Q & A Tag: The Debut Novel

Good luck to everyone attempting NaNoWriMo!  I haven’t been able to make NaNoWriMo work for me since I started working full-time, and also I’m in the middle of a non-writing fortnight, so I’m not taking part. I’m reading instead.

And what I have been reading, among other things (Ankaret WellsAnna Chronistic and the Scarab of Destiny came out yesterday, just saying…) is Speak Its Name. This is partly in search of details I’ve got wrong in The Real World (Rory never went to St Mark’s! Gabe has always had a surname, and it isn’t Murtagh!) but mostly because I happened to pick it up and start flicking through, and then decided I might as well keep reading…

Then I remembered that an early draft had an epic ecumenical argument about Hallowe’en, which might have made a good deleted scene. I couldn’t find it. I did find that all the early drafts meandered all over the place (which I had remembered) were quite unbelievably camp (which I hadn’t).

So all in all this seemed like a good moment to answer a Q & A that I’ve been meaning to do for a while: Niamh Murphy‘s ‘The Debut Novel’ Q & A tag.

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What is the title and genre of your debut novel?

Speak Its Name is a contemporary f/f novel about a Christian student finding her way out of the closet against a backdrop of student politics.

What gave you the idea to start writing it?

Originally I wanted to tell the story of an episode of the great Christian Union wars of the early 2000s. If you weren’t at university in the early 2000s, or didn’t get involved in student politics if you were, then you may well have missed these entirely, but they still crop up from time to time. There’s almost always more going on than makes the press. This was certainly the case in the kerfuffle that I got involved in, and I wanted to tell what really happened.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately!) ‘what really happened’ was actually quite boring. Looking back, I feel like Lord Palmerston:

“Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

How long did it take you to finish?

A long time! I wrote the first word of the first draft in November 2007, having spent much of the summer planning. By the summer of 2014, I thought it was more or less done. I eventually published it in February 2016.

What was the biggest challenge you had when writing it?

The moment when I realised that actually the whole thing needed to be written in the point of view of a character who at that juncture had absolutely nothing. And who wouldn’t come out even to herself until half way through the book.

This development had its advantages, though: for one thing, it made it much easier to incorporate the political storyline. And it made the book much better overall, much tighter, and less susceptible to in-jokes and digressions.

How did you get it published, indie or trad?

After spending a summer trying to interest agents in the book, I gave up and decided to self-publish – a decision I’ve never regretted. Speak Its Name was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize in 2017, after which I did get some more interest from the traditional publishing world, but we decided pretty much simultaneously that it wasn’t an avenue that any of us wanted to pursue.

What was the most important thing you learnt from the process?

How to write a novel. That might sound flippant, but I’m serious. I started with a string of real life events and a handful of characters. Over the years I learned: to let my characters make their own mistakes; how to harness my own emotions to make my characters’ reactions convincing; how to get characters to drive plot; what to leave out; what to take out; how much I really enjoy editing.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on the sequel. It’s called The Real World and it picks up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name. As the title suggests, the characters are having to adjust to life after graduation, and none of them have picked a particularly easy path (if such a thing even exists). There are difficult decisions to be made and challenging situations to work through.

But I’ve actually got to the stage where I put it away for a few months and try to ignore it, so that I can return to it with fresh eyes.

In the meantime I’m writing some shorter pieces, a couple of which are also set in Stancester. One is a prequel to Speak Its Name – Becky’s first term at university – which I’ll be offering as an incentive to sign up to my email newsletter, when I actually get around to setting that up. The other is more of a standalone, and I’m aiming to submit it to the Reconciling the Rainbow anthology.

 

Q & A Tag: The Debut

Degrees of stuckness

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a diagram:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Page 69 Test

Messing around on Twitter a while ago, I came across the Page 69 Test. Apparently this has been popularised by John Sutherland’s book How To Read A Novel, and originates in advice from Marshall McLuhan:

Turn to page 69 of any book and read it. If you like that page, buy the book. It works.

But why does it work? I suspect that it’s because by the time you get to page 69 you’re past all the introductions and scene-setting, but not far enough to encounter any meaningful spoilers.

Actually, it’s often that section of the book that I find most difficult to write. There’s something about managing the transition out of the set-up that causes me a whole lot of trouble, and I end up with an awful lot of square brackets saying: [link] [expand!] [something about the parents] [but why?]

I was therefore a little hesitant to look up my own page 69s (pages 69?), but actually I was quite pleased with what I found.

Here’s page 69 of A Spoke In The Wheel:

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To make it easier for him to remember who he was actually meant to be dealing with, I turned my back while Polly told him what she needed to do. After a little while she wheeled herself off after him and I was left standing in the middle of the floor. I found an armchair and picked up one of the complimentary newspapers – though it wasn’t particularly complimentary. THE FRAUDSTER NEXT DOOR was the headline. I expected it to be about a conman raiding some poor old couple’s pensions or something, but it turned out to be some self-righteous hysteria about people claiming benefits they weren’t entitled to. Personally, having seen the hassle that Polly had to go through to get the ones she was entitled to, I couldn’t see why anybody would bother. I turned to the back page in disgust and wished I hadn’t. It was mostly taken up with a picture of a tennis player with her head in her hands. NO HOPER? NEW DOPE BAN FOR HOPE.

After that I gave up on the paper and sat there twiddling my thumbs and composing cutting replies to the woman on the bus, in case we ever had that argument again, until Polly came out.

I got up. ‘Sorted?’

‘Eventually,’ she said. She lowered her voice. ‘Come on, let’s see if we can get out the same way.’

We performed the previous manoeuvre in reverse, which was a little bit scarier because neither of us could get our heads under the top tape without Polly’s front wheels first being well onto the downward slope. I had visions of her sailing off down to the street below, clotheslining herself as she went, but she was too skilful to let that happen.

‘Right,’ I said when we were safely back at street level. ‘What a palaver. Library?’

She looked up at me, backwards, and I saw with a sudden shock that she was slumping in her chair, and her face was tense with the effort of controlling her fatigue. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And that had probably better be it.’

This comes in the middle of a chapter in which Ben accompanies Polly on some errands, and begins to appreciate some of the practical difficulties of life with a chronic illness. I think it would work well as a representative sample. There are quite a lot of ableist microaggressions in this book, and if that wasn’t what somebody needed to be reading about (and I couldn’t blame them!) then page 69 would be a reasonable warning. It also gives an idea of Ben’s personality, a more sympathetic and probably more representative one than the first page (he’s had time to unstick himself a bit). He’s well-meaning but clueless, clueless but willing to listen.

And here’s page 69 of Speak Its Name:

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Tim Benton’s a Catholic, isn’t he, and nobody seriously tries to claim that Catholics are really Christian. I mean, they pray to Mary, that’s idolatry for a start…’

Lydia wanted to say that nobody was praying to Mary at the Vigil, but judged it best not to draw attention to her own attendance. Instead, she ventured, ‘I’m beginning to wonder, actually – whether any of us actually have the right to claim that somebody isn’t a Christian when they say they are…’

Ellie sent the surviving portion of the STANdard the same way as the Letters page. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s perfectly obvious with some people, isn’t it? No, Lydia, the Devil is at work on campus. This isn’t the only sign of it. Jake told me last week that you hall officers won’t be allowed to live-in next year. It’s all very worrying. I think we should pray about this.’

‘We what?’ Lydia exclaimed in horror.

Ellie, intent on praying, did not answer. Instead, she shifted her chair so that she sat directly opposite Lydia and grabbed both her hands painfully tightly. ‘Father God,’ she intoned, ‘we see Your people under attack, we know that the Enemy is moving on this campus, we pray, Lord, we just pray for Your help and guidance today.’ Squeeze, squeeze. ‘We know that You are in control of all things and we ask that You would show Your power here today, Lord, we ask that You would reveal Your truth, that You would convince those who are doubting,’ squeeze, this time with nails digging in, ‘that You would complete Your great work at this university, so that every student here will know that You are Lord. Lord, we just ask this today. Lord, You said that whoever is not for You is against You. We ask You to protect us all against these attacks from Satan, by these people who claim to speak in Your name but who are working to undo the great things You have already done here. Amen, Lord, Amen!’

This one I’m not quite so comfortable with. It’s cringey, and it’s meant to be, and I suppose that it’s good for anyone with an active embarrassment squick to know that this passage exists. In fact, this is peak cringe. If the reader can cope with this, they can cope with the rest of the book. And it is a reasonably good picture of the dynamics in the wider book: Lydia advocating for a wider understanding of the word ‘Christian’, and experiencing a more violent pushback than perhaps she expects. Ellie doesn’t appear in The Real World: we’ve moved away from the (Evangelical) Christian Fellowship and on to the Church of England. I miss her. A bit.

One thing I can guarantee is that this will no longer be page 69 by the time The Real World comes out, but what the hell. This is Colette talking to postdoc James about his upcoming wedding, and, in its combination of marriage angst and science angst, it’s fairly representative. It’s missing the Church of England angst, though.

… they couldn’t get it in the right size for one of them, so the whole idea gets written off and we have to start all over again from square one.’

‘I suppose you couldn’t get away with having one of them in something different and calling it a contrast?’

‘I think that’s the point of the bride,’ he said drily.

Colette shrugged her shoulders. ‘Well, you’re the expert.’

‘Of course, the other problem is that they then have to get the flowers matched up with the dresses, and Giselle really wants irises, because it was her grandma’s name.’

‘That’s a really lovely idea,’ Colette said.

‘In theory, yes, it is. In practice, it’s yet another thing that we have to work around. Apparently it rules out a whole slice of the colour palette.’

‘Oh,’ said Colette, who had never thought about it.

The lab door opened with a gentle swish. Just in time, James closed the window on his computer with the Science Today story and maximised the one in which he was writing his own report.

‘Good morning,’ Barry said.

‘Morning, Barry,’ James said, in a remarkably natural way.

‘Morning,’ Colette mumbled.

He glanced at her. ‘You told me last week that you wanted to ask about something?’

‘Yes,’ Colette agreed, her mind blank. ‘I – I can’t remember what it was now.’

He looked distinctly unimpressed. ‘Hmm. Well, if you remember before about three o’clock, give me a shout.’ He disappeared into his office. James and Colette glanced at each other.

‘What did you want to ask him about?’ James asked. ‘Or can you really not remember?’

Colette wriggled uncomfortably. ‘I couldn’t put it into words in the moment. It was that weird [thing] that I asked you about…

As you see, I’m still in the [square brackets] phase. I’ll be back in a few months with the real page 69.

Titled.

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The sequel to Speak Its Name has been coming along very nicely in recent months. It’s now standing at 75,000 words, with only a few holes left to fill before I can move into the editing phase.

But I’ve been having to refer to it in just those terms, because I have had dreadful trouble coming up with a title for it.

At first I was thinking of it as Scandal and Folly, but I had to admit that this sounded too much like a bodice ripper. I thought of doing something with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but no variation on that seemed to work. Later I came up with Truth and Power, but that sounded too much like a political thriller. In between times, I’ve just been calling it ‘the sequel’.

On Tuesday I had a rather varied evening. First I went to the pub with some people I used to work with, and a few people I still work with, and ended up spending most of the time I was there talking to the boyfriend of someone who’d only just started working with the people I used to work with. Then I dashed off to catch a train and then lead a session on the Holy Spirit with a small group from church.

And through the evening there was one phrase that kept coming up. The real world. Trade union employees tend to be pretty much resigned to the idea that people think they don’t live in the real world. One of the church group felt that it was very important to live in the real world. In actual fact, it’s a phrase that I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with: unless this is the Matrix, all of us live in the real world.

Anyway, I was walking home at the end of the night and thinking how many times I’d heard the phrase the real world over the course of the previous few hours, and wondering whether it held any particular significance for me, or whether it was just coincidence.

And I realised: that’s my title.

The Real World

It works across several of the themes of the novel (we are picking up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name, with the characters in their early twenties and trying to work out what they’re doing next) and it has a good few layers of irony, too. Not least, of course, the fact that this isn’t the real world at all. It’s fiction.

But nobody in it knows that.

Back on the Book Bus (where do you get your ideas?)

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Last week I was back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe. I had good intentions about selling a lot and writing a lot. As it was, I sold very little and immediately spent all the proceeds on other books. I finished a short story (submissions deadline was today) and managed to get the current novel about a thousand words further forward and a little bit tidier.

Apart from that, I sat in the sun, and listened to and watched other people doing their thing. Poetry. Music. Theatre. Comedy. I looked for lizards (and found them) and drank Belgian beer.

In between times, I did quite a lot of thinking, and I noticed how my best ideas seem to come from thought experiments of the ‘What if?’ variety. For example:

I know the Society of Authors aren’t expecting a novel inspired by the three weeks of foreign travel their award funded, but, if they were, what would it look like?

(Answer: a modern Ruritanian adventure with ice dancing!)

Or, this week:

If I were going to write something that I could sell at a price point of £4 or under, so that buyers aren’t going to be put off it in favour of the cheaper, and excellent, second-hand books around it, what could that be?

(Answer: a little book that can double as a souvenir!)

So that’s two projects in the pipeline. I’m also attempting to write more short stories. Some of those I’m submitting them to other people’s anthologies and magazines; others, I have other plans for. For example, I’m thinking of setting up a mailing list, and I’d like to offer an exclusive short story as a thank you for joining it.

At the moment, though, my main focus is still the sequel to Speak Its Name, which is currently standing at just over 62,000 words. It still doesn’t have a title. I thought of Scandal and Folly (sounds too much like a bodice ripper). I thought of Truth and Power (sounds too much like a political thriller). I’ll just have to trust that I’ll come up with something before it’s finished. And that’ll be early next year, at a guess. I’ll keep you posted.

How to tell if you’re in a Kathleen Jowitt novel

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How To Tell If You’re In A Kathleen Jowitt novel*:

You’re not nearly such a terrible person as you thought you were. A red-haired activist from the North is trying to make your life better whether or not you wanted her to. You have devoted your life to this institution and it isn’t thanking you for it. You’re going through hell, but you come out the other side. Your friends spend their lives arguing on the internet. You can’t make any assumptions based on someone else’s religion, but you do anyway.

Oh, and you were never interested in the politics, but that hasn’t stopped the politics in being interested in you. And your parents are appalling.

The reader can also expect to find:

  • a fictional location
  • politics
  • a bisexual character
  • a reasonably optimistic romance which might or might not be the focus of the story

 

 

P. S. I’m trying to write less appalling parents.

* preserved from Twitter, and expanded slightly.

Engaging with the tradition

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A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with a friend about what I was writing and what he’d been watching. I’m writing the sequel to Speak Its Name, which in its current state is mostly about vocations and relationships and what they do to each other. He’d been watching Fleabag, and thought that it had quite a lot to say to what I was doing, and had I seen it?

I said that I hardly watch any TV at all, because I lack the staying power. I can keep up with something for one or two episodes, but then life gets in the way and I get behind. (So I mostly watch Doctor Who, where you can dip in and out and it makes just as much sense as if you had managed to see last week’s episode.) So no, I hadn’t seen Fleabag.

But it’s a very good point. Whatever you’re writing about, whatever genre you’re writing in, someone will have been there first. (And if you don’t engage with that tradition, then there’s a very real danger of making yourself look like an utter plonker. See: Ian McEwan and sci-fi.)

Speak Its Name and whatever-the-sequel’s-going-to-be-called sit not quite comfortably within the Barchester genre. And that is a tradition that I’ve been engaging with ever since I wrote my undergraduate dissertation (Fit Persons To Serve In The Sacred Ministry of Thy Church: representations of Anglican clergy 1855-65) if not before (my mother, seeing me with a copy of Glittering Images shortly before my A-level exams, prudently removed it from me). Most recently, of course, there’s been Catherine Fox‘s Lindchester. Sometimes I think I’m engaged not so much in a dialogue with Lindchester as in a stand-up screaming match, while at the same time finding it intensely familiar and moving. So maybe I’ll get round to watching Fleabag, or more probably I won’t, but I think I’ve probably done enough homework there.

A Spoke in the Wheel is slightly different. Not so much in terms of genre – I suppose it’s somewhere between a romance and a social problem novel – but in terms of subject matter. I read loads of cycling books, but they were all non-fiction. Most of them were memoirs.

There isn’t really a tradition, you see. Elsewhere (and elsewhen – almost a decade ago, in fact) on the Internet, William Fotheringham has a list of the top ten cycling novels. They’re a mixed bag, and the diversity of genres represented suggests that he had to scratch around quite a lot to find any ten, let alone a top ten.

If I were feeling inspired I’d try matching the titles to the various roles within a team (sprinter, GC contender, domestique, grimpeur, rouleur, etc), but I’m feeling a bit too tired for that. And I’ve only attempted three of them in recent years. (I’m sure I must have had The Adventure of the Priory School read to me when I was a child, but it hasn’t stuck.)

  • Cat ought to be the sort of thing I’d love, but every time I’ve tried it I’ve foundered on the extended passages in italic type.
  • Three Men on the Bummel is not quite as good as Three Men in a Boat, and contains quite a lot of tedious national stereotyping.
  • The Rider was the one I saved for after I’d finished writing A Spoke In The Wheel, because when something’s been sold as ‘the best cycling novel of all time’, it’s a bit intimidating when you’re just trying to write a decent one.

And I’ve now downloaded The Wheels of Chance (thank you, Project Gutenberg).

Actually, the one cycling book I’m really glad I didn’t read before starting ASITW is Fotheringham‘s own Put Me Back On My Bike. I just don’t think I’d have had the nerve to write about fictional doping with that magnificent and uncomfortably vivid account of the tragedy of Tom Simpson always in the back of my mind.

 

* Having said that, I’ve now watched all of Good Omens, so it turns out that I’m perfectly capable of watching television when somebody else organises it and when it’s a day that I didn’t have earmarked for writing. I’m still two episodes behind on Gentleman Jack, though, and it’ll be three if I don’t get my act together this weekend.