like a zoetrope: the thriller narrative is broken up by snapshots of the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Spin the cylinder fast enough, and you get a moving picture. The horse gallops. The country keeps on running.
Well, it might work. I’ll keep you posted. When I get back into it.
Incidentally, the consequence of lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) was coming across a thread in which someone was asking for recommendations for Christian fiction, and in which nobody had mentioned me. So I sulked, obviously. But then somebody recced me on another thread, so it all worked out. The moral of the story? It doesn’t really make much difference to the rest of the world whether I’m on Twitter or not, but it’s probably better for my state of mind if I’m not.
This year Jae is running a Sapphic Reading Challenge: 50 categories, from which you can choose to read 10, 20, 50, or 100 books. There’ll be a big giveaway at the end of the year, although, as Jae says, “real prize, of course, is discovering a lot of awesome books and new favorite authors”.
The fact that I’ve arrived at S just when I have a Stancester book to promote is less a tribute to my skills as a publicist and more a testimony of my inefficiency as a blogger. Nevertheless, here we are, and I’ll talk a little bit about Stancester after I’ve dealt with the work of some considerably more venerable authors.
And I will start with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince, and Samavia. (I always got The Lost Prince mixed up with The Silver Sword, probably because they came in Puffin editions of about the same thickness with a teenage boy on the cover, albeit wearing very different clothes. The Silver Sword does not fall within the scope of this project.)
Later in this series I’ll be writing about the imaginative landscape in children’s play, but it bears mentioning here because the way that the boys interact with the idea of Samavia is so important in establishing it as a place.
A good half of the book takes place in London, with the idea of Samavia built up through stories told by Marco and newspapers read by the Rat and maps drawn in flagstones in chalk and in the games that the boys play. Even Marco Loristan, who has been studying Samavia all his life, only knows it in theory. And that fact makes it possible for the the Rat and his gang to know it, too. Similarly, so can we.
He who had pored over maps of little Samavia since his seventh year, who had studied them with his father, knew it as a country he could have found his way to any part of it if he had been dropped in any forest or any mountain of it. He knew every highway and byway, and in the capital city of Melzarr could almost have made his way blindfolded. He knew the palaces and the forts, the churches, the poor streets and the rich ones. His father had once shown him a plan of the royal palace which they had studied together until the boy knew each apartment and corridor in it by heart. But this he did not speak of. He knew it was one of hte things to be silent about. But of the mountains and the emerald velvet meadows climbing their sides and only ending where huge bare crags and peaks began, he could speak. He could make pictures of the wide fertile plains where herds of wild horses fed, or raced and sniffed the air; he could describe the fertile valleys where clear rivers ran and flocks of sheep pastured on deep sweet grass…
The map of Europe into which Samavia is inserted is at first a very rough one:
“You know more about geography than I do. You know more about everything,” [the Rat] said. “I only know Italy is at the bottom and Russia is at one side and England’s at the other. How would the Secret Messengers go to Samavia? Can you draw the countries they’d have to pass through?”
Because any school-boy who knew the map could have done the same thing, Marco drew them. He also knew the stations the Secret Two would arrive at and leave by when they entered a city, the streets they would walk through and the very uniforms they would see; but of these things he said nothing. The reality his knowledge gave to the game was, however, a thrilling thing.
When Marco and the Rat eventually leave London, they travel through Paris, then Munich, then Vienna, before at last reaching Samavia. Because the game is, of course, real.
(Incidentally, The Lost Prince also gives me a solution to my J problem: Samavia borders a country called Jiardasia, but since that’s literally all we know about it I still wouldn’t have had much to write about.)
Many of these fictional countries signal a location somewhere in central or southern Europe with this combination of an S and a V suggesting ‘Slav…’ or ‘Slov…’ Which is rather lazy and, as we shall see in a little, occasionally even embarrassing.
Between Northumberland and London, the Sadler’s Wells books have a very strong sense of place. Revisiting them as an adult, I find that I can’t believe in Slavonia in quite the same way (I think it was actually the Swiss mountains that caught my imagination), but I’ll include it for the sake of my thirteen year old self.
… one of those pocket-sized countries in Europe which have still managed to retain their monarchies or principalities. The capital of Slavonia is Drobnik, and it is about as big as a good-sized English village, but of course all on a very grand scale. Dominating the capital is the royal palace, all in white and pink stone, with pepper-box turrets at the corners. Then there is the Royal Opera House, which is upholstered in red plush and white satin, like the inside of a jewel-box. This building is situated on the banks of the river Juno, which rushes through the city under a succession of little bridges, all covered with sloping roofs to keep off the snow in winter. The cathedral, where the rulers of Slavonia are crowned, is made of rose-coloured quartz, and it stands in the main square, in the middle of which a fountain, designed by one of Europe’s well-known sculptors, plays night and day, and is floodlit on the King’s birthday and other important occasions.
No, at the age of 35 I really can’t believe in a cathedral made of rose-coloured quartz. Ah, well. Still, it gets points for having a national flower, which is a nice detail. This is all from Principal Rôle, which I adored. I didn’t have a copy of The Secret, the other book that deals with Slavonia. Maybe I’ll get a copy some day (yes, I know Girls Gone By are reprinting it, but for these it’s an Evans hardback or nothing).
As for how you get there, well, Lorna Hill carefully doesn’t identify ‘the adjoining country’, and the only people who go there in the course of the book fly, but, though a couple of nice vintage planes (a twin-engined Dakota; a Constellation airliner) are mentioned, they’re going to and from Switzerland. There’s a region of Croatia with that name. Maybe it’s somewhere around there.
While we’re (probably) somewhere in the Balkans, we might as well visit Syldavia. I mentioned its neighbour Borduria earlier in the series; Syldavia is very much the sinned-against party in the relationship between the two. It’s a reasonably coherent entity, though its continued existence is hampered by its being lumbered with a liability of a McGuffin for a sceptre. The Tintin wiki supplies a whole lot more detail, much of which I don’t remember. There’s a shocking dearth of Tintin books in this house.
We were in Ruritania last time, so I’ll only mention Strelsau briefly:
The city of Strelsau is partly old and partly new. Spacious modern boulevards and residential quarters surround and embrace the narrow, tortuous and picturesque streets of the original town. In the outer circles the upper classes live; in the inner the shops are situated; and, behind their prosperous fronts, lie hidden populous but wretched lanes and alleys, filled with a poverty-stricken, turbulent and (in large measure) criminal class.
(Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)
Part of the reason for all these S places is the proliferation and plausibility of places named for saints (real or fictional). Hergé obliges again with San Theodoros. Agatha Christie’s St Mary Mead springs immediately to mind. I want to look, though, at St Loo, which she uses in her Mary Westmacott persona as well as in the Poirot series.
In Peril at End House there isn’t much more to St Loo than the Majestic Hotel, where Poirot and Hastings are staying, and the titular house. It exists as a seaside resort:
It is well named the Queen of Watering Places and reminds one forcibly of the Riviera.
In The Rose and the Yew Tree it turns out to have a lot more going on:
There were… three separate worlds. There was the old fishing village, grouped round its harbour, with the tall slate-roofed houses rising up all round it, and the notices written in Flemish and French as well as English. Beyond that, sprawling out along the coast, was the modern tourist and residential excrescence. The large luxury hotels, thousands of small bungalows, masses of little boarding houses – all very busy and active in summer, quiet in winter. Thirdly, there was St Loo Castle, ruled over by the old dowager, Lady St Loo, a nucleus of yet another way of life with ramifications stretching up through winding lanes to houses tucked inconspicuously away in valleys beside old world churches.
This isn’t just a place where people stay. It’s a place where people live. And what that means is politics. The bulk of the book deals with the General Election (I do like a good election): our anti-hero, Major John Gabriel VC, is standing as the Conservative candidate, and the pettiness of small town gossip and politics, the uneasy interaction between the different strands of society, drives the action.
The narrator wonders how John Gabriel, ‘an opportunist, a man of sensual passions and great personal charm’ could have become Father Clement, a man of ‘heroism, endurance, compassion and courage’. Personally, I think that at least part of the answer is that he’s jumped genres.
Because The Rose and the Yew Tree isn’t just a Barchester novel. Its framing device is distinctly Ruritanian. Slovakia(not the Slovakia we know; its capital is Zagrade, suggesting a portmanteau of Belgrade and Zagreb, rather than Bratislava) gets a scant chapter, hastily daubed with unsavoury characters and assassinations in the name of local colour. And the first we hear of any of these places or people, we’re in Paris.
Yes, Paris again. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done a post on the importance of Paris as a staging post in the Ruritanian novel. We saw Marco and the Rat pass through on the way to Samavia; Rudolf Rassendyll, of course, takes his Great-Uncle William’s advice and spends twenty-four hours there before heading east into Ruritania and the action; Conway Carruthers attempts to see the head of the Sûreté on his way through.
Of course, before air travel you’d be hard pressed to get to anywhere in mainland Europe from Great Britain without passing through Paris sooner or later (probably sooner) but I think there’s more to it than that. Paris occupies a unique place in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: foreign, yet accessible; faintly naughty (both Lord Peter Wimsey and James Bond lose their virginity there); instantly recognisable; a known point from which to triangulate our unknown destination.
Asia no longer begins at the Landstraβe, but travel back in time via the medium of the novel, and you’ll probably find that you have to change in Paris for Ruritania.
Back to Cornwall. Jill Mansell’s St Carys has featured in a couple of books now. It has cafés and hotels, whitewashed cottages, huge private houses, estate agencies, newsagents, holiday lets, everything you’d want in a seaside town, really. And a map.
Finally, I do have to mention Stancester. We’re definitely in Barchester country now, with characters who can only negotiate their relationships with the Church and academia, not dictate terms. In Speak Its Name I was able to write the Students’ Union rules the way I needed them; in The Real World I was working with stricter constraints. I had more freedom with the geography, however. I have a distinct memory of sitting in the park at Woking one sunny Tuesday, with my notebook and a map of Roman Britain, trying to work out where would be a good place to put a city with a cathedral and a university. I did dreadful things to the railway (either diverted it to the north, away from Yeovil or to the south, away from Somerton) but there are a couple of clues that remain intact. The A303 is in the right place, and, if you happen to have a copy of that map of Roman Britain, this is a dead giveaway:
The harshest critic would struggle to fault the setting of Stancester cathedral. Built on the site of a Saxon minster, presiding over the crossing of two Roman roads, it dominates the north side of the city. Its honey-gold hamstone is echoed all around the old town, and, should one be fortunate enough to visit on a sunny afternoon, the overall effect is charming.
If not, I’ll tell you. I put it down on top of Ilchester, having moved a few hills around. I borrowed the church with the octagonal tower, too.
There’s something very enjoyable, making up new places (and then writing about them in the voice of pompous local historians – don’t worry, he doesn’t get any more than that chapter heading). But it turned out that there was a little more to it than that. I’d had the name for Stancester in my head long before I fixed on its location. And I was a long way into a redraft when I went to Wells with my choir and, in the cathedral museum, found a relief map that showed me that in fact I was a lot closer than I thought.
Books mentioned in this post
The Lost Prince, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Peril at End House and The Rose and the Yew Tree; various Miss Marple novels, Agatha Christie
King Ottakar’s Sceptre and Tintin and the Picaros, Hergé
The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
Speak Its Name and The Real World, Kathleen Jowitt
Meet Me At Beachcomber Bay, The Unpredictable Consequences of Love, and It Started With A Secret, Jill Mansell
LGBTQIA Christians on Twitter have been responding to a video from the Church of England Evangelical Council by sharing their experiences as queer people of faith under the hashtag #BeautifulStory. For what it’s worth, here’s mine. I posted it on Twitter yesterday, but it’s probably easier to read here and, because this is the first time I’ve written a lot of it down, I didn’t want to lose it in my feed.
I’m not sure that mine is a particularly #BeautifulStory. Nor is it a particularly ugly one. It’s a bit awkward, and a bit messy, and for the first twenty years of my life I didn’t know that I had it. I grew up under Section 28, you see.
Consequently, I didn’t come across the word ‘bisexual’ until I was 20. If I’d heard it earlier, my life might have been very different. But then again, it might not, because I had many other things going on in it. Including a lot of Scripture Union books.
My church and family were Church of England, slap bang in the middle of the road. I continued down the middle of that road at university. But it’s very easy to internalise certain interpretations of Scripture, particularly if they seem to be more decisive than the alternative.
Anyway, I’d had a few half-hearted crushes on boys in my teens, so I couldn’t be gay. My cousin asked me (at my 18th birthday party) whether I liked women or men. I do wish he’d given ‘both/and’ as an option – though at that point the honest answer would have been ‘neither’.
(I should probably have said that this isn’t a particularly exciting story, either!)
So I went to university, dodged (or did I???) the Christian Union by sheer luck (was committed to symphony orchestra; both met on Tuesdays), had various crushes on various people, ended up going up with a bloke I lived with. (Who was and continues to be lovely!)
Despite studying English Lit and therefore having at least some exposure to queer theory, the first point at which I was prompted to apply it to myself was a Livejournal meme (the old sort of meme which was a series of statements which you bolded or struck out as appropriate)
One of those statements was ‘I am openly bisexual and have completely different reasons for being attracted to men or women’. I thought about that one for a while. I couldn’t say that it was true, for several reasons, but denying it didn’t feel right either.
And that was as far as it went. Meanwhile, the Christian Union drama went on and on and ended, the year after I graduated, with someone suing the Students’ Guild. The drama had got me to articulate my convictions about faith and sexuality to myself.
This was because the drama had a lot to do with the ‘religious freedom/Biblical teaching/equalities’ faultline, though that wasn’t where it had started. Never mind that. I couldn’t reconcile anti-LGBTQ theology with the Gospel.
I hoped and suspected that same-sex marriage, if it ever happened, would sort things out. What I didn’t do was apply any of my thinking to myself. Because I was in a heterosexual relationship, so why would I need to think about any of that? And for quite a while, I didn’t.
So. Graduated. Got engaged to the chap I mentioned upthread. (What I didn’t say is that we met in chapel choir, and that he was agnostic at the time and is now a churchgoing atheist. Which doesn’t seem to bother anybody…)
The beautiful irony in this #BeautifulStory is the fact that it was Church of England marriage preparation courses that got me to take a long, hard look at myself and appreciate that I couldn’t keep on keeping what I knew about myself to myself. So I came out to my fiancé.
And again, nothing much happened. We got married, moved house several times, sang in the choir together, both knowing I was bi. It didn’t make any difference. As one of my friends once said, being bisexual merely doubles the pool of people with whom one doesn’t commit adultery.
All of that is still true. And yet… It does make a difference. Because knowing I was bi and having my husband know I was bi wasn’t enough. Without realising, I was pushing part of myself down, leaving part of myself outside the church door.
I was thinking that part of myself was not acceptable – despite the fact that I’d have been horrified to catch myself thinking that about any other #FaithfullyLGBT person.
There’s a character in my first novel who’s a bit of a caricature of the Perfect Christian Woman. Wife, mother, pink top, cross pendant, etc. She’s also bi, but nobody knows, because she’s so good at projecting the PCW image. In a way, she’s a rather unflattering self-portrait.
And, self-publishing, on the last but one editing pass, I revisited my self-portrait, my Perfect Christian woman, and thought, Good grief, she sounds miserable. I’d moved on.
In between times, I was coming out to people, some of whom were at church. Sometimes it was awkward, sometimes it was a relief, sometimes it was awful. Every time my knees went wobbly afterwards. After a while I decided that I’d act as if everybody knew, and stop worrying.
But of course heteronormativity plus a different-sex partner meant that people always assumed – actually, ‘assumed’ is too strong a word – that I was straight, so I kept having to come out. I came out online, I came out offline. I came out to my family, to clergy, to colleagues.
I came out so many times to my (high turnover) Bible study group that I started to wonder if my purpose on earth was to demonstrate to ordinands (this was a Cambridge church, so got a lot on placements) that they were likely to encounter bolshy queer laypeople.
Now I’ve moved and will have to do it all over again. I have a few lapel badges to assist me. And it does get easier with practice (and not caring so much what people think, or whether they even think it.)
And this is really what my #BeautifulStory has been. From the outside, it looks very similar to the way it looked 15 years ago. But inside I am constantly being renewed and transformed.
I am constantly coming to understand more of who and what I am, and how that glorifies God much more than my previous half-life. I take all of myself to church, these days.
My novels tend to have more action than this. If you want a fictional#BeautifulStory, try Speak Its Name. If you want to know why this is still a big deal in the Church of England, The Real Worldis out now.
What’s the name of the hall of residence at the University of Stancester where Lydia Hawkins is Christian Fellowship representative?
Well, you can find the answer in the extract on my site, but I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the book (and the award), because I know a lot of readers will very reasonably be reading that clue and thinking ‘what on earth???’ Because, let’s face it, that question (which I drafted) seems like a bit of an unlikely start for a WLW book. And yet there it is, in some excellent lesfic company.
Speak Its Name is (as you see) a university story and (as you can guess) a coming out story. It’s got a bit of romance and a bit of satire. It is, above all, a story about how it’s possible to be more than one thing at once, to claim an identity that might be more complicated than most people assume, about the joy and the tension and the grief of having both a religious faith and a queer identity.
Lydia Hawkins is the main character, and by now you’ve probably guessed that ‘the secrets she tried to keep even from herself’ include her identity as a lesbian. Which I suppose would be a bit of a spoiler, if you hadn’t come here from Jae’s crossword. Anyway, she manages to get her head and her heart around that, but that’s rather less than half the story…
In ‘very good timing’ news, I’ve just released the sequel. In ‘very bad timing’ news, I’ve been hit by a bug that’s kicked all my ebooks off the major retail platforms. I’m trying to get that fixed; in the meantime, you can still get everything in paperback, and the ebooks are available from Lulu.
The award that it won was the 2017 Betty Trask Award. The Betty Trask Prize is awarded every year by the Society of Authors to the best debut by an author under the age of 35. Submissions, it says, have to be in ‘a romantic or traditional style’. Speak Its Name is a bit of both.
I only entered because it was free to do so, and because they accepted self-published books (at least, they didn’t say they didn’t). Being shortlisted was a huge surprise. I was walking with my brother in northern Spain at the time, and had in fact forgotten that I’d even entered my book for the awards. Realising that I was the first self-published author ever to have been shortlisted blew me away completely. I’ve made a tiny piece of literary history, and I’m still immensely proud of that.
The delightful thing about it is that even being on the shortlist gives you a Betty Trask Award and a cheque for £3000 to be spent on foreign travel. (I went Interrailing and enjoyed myself hugely.) And again, I’m in good company. Previous winners include Sarah Waters – who I met at the awards ceremony, and who was absolutely lovely.
I have the certificate hanging on the wall to the right of my desk, and it makes me smile every time I see it. Writing a book is a slog. (So is self-publishing.) If my experience is anything to go by, all the authors on that list of clues will have put a huge amount of work into their books, and will have been delighted to have it recognised.
Good luck with the rest of the crossword clues – and I hope you find many more new authors to enjoy!
I’m sorry to say that the prices of Lulu’s paperback books have gone up quite a lot. I’d intended to price The Real World at £8.99, the same as the other two, but I find upon uploading the file that it won’t let me put it on at anything under £13.06. Which is a silly price, liable to change with exchange rates. And it’s a bit demoralising for me not to be paid anything at all, so I’m afraid that when it appears it’ll be £13.99.
Worse news: the other two books will also have to go up, because the current cover price isn’t covering the printing and distributor costs. (This might explain why I don’t seem to have been paid for any Amazon sales recently.) Oh, well: I suppose I was making new covers anyway (a complete redesign for Speak Its Name, and adding an award badge to A Spoke In The Wheel) – so I might as well add the updated prices.
I do understand that there’s a pandemic on, and no doubt printers’ costs have gone up the same as everything else, but I feel that fourteen quid is a bit steep for a paperback myself. So I’m going to knock another quid off the price of the ebook. I also understand that ebooks don’t work for everybody, and fourteen quid is still a bit steep for a paperback. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s worth waiting for Lulu to do a 10% or 15% off promotion, which happens quite frequently (though you may still get dinged on the postage). If you’re really not in a hurry, Amazon occasionally makes substantial reductions on POD paperbacks (I note for the benefit of fellow Clorinda Cathcart fans that A Man of Independent Mind is currently down to £3.37, for example) but I can discern no rhyme or reason to this, and it may never happen to any given book.
I’ve no desire to set myself up as a bookshop, but in exceptional circumstances I’ll consider supplying the paperback at [cost price] + [postage and packing]. If, when the time comes, you’re someone for whom the difference between £8.99 and £13.99 is really quite a big one, drop me an email and I’ll see what I can do.
In the meantime, you can find a number of free reads (and listens!) linked from the menu at the top of this site, and there are a couple of exclusive ones available if you sign up to my newsletter. Which I really must get round to sending, as I have a couple of things to announce…
Speak Its Name wasn’t meant to have a sequel. I thought I’d made all the points I’d wanted to make, answered all the questions I’d raised in it, had taken the characters as far as they needed to go.
Ninety-four thousand words say otherwise. I was wrong. Stancester was a city I hadn’t finished with – and perhaps still haven’t finished with. The Real World, which picks up the action three years later, works as a standalone, but adds something to Speak Its Name, makes it something more than it was before. And so it seemed appropriate to create not one but two covers.
Here’s The Real World:
Colette is trying to finish her PhD and trying not to think about what happens next. Her girlfriend wants to get married – but she also wants to become a vicar, and she can’t do both. Her ex-girlfriend never wanted to get married, but apparently she does now. Her supervisor is more interested in his TV career than in what she’s up to, and, of her two best friends, one’s two hundred miles away, and the other one’s dead.
The Real World.
And here’s Speak Its Name:
A new year at the University of Stancester, and Lydia Hawkins is trying to balance the demands of her studies with her responsibilities as an officer for the Christian Fellowship. Her mission: to make sure all the Christians in her hall stay on the straight and narrow, and to convert the remaining residents if possible. To pass her second year. And to ensure a certain secret stays very secret indeed.
When she encounters the eccentric, ecumenical student household at 27 Alma Road, Lydia is forced to expand her assumptions about who’s a Christian to include radical Quaker activist Becky, bells-and-smells bus-spotter Peter, and out (bisexual) and proud (Methodist) Colette. As the year unfolds, Lydia discovers that there are more ways to be Christian – and more ways to be herself – than she had ever imagined.
Then a disgruntled member of the Catholic Society starts asking whether the Christian Fellowship is really as Christian as it claims to be, and Lydia finds herself at the centre of a row that will reach far beyond the campus. Speak Its Name explores what happens when faith, love and politics mix and explode.
I’ll be uploading the new cover for Speak Its Name at the same time as sending The Real World live (give or take – I may need a bit of a lie down in between), meaning that they should both be available on 2 November.
Firstly, I’ve finally sorted myself out with a mailing list. This is solely for the purpose of letting people know when I’ve got new stories available – my between-times burblings will remain here on the blog. If you want to receive a very occasional email letting you know that I’ve got a new book out, or a piece in someone else’s podcast or anthology, and also to read subscriber-only short stories, sign up to my mailing list
Back in the December of 2018, I thought that I’d really like to have a completed first draft of my next novel by the October of 2019. I did the maths, and worked out that I needed to write 680 words on each of my scheduled writing days, to get to 80,000 words by October.
As of this moment, the word count of The Real World stands at 93,422 words. That’s not counting the page of longhand I’ll be typing up when I’ve finished this post. That’s not counting the major expansion of the final scene that I know needs doing.
It is not done. It is a long, long way off being done. I need to add quite a lot more. And then I need to take a hell of a lot out.
Nevertheless, I sent it to my friend Sam. And even when I sent it I knew about a lot of things that needed doing. A showdown with Barry/expand the final scene/give Rowan a description FFS!/ditch the boring Freshers. And so on.
I tell myself that I don’t usually get people to read my drafts until I can’t think of anything else to do that will improve them. I’m not sure this is actually true. I thought I’d learned last time round that if I send things to people too early, I inevitably end up sending a follow-up saying, no, please ignore what I sent you last month: I’ve deleted three chapters and introduced a new character!
Anyway, I sent it to Sam. I think (he was too polite to say this in so many words) he was disappointed. And when he explained what seemed to be lacking (and after I’d taken myself out for a coffee and a chat with myself) I saw his point. I’d sent it about three drafts too early, and most of the characters were stick people with religious affiliations affixed.
I see a lot of ballet performances, and I see the ballet dancers – they are real athletes. And they need every cell of their body to be conscious, to be spot on. And it’s not only about the tricks, it’s really about every single move – and you don’t lie when you are on stage. Every judge, every crowd, every person will see it, will see you – there is no way to hide. No way.
It’s equally true of writing. Many times I’ve been tempted to let something slip past, some tiny change I know I ought to make, and don’t, have shied away from writing a scene that scared me.
‘I’ll get away with this one,’ I think.
I never do. If I don’t pick it up and do something about it, one of my editors will.
And what’s annoying me is the fact that I already knew this.
Part of it was loneliness. I just wanted someone to talk to about my book.
But the other thing, the thing that threw me, I think, was the fact that with A Spoke In The Wheel I was working with a much more obvious structure. I had a much better idea of what I needed to write. Last time, I undershot. Ever since Speak Its Name came out at 80,000 words, I’ve had that in my head as a decent length to aim at. A Spoke In The Wheel only just got to 70,000 words, and it never needed any more. There are 260 words in the ‘deleted, might still come in useful’ file. I knew where things had to go, I could see where the gaps were, I knew what the end had to look like and how to get there. I got it done in less than two years. Speak Its Name had taken me eight.
I thought I knew how to write a book now.
I know, of course, that Speak Its Name was up at 115,000 words at one point. But I cut most of those extraneous 35,000 words simply by ditching anything that wasn’t from the main character’s point of view, and it didn’t hurt much.
I thought I knew how to write a book now.
And yet here we are, 93,422 words and still counting; 93,422 words, and a lot of work still to be done.
In fact, it turns out that both the Stancester books are slippery beasts, liable to twist and change and turn out to be very different from what I once thought they would be. My perception is that The Real World is even more troublesome than Speak Its Name, but I probably would say that from where I am inside the middle of it. Ten months ago, something happened inside my head that made me revisit one major plot strand, not to make any huge changes to what happens within it, but to adjust the language I’d used around it: I knew more, now; I knew enough to know that I hadn’t got it right. In January, that thing in my head changed back again; two days after that, the House of Bishops released its ‘pastoral statement’ and I realised that the book wasn’t nearly angry enough… It keeps changing. I trust that it will, eventually, settle down into what it’s meant to be: a decent book.
I remember that I know all this. I have learned it before. I know that I need to move the tedious but necessary political bits into the chapter headings. I know that I need to give my characters physical descriptions and interests outside whatever the main plot is this time. I know that if I’m letting my characters be influenced by outside events, I have to find a way for them to own them.
And I know not to get other people to look at it until there is nothing else I can think of to improve, or, if I do, to prepare for a tantrum from the part of me that doesn’t like other people seeing me in a state of anything less than perfection.
Stéphane Lambiel goes on to say:
You’re out there, the spotlights are on you – it’s a big, big pressure. But it’s beautiful. I love it, and I love the process – and the skaters should own the process.
I was still limping the following morning, and my foot had come up in a spectacular bruise across the base of my toes. However, movement was less painful than it had been the day before, and I made it down to the station with only a token amount of wincing and cursing.
No train this time, though. I was taking the OuiBus – a very convenient service, which I’d booked online on John’s recommendation the previous day, and which would take me to Geneva airport. This was a much quicker way of getting back into Switzerland than retracing my journey to Martigny, spectacular as that had been.
Mont Blanc came out from behind the clouds just as John was waving me off. It seemed to be my luck with mountains. The OuiBus ride was a pleasant run through the foothills of the Alps, all green in the sunshine, and put me down in Geneva at an entirely sensible time to buy lunch before the next train.
French-speaking Switzerland was less mountainous than the parts I’d travelled through so far, but was still lovely. I let it slip past the window – Neuchâtel, Lausanne – lakes, narrow, pointed buildings, and a gentle green landscape.
At Basel I changed onto a train going north into Germany, and found myself in a compartment littered with newspapers and food wrappers. The landscape outside was not much more inspiring: cuttings lined with dusty concrete, with a few half-hearted trees here and there. We were approaching the Black Forest, though I had to say I couldn’t see anything of it. Why am I sad? I asked myself, and came to the conclusion that it was time to go home. I reached Karlsruhe, just as rush hour was getting going. I checked and rechecked the map: I had no desire to walk in the wrong direction on my injured foot.
It was the last night of my three weeks abroad. I’d been comparatively frugal up to this point. I couldn’t walk far on this foot of mine. For all these reasons, I’d booked a room in the Schlosshotel, and hadn’t flinched when the price went into three figures. The area in front of the station entrance formed an oblong, with the station and the zoo forming the long sides, and the hotel one of the short ones. I checked in – entirely in German, to my gratification – and took the lift up to my room. The lift was, I understood from a sign, an historic monument, but it still seemed to work all right.
My room was on the top floor, and looked over the square – which meant that I had a fantastic view of the trams. It seemed appropriate for the last night: they’d been a running theme of this trip. I took a shower and had a look at my foot. The bruising had come up in an even more impressive purple, but it wasn’t hurting so much.
[warning: after the picture of the tram, there is a picture of my bruised foot]
Then I took the lift downstairs again and limped a little way around the square, peering through the gates of the zoo to see what I could see (flamingoes, mostly) and looking for somewhere to eat. In the end I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant: a celebratory meal of pancakes with the local asparagus, and a glass of fizz. I enjoyed my own company, as I had, I supposed, most of the time.
5 May 2018
For the last day of my journey I’d planned to head north via Mannheim and Cologne, taking the slower route along the Rhine. Getting to Mannheim was easy enough. I tripped getting onto the train, but didn’t sustain any further damage to speak of. When I got there, however, I discovered that the train I had my eye on was running late, and if it got much later then I wasn’t going to have time to do things the interesting way.
I hung around on the platform, watching other trains, and tried to dislodge the earworm that the name Mannheim installed. Many hymn tunes are named after places, and I’ve spent enough time in church choirs to be able to match them up without really thinking about it. Aberystwyth: Jesu, lover of my soul. Wareham: Jesus, where’er thy people meet. Much closer to home, Coe Fen: How shall I sing that majesty? Mannheim is Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us.
My train got later and later. I realised that I was not going to get the leisurely journey alongside the Rhine. Not if I wanted to catch the Eurostar I was booked on. No, it was going to be an express train dash to Frankfurt. I dragged myself grumpily onto the ICE and resigned myself to a boring journey on a boring fast line. A complimentary packet of locomotive-shaped gummy sweets mollified me a little.
When I got to Frankfurt, I realised. In my end is my beginning. Of course I had to go back via Frankfurt. The towering glasshouse of Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was where it all started, over a decade ago when I was an au pair in Germany. Back then, I was mostly using the Hauptbahnhof for the S-bahn. I only went outside the city by train twice, once to see a friend who lived in Würzburg, and once on my first great continental railway journey, back to England for my future sister-in-law’s wedding. But that wasn’t really the point. The first time I’d looked at a departures board and saw trains listed to Fulda (another hymn tune), Bruxelles-Midi, Stuttgart, and realised that I could go anywhere, that was Frankfurt. And the book that had won the prize and funded the whole trip, that had begun here, too. The first map of Stancester, the first diagram of the different relationships between the six characters at Alma Road, those were drawn out on my aunt’s dining table in Ober Erlenbach.
Between finding a postbox and feeding another euro into the lavatory gates and buying a cheese roll and dragging myself and my suitcase along platform 18 to zones D to F, I thought of my twenty-two year old self and wondered whether she would have believed that we’d actually get here. She might have done. She dreamed big. She wasn’t necessarily so good at making things actually happen, but that’s fine. I’ve learned how to do that over the years since.
On that first Frankfurt-London journey, back in the autumn of 2007, I went all the way from Frankfurt to Brussels. This time I had to change at Aachen, and get a rail replacement bus to Welkenraedt. Back through the Ardennes, back through Liège, back to Brussels.
On the Eurostar, I got out my diary, and I wrote:
I’ve just been sitting watching the northern French landscape go by, all lush and green, and golden in this evening light. When I came out the trees were more or less bare.
This isn’t the end of anything. This is about understanding that it’s all mine for the enjoying, that much more is possible than I ever thought, that in fact I can have both/and.
The couple opposite me are celebrating 44 years together and (I think) 38 years of marriage. Four children, six grandchildren. They’ve just been in Bruges. Loved it.
People say I’m brave, coming out and going around on my own, but it’s never felt like something I couldn’t do. My confidence with regard to specific tasks has improved (today I went to Sam’s Café in Bruxelles-Midi, which I didn’t have the nerve to do three weeks ago) but I always knew I’d find a way around it all.
Little moments of luxury elevate the whole thing. Last night at Karlsruhe, today getting a meal in the Eurostar, and the stale rolls and decaying tomatoes, the frayed carpet and cracked washbasin at Hamburg, don’t seem relevant. I’ve had my fun. And how. Another time I might… but that’s the thing; there can be another time.