Visibility, possibility: links for bi visibility day

I put the finishing touches to The Real World a week ago, and since then I’ve been doing my best to do very little. Writing this book has taken an awful lot out of me, and I’m trying to make up for that by sitting in a deckchair on the lawn, reading other people’s books.

But I do also write things that aren’t 94,000 word novels, and I’m very pleased to have two pieces to share for Bi Visiblity Day. As I wrote in one of these,

my experience of being bisexual has been the ever-present consciousness of other possibilities. I’ve made a particular series of choices, my life has unfolded in a particular way – but I’m always aware that I could have made other choices, that my life might look very different today if… If I hadn’t grown up under Section 28. If I’d heard the word ‘bisexual’ before the age of 20. If, if, if.

I might have taken the road more travelled by, but that doesn’t mean all the other roads disappear from existence. (They closed the road through the woods…) Both of these pieces explore that sense of possibility, in fiction and in non-fiction (A merry road, a mazy road…).

The first one is perhaps more bi audibility than visibility, as it’s a podcast. This is the second story I’ve had featured at A Story Most Queer (the first was Prima Donna), but my first to be premiered there. I’ve added a PDF version too. It’s a fairy tale about a young woman who sets out to look for her friend who’s gone missing…

Daisy’s Yarn (podcast)

Daisy’s Yarn (PDF download)

The second piece is a guest post at Licence To Queer, where I wander all over the 007 canon, both book and film, looking for bisexual possibilities and revisiting my Eng Lit past. I even gave it a proper Eng Lit essay title with a colon in the middle. If that sounds a bit dry, I should also warn you that I fail to answer the question of what Felix Leiter was doing in Bond’s hotel room, and that I do pick up on a surprising allusion to the Book of Common Prayer. Fortunately David’s added some pictures.

“What makes you think this is the first time?”: assumption, possibility, and bisexuality in Bond

If you’re at all interested in James Bond and queer themes I recommend the whole Licence To Queer site heartily: it’s a joyful deep dive into the world of 007 – with some intriguing cocktail recipes too.

Interestingly, while The Real World has turned out to be an extremely bi novel in other ways, the sense of possibility isn’t nearly so present. Except, perhaps, as a sense of something missing, something distorted… Ah, you’ll see.

Annoying pricing news

Corner bookshelf stacked with books

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…

The Real World: cover reveal (and one for luck!)

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:

Book cover: 'The Real World' by Kathleen Jowitt, featuring a red stained glass flower with green leaves on a red, floral patterned, background.

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.

Welcome to…

The Real World.

And here’s Speak Its Name:

Book cover: 'Speak Its Name' by Kathleen Jowitt, featuring a stained glass passion flower on a magenta background with a floral print

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.

In the meantime, you can add The Real World to Goodreads, or join my mailing list, or, of course, both.

Getting ready for The Real World

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Over the last few weeks I’ve been going back through old journals. A little over two years ago, at the end of July 2018, I wrote:

I am feeling ready to start the new books. They are both feeling pretty huge and intimidating, as if the end of them is a long way off, but that’s to be expected.

Yes, that’s books, plural. One of them was ‘the Ruritanian thing’. The end of that is still a long way off: it’s sitting at 12,500 words, and I haven’t done nearly as much work on it as I’d expected.

But the other one was what is now The Real World. And it’s done.

I’m always surprised by the way I suddenly know that a book’s finished. It’s a pleasant surprise, because it’s characterised by the departure of worry. I stop worrying about whether it’s any good or not. I stop worrying about who I might have offended and what I might have got wrong. I stop worrying about what people might make of it. It’s not that I stop caring – I still care, very much, about making this book good – but I stop worrying. It’s a painless separation, and it happens when the book is ready and not before.

When I say it’s done, I mean that I’ve got the text as good as I, personally, can make it. I may still change things. I have the usual cohort of beta readers and editors and nitpickers looking at it at the moment, and I may draft more in.

And I still have all the typesetting and design work, all the fiddly stuff that comes before pressing the ‘publish’ button, to be done. The cover is, I think, nearly there (of course assuming that I don’t look back at it in a month and decide that actually it’s irredeemably naff), but there are a lot of other things to be done.

But I’m confident enough that I’ve got something decent that I’ve committed to a publication date.

2 November 2020.

Mark your calendar, sign up for my newsletter, add it to Goodreads, whatever. Or just pop back closer to the time. It’s going to happen.

Meanwhile, in the real world…

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Do you remember how, back at the beginning of lockdown, various obnoxious productivity types were telling us all that if we didn’t come out of it with a new skill or a novel then we were all pathetic failures? I haven’t heard so much from them recently. That may have something to do with my spending less time on Twitter. Or the obnoxious types may have discovered that in fact it’s not so easy to get things done with a global crisis going on outside, and have shut up.

As it happens, I’ve learned a few new skills – painting walls, making curtains, changing taps – but they’ve had more to do with having just moved house than with enforced leisure. I’ve continued to work full time, so, apart from the commute (which I’ve gleefully replaced with an additional daily hour in bed) I haven’t had much in the way of enforced leisure. Anyway, I went into lockdown with a novel, or, at least, 93,000 words of one, so it would be a bit of a cheat to claim that it had anything to do with coronavirus. If anything, I was hoping to make it shorter. As it is, I’ve now got 94,661 words. They’re better, though. They’re quite a lot better.

They’re good enough for me to say, tentatively, that this book’s going to come out this year.

I’m aiming for a release date in November. Of course, this means that I need to have everything done in September, which means that I’ve only got a couple of months to get things done. But that feels achievable, now, in a way that it didn’t at the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, my existing books will remain free to download from Lulu until the end of this month. After that they’ll go back to full price. Consider this fair warning, and, if you haven’t grabbed them already, you can find them here:

Things I know people won’t like about The Real World

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Well, the clue’s in the name, really, isn’t it? Granted, The Real World is set in 2017, which was not quite so spectacularly apocalyptic as 2020’s turning out to be.

That’s one of the reasons why I’ve been quiet around here recently: there’s plenty that’s wrong with the real world, and quite often I feel that the best way for me to contribute to righting it is to show up for my job, to be part of a collective campaigning against racism and transphobia rather than pontificating in my own tiny corner of the internet.

The other reason is that by half past five I tend to feel that my eyeballs will start dribbling out of their sockets if I look at my screen for a moment longer. I turn my computer back on in the evenings, and convert some thoughts into pixels, but it’s slower going than it used to be. I’m not missing my commute, exactly, but it did make a lovely chunk of time that was for writing and nothing else.

So the first thing that people won’t like about The Real World is:

  • I don’t know when it will be published. The last time I had a date in mind, I was thinking of this September, to coincide with the beginning of the academic year. I’m pretty sure I won’t make that now, and, while I’m feeling more optimistic that I will, you know, get this wretched thing finished, I couldn’t tell you when that will be.

Apart from that:

  • Church politics. Church processes. The small but important faultlines between different churches and different Churches. My first beta reader pointed out, tactfully, that there didn’t seem to be anything else. I’ve added some other things since, but there’s still quite a lot of Church stuff in there.  (Depending on your point of view this may, of course, be a feature rather than a bug.)
  • Not everybody gets what they want. In fact, hardly anybody gets what they want. I don’t think this is a pessimistic book, but it’s set in, well, the real world, and at least one of the characters wants two things that are, in the real world, mutually exclusive. And, while an author can of course wave a magic wand and make everything better, that doesn’t feel honest to me; it doesn’t feel respectful to those real people who are having to make those impossible decisions.
  • I’ve managed to develop Unpopular Opinions about a concept that’s a major theme in this book. I’m hoping that my opinions haven’t hijacked everything else, but that’s for the reader to decide. I had an epiphany some time last year when I realised that, just because a character happened to agree with me, it didn’t mean that they were right, but it’s undeniable that they do have their say.
  • Portraying depression from inside the head of someone who has it is probably a risky move. I’m gloomily resigned to the probability of someone mistaking depiction for endorsement, but I’m not looking forward to that.

The thing that I don’t like about it at the moment (apart from the fact that it still needs a lot of work) is the fact that it’s stubbornly refusing to go below 93,000 words, and at the moment I can’t see whether that’s because 93,000 words is, in fact, the length it needs to be, or because there’s something that needs to come out.

I’ll keep you posted. Probably. In the meantime, I hope the real real world is being kind to you.

I have worked out what is wrong with this book

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It’s been three months since my last major wobble with this book. When I put it away before moving, I wrote myself a note:

It’s not going to be as bad as you think. I promise.

And you will see what you need to do. You’re coming to this after a break of time and a change of space. This will give you room to see what needs changing…

You might not work on it at all in March: that’s fine. But you must pick it up again in April. Start with a read through; look for the gaps, in the first instance – not the physical omissions, but the thin parts, the bits you’ve been telling yourself you’ll get away with… your focus for the moment should be on adding substance, adding depth, making your characters and your setting more solid.

I spent the last couple of weeks doing that. And I worked out what is wrong with this book.

It is the reason why I always have trouble with writing books in this series (based on a sample of one, so far): it’s about people quietly trying to get on with their own lives while drama happens around them.

And writing it from Colette’s point of view accentuates the problem, because she’s always taken minding her own business to a fine art, and has always had to be dragged into plot by main force (in the first book, by Peter and then by Lydia). Consequently, I’ve got at least four other characters’ plots going on which are, at the moment, very boring, because she’s either giving people space to deal with their own stuff or just doesn’t care. And then she tends to suffer in silence rather than do anything about it. In this book I’m going to get her to the point where she does do something about it, but I need to keep the interim suffering in silence from being too tedious.

The problem is, of course, not so much that she doesn’t care, as that I don’t. Because I am the one who is writing this thing, and I do need to tie them up a little better than I have at present. I’ve worked out how to inject some suspense into one of the four subordinate plots, and another two are things that she really ought to care about because they have a major influence on her life, and actually one needs some work and the other is better than I think it is. The fourth can and should fade into the background, I think.

I also wrote:

We’ll talk later about the deadline for this. I’ll tell you this: it isn’t September. This one is too important to rush. Take your time; get it good.

And I still have no publication date. What’s different now is the fact that this doesn’t seem to be worrying me at all. I think I’ve adapted to this weird timelessness in the air. This book will come out when it’s ready, and that’s the only logical way to schedule it.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, my existing two books are still free.

Rookie errors/lessons learned (?)

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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.

This morning I read an interview with Stéphane Lambiel, in which he talked about his work as a skating coach. And he said this:

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.

Here’s to that.

Relatable: writing the real world, and The Real World

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Last week I told my faithful beta reader Sam that I would have something ready for him to read fairly shortly, and gave him the blurb (at least, as far as I could remember it off the top of my head).

He said,

Well, there’s a story I can relate to! Not the being a lesbian part, or the doing the PhD, or wanting to talk to a dead person… just the real world being a bit of a confusing mess! And that seems like it might be the joy of the story. Personally, I can’t relate to anything you just said in that blurb other than the real world being a crazy place, but I do feel I can relate to the whole thing still. So something’s right with it all!

And this strikes, albeit at something of an angle, at something that has been worrying me a little bit about my book. It’s something that worries me a little bit about every book that I write: what if X reads Y and thinks it’s about them?

I don’t mean the deliberate things. I borrowed the wheelchair conga line in the last book knowing exactly what I was doing. (I still have very fond memories of that party!) This time round I emailed somebody to ask, ‘Do you mind if I appropriate your church’s backstory?’ I don’t mean things like that. I mean the occasions when I go, ‘hang on, that thing happened! to X! I wasn’t thinking about X when I wrote it! oh shit! what if they think it’s about them and then they hate me?’

It’s usually something that was quite an obvious way to take the story, something that was quite easy to write. It hits me when most of the plot’s nailed down and I can’t easily take it out.

The thing is, whatever Y is, it probably also happened to several other people.

One’s early twenties are a confusing, difficult time. It’s the combination of having to deal with money, large amounts of money, or the lack of large amounts of money when one needs them to survive, and coming to understand that one’s parents are human and have human failings and are mortal and will eventually die, and wondering what on earth one’s going to do with the rest of one’s life, and encountering failure, and learning how to deal with serious relationships, and, and, and…

For some people it happens earlier; for some, it happens later. Personally, I spent the year after I turned 21 letting go of what I thought I was meant to be doing, and 22-23 just about clinging on to what remained. There are whole chunks of time that I just can’t remember at all. (This is a little irritating, because some of them would have made good material for this!) I look back at diary entries from that period and think, goodness, I really should have talked to somebody about that. And of course some people have more going on, more to deal with, than others.

But it’s very likely that what I’m writing about is going to match up with somebody’s history more closely than I’d intended. And on the one hand that’s good – as Sam points out, I’m trying to write things that people can relate to! And on the other I am hoping and trying not to inflict needless hurt.

Which brings me on to something that was originally going to be a separate blog post, but what the hell.

Yesterday the House of Bishops released some ‘pastoral’ guidance responding to the fact that opposite-sex civil partnerships are now possible in the UK.

It didn’t say much that we didn’t already know, but it said it in a spectacularly insensitive fashion, which has inevitably and deservedly been reported as ‘sex only for opposite-sex marriage, say bishops’. And there are a lot of LGBT+ Anglicans who are feeling pretty hurt and angry, and a lot of allies who are being very vocal too. It hurts. I have dodged a load of bullets and it still hurts. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are right in the firing line.

Meanwhile, lit Twitter was talking about American Dirt, which I don’t think I shall bother reading. I was particularly struck by this piece, which actually predates the current kerfuffle, but which got linked to illustrate the point that books about marginalised people don’t need to be trauma porn to be important. Life isn’t, and literature doesn’t have to be, wall-to-wall misery for immigrants, for queer people, for anyone. And the message that you’re doomed to unhappiness simply because of who you are is… not one that I would wish to endorse.

This is a balance that I’m trying to strike.

One of the major points of conflict in The Real World is the fact that ordained ministers in the Church of England are not allowed to marry someone of the same sex. This is a source of grief and pain in the real world; it’s destroying relationships and distorting lives. I have done my best to work with this and still write a book in which the richness and beauty and joy and delight of queer relationships can be discerned.

Whether I have succeeded… is the wrong question. Whether I will have succeeded, we’ll find out. It still needs work. I’m still filling in holes in the text, even as Sam looks at what I’ve done so far (‘seventeen pages of red marks’, he says). It is a way off being finished; a long way off being as good as I can get it; further away still from being as good as it can be.

(And then sometimes I think that all I’ve done is written a less posh, more liturgically accurate, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But that’s another story.)

Welcome to The Real World

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I’ve been ignoring The Real World (my book, I  mean, not the actual real world) since October, in order to get a bit of distance. Last week I printed the manuscript out and (when I wasn’t standing in the rain for three hours waiting for a rail replacement bus) read it through and scribbled on it.

It isn’t bad at all. It isn’t done, but what’s there is OK. If all goes to plan, it will come out in September.

In the meantime, I wrote a blurb for it, and here it is:

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 Colette’s up to, and, of her two best friends, one’s two hundred miles away, and the other one’s dead.

Welcome to…

The Real World.