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.

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

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… surprising and exciting developments.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be surprising. When in the autumn we added up the balances of our various savings accounts and found that they made a mortgage deposit, that was after many years of channelling a direct debit in that direction.

What else?

The opportunity to serve on a Cursillo weekend. I wrote a couple of days ago about ‘the privilege of loving people’, and this was largely what I had in mind. Making tea for people, putting chairs out for them, washing their hands… it was wonderful.

Good progress on two books. The Real World is more or less there in terms of word count, and I’m looking forward to diving back in with a red pen in a couple of weeks’ time. The Rassendyll Kidnapping is a lot more nebulous, but a whole load of plot came together in my head at the beginning of December, and I got most of it down before I forgot it again.

Time with family and friends – particularly a week with my family at and around Ventnor Fringe, and a week with the in-laws on a narrowboat on the river Avon, and another week with my friend Anne in York. I’d like to see more of more people next year, though.

The chance to see the best cyclists in the world ride past me.

New people and new places. Theatre. Museums. Good books. Good food. A really interesting talk that made me think about food differently. (The very short version: delight and sharing.) Wide-ranging conversations, leading (I think) to interesting places.

2019 hasn’t been a year of fruition, exactly, but it’s certainly been a year of emerging shoots. And I’m thankful.

December Reflections 15: best decision of 2019

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I’ve made (or received) two fairly major decisions this year, but I don’t yet know the outcome of either of them, so it seems a bit premature to call either of them the best. Not least since they appear to be pulling in opposite directions… It’ll be interesting to see how that all works out.

Taking the first week of December as annual leave, and then doing absolutely nothing in it, is a very good decision, but it’s one I’ve made every year since at least 2014 now, so I’m not sure that I can really count it as a decision of 2019. It’s more a very longstanding tradition.

After growing my hair out to a bob last year, I got it cut short again in May, and immediately felt 500% more like myself. But I wouldn’t say it was the best decision.

Going to the work disco on Friday night was a good decision, since it meant spending the evening with a group of other despondent people, none of whom were going to attempt to tell anybody else to cheer up, but also being able to dance and dance and dance. And staying off Twitter and Facebook was also a good decision. Some people need a good rant/vent/whinge, and I respect that, but I find that listening to or reading other people’s ranting/venting/whingeing just gets me (even further) down, and actively gets in the way of my doing anything to improve matters. So I danced instead. Anyway, that feels too depressing to be the best decision of the year.

But in fact I have had a moment this year where the rightness of a thing seemed to sing and sizzle and settle: of course this is the right thing. And that was the evening when everybody was talking about ‘the real world’, about whether or not they lived in it, about whether or not other people live in it, about whether anybody really lives in it. And I realised that in fact this was the title of my next book. That’s my best decision of 2019. The Real World. More on that next year.

December Reflections 4: white

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Today I had to buy a box of tissues, as the cold which has been making me lethargic, despondent and irritable for the last two weeks has finally got to the ‘runny nose’ stage, which for me means nosebleeds too.

Actually, the current bug aside, 2019 hasn’t been too bad for me health wise. A slight iron deficiency got picked up in the summer when I attempted to give blood, and there was another bug which had all the symptoms of a nasty cold except the cough and runny nose, but I think that was about it.

Most excitingly, there was one morning this year when I woke up with the motivation, energy, enthusiasm, everything, squashed by depression, and managed to be kind to myself about it. This is revolutionary.

I think I know how it happened, too. I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing from the perspective of a character who spends much of the action becoming increasingly depressed. I have had to take care to differentiate between her perception of reality and actually reality. It’s hardly surprising if that has helped me get a bit of perspective myself, to remember that what’s really there is bigger than the space in my head. Even if that’s a little bit more difficult when that head is completely bunged up.

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.