We’ll turn it around

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I’ve spent quite of lot of 2017 being ill. The boomerang virus has hit me three times since New Year’s Eve. At the moment it’s manifesting in a hacking cough, set off by a) singing anything longer than a bar and a half in one breath; b) laughing; c) breathing in cold air. Previously it’s made itself known in extreme lethargy, fever, sniffles tending to nosebleeds, headaches, lack of sleep, a sore throat, and a cough. Not, fortunately, all at once. Or, at least, not for long.

Consequently, I’ve spent quite a lot of 2017 wrapped up in a blanket and occupying myself with things that haven’t needed much energy. In what is perhaps not a coincidence, I have fallen hard for Yuri!!! on Ice, which is a very sweet and optimistic anime about figure skating. This despite my having had no prior interest in either anime or figure skating. It just seems to appeal to the same part of my brain that likes epaulettes and grand opera and dark chocolate. And Ruritania.

It’s probably also significant that Yuri!!! on Ice takes place in a universe where there’s no homophobia and where the sport system can be trusted. By contrast, I have spent the last year writing in a universe where sport chews you up and spits you out, and several years before that writing in a universe where homophobia is depressingly and devastatingly real. So perhaps I just needed a break.

There are parts of my brain that think it is absolutely appalling of me to be watching anything at all light and fluffy (not to mention admitting to it in public) when As We All Know The World Is Going To Hell. (There are other parts of my brain that don’t like my admitting to liking anything at all, including epaulettes, grand opera, and dark chocolate, because that’s really embarrassing, apparently. And another one that’s pointing out that I promised myself several years ago that I’d never apologise for my reading or watching material, because if an English Lit degree doesn’t give you the right to read what you like without feeling guilty about it, what does? Brains, eh?)

The thing is, it’s not as simple as that. In the same way that one can’t (at least, I can’t) read The Prisoner of Zenda and Rupert of Hentzau without reflecting that Rudolf V is actually a pathetic excuse for a king who deserves everything he gets, and wondering whether there’s a Ruritanian Communist Party, it’s difficult to watch Yuri!!! on Ice without acknowledging that, sadly, Russia doesn’t work like that, and China doesn’t work like that, and probably skating doesn’t work like that either. Which makes for some genuinely interesting fanfic; but I’ve been reading a lot of fluff, too.

It’s a constant push and pull: between escapism and realism (but how real is the realism?), between optimism and pessimism; the tension between the world as one would like it to be and the world as one fears it is; the question of what truth looks like in fiction. I feel the urge to complicate the simple stuff; and to give the miserable stuff a happy ending; to question whether an ending that an author clearly intended as happy is as happy as all that; and to  It’s a question with which a consumer engages as much as a creator. Actually, I find that the lines are blurred, and that I’m arguing with something with everything I write: some other book, something someone else said, adding another layer to the debate.

On which subject: I’ve got back into the editing process for A Spoke In The Wheel this week, after spending all of January too knackered and too scared to look at it. It turns out that it’s neither as bad nor as miserable as my mind had made it out to be. (Again, I say, brains, eh?) And I find myself wondering, now, where it falls on that continuum between realism and escapism. I’ve tried to set it in the real world, where zero hours contracts and sexism and burnout exist. I’ve got a friend checking it at the moment for errors in my portrayal of the notoriously dreadful UK disability benefits process. It’s fairly cynical about sport, or, at least, the narrator is.

But I find, re-reading it, that on the whole it’s hopeful. And I’m glad about that. Apart from anything else, it occurs to me that if we can’t let ourselves imagine a better world, we’re unlikely ever to get one.

The first year

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Thursday was Candlemas, which means several things:

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

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

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

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

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

It was a twofold wibble:

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

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

Or maybe it was just the end of the flu.

Delaying

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For me, the new year came in with a whimper, not with a bang. I was in bed long before the bangs started, knocked flat by this virus that everyone’s been getting. And it’s taken me a while to get up and running. There’s a lot to catch up with, or, at least, there could be, if I were thinking in terms of needing to catch up with things.

The crib should have gone away. It didn’t. It’s going to have to stay up until Candlemas now, and for once the Magi get to stay by the manger for more than a day. (The parrots were a present from a friend, who’d seen this crib and got ideas about how to improve mine.)

The printer is out of toner. Which means that I haven’t printed off the current draft of A Spoke in the Wheel. Which means that I haven’t read the current draft of A Spoke in the Wheel. And I’m aware that there’s more to it than the simple fact that the printer’s out of toner.

The snag is the usual one. I am scared of reading it because I am worried that I will come across a problem that is unfixable. Perhaps I have failed to do some essential bit of research and have made a mistake that’s going to kill the whole plot. Perhaps I have managed to be unintentionally yet monumentally offensive. It’s always a variation on one of those two. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

There are two potential ways to deal with this. The first is to wait it out. I’ve lived with myself long enough to know that I do get things finished, eventually, and that if the book and I want to spend two months hiding for each other then perhaps that’s just what we need to do, and we’ll find each other in good time. The second is to get somebody else to read it for me. Sooner or later I would anyway, but this is a much earlier stage in the process, and I find myself reluctant to pass it out before it’s as good as I can get it unaided.

At the moment, while I’m still getting over this illness and blessed with a contented lack of urgency, I’m going with the first option. I spent far too much of last year worrying that I hadn’t done enough, that I wasn’t writing fast enough, and, now that feeling’s a long way off, I’m going to enjoy its absence. The book can wait.

December Reflections 4: circles

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I’ve had bicycles on the brain this year. No, I’ve had bicycles on the brain since I stepped out of Woking station one day in May 2011 and found myself in the middle of a cycle race – but this year in particular I’ve been thinking about bicycles, writing about cyclists, photographing bicycle wheels, watching cycle races – and riding bicycles.

This one’s new – well, new to me. I bought it from my brother in July. The great thing about it is that allows me to cycle at both ends of a railway journey, rather than just the home end – which, if I’m visiting someone who lives a fair distance from a station, for example, is handy.

Anyway, there are lots of circles in it, handily depicted on the diagram on the down tube. (Is it a down tube, on a Brompton?) Also in circle news of 2016, I had a poem called ‘Circles’ included in Purple Prose: bisexuality in Britain. And I thought a lot about spirals, about labyrinths, about recurrence, about finding oneself back where one started, about the other sort of cycle. I thought about experience, about how I can compare any experience that I have now to experiences that I have had previously, and to experiences that I can imagine having in the future.

Next year I’m intending to publish A Spoke In The Wheel. I’m going to return to Santiago de Compostela, completing a cycle of a decade. Apart from that? I don’t know, which is unusual for me. By this point in the year I tend to have a good idea of what’s coming up in the next one. As things stand at the moment, I have a very strong sense of having finished a lot of things I’ve been working on, of having achieved most of the goals I identified, of having resolved many of the challenges that arose in my twenties, and not being entirely sure what comes next.

I’ll definitely do some cycling, though.

December Reflections 1: on the table

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They’re not on the table any more. They have been for the last several months; now, with a week off work, I’ve finally got round to turning up and pinning the bottom 55cm of these curtains.

My mother made these to hang in the sitting room of the house where I grew up, a rambling Victorian pile in the depths of the Marches. Two pairs: one to close off the big bay (creating a fantastic den), and the other for the other window. I commandeered that second pair when I moved into an awful bedsit in Guildford; which was also a rambling Victorian pile.

The curtains cheered it up considerably, though they didn’t do much about the dodgy light fitting, the leaking wall, or the mice.

Now I’m adapting them to shut the draught out from two pairs of french windows. Our current flat is about a century newer, and has fewer pretensions of grandeur.

I’ve persuaded myself that I don’t need to cut anything off the bottom; a metre would, I think, be my cut-off (ha ha) point for that. If I ever find myself living in a decaying Victorian mansion again I’ll be grateful for those couple of feet. I’m still a bit worried that they’ll pull the whole curtain rail down, but I think that if there’s a serious danger of that happening then it’ll happen regardless of whether I cut anything off.

Also on the table, metaphorically speaking: a quilt for my godson – which is why Voyages of the Celtic Saints is there with a pencil marking the page with a picture of a Romano-Celtic trading ship, which I’ve adapted for the design. (He’s called Joseph. I’ve put the Glastonbury thorn in there, as well. And some saw-tooth. And a pyramid. And the whole thing is very bright, riffing off the ‘coat of many colours’ theme. I’m not sure which Biblical Joseph he’s named after.) Various pre-Christmas tasks, none of which I’ve really started yet, because it feels a bit early.

And, of course, A Spoke In The Wheel. I’ve finished the first draft and I’m keeping out of its way until January. It’s been an interesting experience, going from zero to 68,000 words in the course of a year, and I’m not sure that I would choose to repeat it. At times it’s felt a bit joyless, nose-to-the-grindstone, arse-in-chair, duty-writing. And that’s even with my fortnights of not-writing in between my fortnights of writing. The next one, I tell myself, I’ll do differently. No, I’m not sure how. Yes, there’ll be a next one. Probably the sequel to Speak Its Name, though I have a few other ideas bouncing around. Whatever it is, I won’t dive straight into it – or, if I do, I’ll give myself more meaningful breaks in the middle of it.

After I finished the first draft of A Spoke In The Wheel mid-way through November I turned my attention to some shorter, light-hearted, frivolous pieces – some of which you may see here at some point – and have enjoyed widening my focus. Because if I’m writing for fun, I want it actually to, you know, be fun.