December Reflections 1: on the table

dscf1874

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.

This book and the last book: a tale of two timescales

No particular reason for this photo, except that I took it in July 2013
No particular reason for this photo, except that I took it in July 2013

I’m a little awed by how fast this book has happened. Speak Its Name took me just over eight years. A Spoke In The Wheel is at eight months, and counting.

Speak Its Name went like this:

July-October 2007: planning. I fill a whole notebook with maps, family trees, and diagrams of what all my main characters – who, at the time, were the original six living at Alma Road – thought of each other.

November 2007: writing. 54,000 words. A very few of those are still extant: some of the chapter headings are extracts from a guide to running AngthMURC written by Peter, and most of those come from this first draft.

April 2008: writing again. Beginning a second draft. I didn’t get very far with this. It was in a much nicer typeface, but it was very self-consciously and archly Barchester, and I gave up after about 3500 words. Even less of this survives, though there are a few fossils in the chapter headings.

2011: another draft, incorporating sections of the previous two. The point of view is increasingly assigned to Peter and Colette.

November 2011: writing something completely different, I have a stoopid epiphany about how to plot.

I am at this moment bewildered and delighted by the way that two original characters have not only developed their own inevitable characters by means of nature and nurture, but have dragged their own plot in with them, because when A is the child of Y and Z, and B is the child of W and X, of course it follows that they will do F, G and H, because this is who they are, and this is the world they live in. And this is just as well for me, because goodness knows I can’t do plot.

November 2012: the House of Laity blocks women bishops. I am furious. I write a scene from Lydia’s point of view. I keep writing. I discover that Becky needs to be one of the movers and shakers in the political plot strand.

Two bits of plot joined themselves up in my mind, and suddenly the whole second half of the story has some actual structure and things are happening because of who the characters are. It’s like watching a bouncy castle get inflated, or making a pair of trousers, or something – all these shapeless pieces begin to fit together and make something that has three dimensions, and bits of which attach to other bits that you hadn’t expected.

July 2013: I discover that Lydia needs to be the hero of the story, and that more of it needs to come from her point of view. This is intimidating, because in the original concept she doesn’t come out until half way through, and now I have to spend the first half in her head? Thanks, story. However, it also becomes clear that if I do this it will be easier to incorporate the other side of the political story. I start writing more scenes from Lydia’s point of view. I blast through 40,000 words – and this is counting from November 2012, not any of the previous drafts. I make a timeline out of six sheets of A3 paper and of A4, and crawl around on the floor filling it in. I blast through 50,000 words. Then 60,000 words. I salvage some words from the 2011 draft.

August 2013: I spend a week on choir tour. When I’m not singing I’m writing. In the evenings, back in the dormitory, I’m cutting up the manuscript with a pair of scissors, rearranging the plot into a workable structure. I also take a trip to Ilchester, to get a feel for the geography of the place.

September 2013: I keep writing, though my pace has slowed a little. By the end of October I’ve hit 74,000 words.

November 2013: I start looking for holes – not necessarily plot holes, but bits where I’ve written [plot goes here] – and filling them. By the end of the month, it’s basically done. Or so I think.

December 2013: at an office Christmas party, somebody asks me, ‘But how did you get involved in all the church politics?’ I realise that the answer is too boring for words. Later, I realise that therefore I need to cut all the committee scenes. So why don’t I just take out everything that isn’t from Lydia’s point of view, and then see what’s missing?

May 2014: I come up with a title. I write a blurb.

June 2014: I edit.

July 2014: I start sending excerpts and synopses to agents.

This goes on for well over a year. Eventually –

September 2015: I decide to self-publish

November 2015: editors edit; nitpickers nitpick

December 2015: I set a publication date

January 2016: proofreaders proofread. I order ISBNs. I finalise the cover. I format the text.

February 2016: Speak Its Name goes live

dscf9518

And a picture from August 2015

By contrast, A Spoke in the Wheel has gone more like this:

August 2015: we are watching the Vuelta a España, and my husband makes a throwaway comment about how endurance athletes would be among the few people who would understand the spoon analogy of chronic illness.

After that, of course, I’m busy, until:

January 2016: I discover that that athleticism/chronic illness idea is developing a story around itself.

April 2016: I start writing and get to 8000 words.

June 2016: I hit 16,000 words and think it’s dreadful. I recognise that thinking it’s dreadful is probably a temporary state of affairs and keep on going.

July 2016: I devise and patch in a massive subplot

October 2016: I hit 50,000 words and think it’s dreadful. I recognise that thinking it’s dreadful is probably a temporary state of affairs and keep on going. I print out what I’ve got so far and attack it with a red pen.

November 2016: I think of a title

It has taken me ten months to get as far with A Spoke in the Wheel as I got with Speak Its Name in eight years. Of course, it’s arguable that I should start the clock in late November 2012, because very little of the final version of Speak Its Name was written before that. July 2013 was where the real action was. Then there’s the time I spent playing the waiting game with agents and publishers.

The other thing that strikes me, writing all this out, is how much of Speak Its Name happened in 2013, which was a difficult year in many other respects. My husband was finishing up his PhD, and I was supporting both of us. He was job-hunting, and I knew that, even if he was successful, the chances were that we’d have to move and I’d have to get another job myself (we did, and I did). And yet I wrote most of the book that year.

And it may yet be that A Spoke In The Wheel has some surprises for me, and I’ll have to do some serious redrafting before I’m done. All the same, I think the really serious lessons were the ones I learned last time round: how to plot; how to make the characters drive the plot; how to let characters make really terrible decisions even when I didn’t want them to.

I’m hoping to release A Spoke In The Wheel some time next summer, ideally during one of the Grand Tours, when the world has cycling on the brain. Looking at this, it feels as if this is perhaps going to be manageable.

A post with several titles

dscf1267Coming up with a title is my least favourite part of writing a book. I think it’s the weight of expectation. My usual method is to pick a working title, usually one word, and pray for something better to turn up.

I was really pleased when Speak Its Name occurred to me: the association with same-sex love, combined with the overarching theme of saying things the way they are, made it pretty much perfect.

Anyway, I think I might finally have one for the book that I’m currently working on, which I’ve been calling Wheels for want of anything better. I had been wondering if I could pun on spoke/speak, getting sidetracked by West Side Story (wire-spoke wheel in America!), and scouring If for lines to appropriate or undermine. However, for the moment I have settled on (drumroll, please!):

A Spoke in the Wheel

Or I might drop the indefinite article:

Spoke in the Wheel

Or maybe make it plural:

Spoke in the Wheels

Or wake up tomorrow and wonder what on earth I was thinking. We’ll see. But at the moment it feels like I’m on the right track.

What it’s like at the moment

It’s been an exhausting autumn for me. September is always difficult, October takes me further into the darkness (until that blessed moment when the clocks go back and I’m getting up in the light again) and this year it’s been further complicated by my having begun a new job just over a month ago.

I’m enjoying the job, but it takes up a lot of my brain capacity, and by the time I get home I’m good for nothing but a cup of tea and an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Nor are my (usually infallible) train journeys working. Part of it is where I’ve got to with the book: I’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, where the majority of the plot is down on the page, and I don’t have any big scenes left to throw myself into. It’s detailed work now, filling in little gaps, writing perhaps a sentence at a time. Those magic summer evenings when the words were dropping off my pen feel like a very long time ago.

I’ve been taking things easier. For the first time since I started this project, I’ve modified my goal and entertained the possibility of writing less than eight thousand words in a month. I’ve hit the fifty thousand word mark, and from here on in it’s as important to take out unnecessary words as it is to put new ones in.

The traditional storm of doubt has swept in. It feels as if it’s never going to be finished, and that I am going to offend all my friends, and nobody will ever speak to me again, and also it’s not worth bothering with. The infuriating thing about this round is that I now know that this is a temporary state of affairs, so I might as well just push on through. I can’t really allow myself the luxury of a good sulk, because it would feel ever so fake.

There are two things that are encouraging optimism, however:

  1. The majority of the plot is, as I say, down on the page. I’m using the red pen more than the black pen, and I really enjoy editing.
  2. November is just around the corner, and that means that my secret online writing group will be firing up for another month of cheerleading.

 

Talk of the Town

 

Unknown unknowns

... things go whooshing past
… things go whooshing past (the peloton sweeps round the Woking one-way system during the Tour Series 2013)

Wheels (that’s still its working title, and it’s still not going to be its real title) is rolling along quite nicely, sitting just under fifty thousand words. Much of what’s there at the moment is dialogue, stick figures having witty conversations in a thick fog. I’ll have to go back and put in the descriptions later.

So far, so familiar. What is a new experience for me is writing a first person narrator who’s… not unreliable, exactly, but not at all objective. True, I ended up with something similar in Speak Its Name, written in claustrophobically tight third person with a point of view character who wouldn’t come out even to herself. The difference is, Speak Its Name didn’t start out that way. It started out with multiple points of view, with multiple foibles and inconsistencies, but where I always knew what was ‘really’ going on.

Cutting everything down to fit into Lydia’s point of view was interesting. There are things that I knew and she didn’t. The most significant one is that Becky isn’t a trinitarian. If Lydia had known that – well, she’d have to deal with that, and it would add a huge chunk of drama onto a part of the book that really didn’t need any more drama. So I know that, and so do some of the other characters, whose thoughts on the matter we don’t hear, but Lydia never finds out.

Writing first person from scratch, I’m having to spend all my time in one character’s head, and I keep discovering things that he doesn’t know, and can’t know. He’s self-centred and often oblivious to subtext and body language. A friend read through the first couple of chapters few days ago, and made a throwaway comment about another character’s ‘flirtatious wink’.

‘Hang on,’ I said – to myself, ‘that wasn’t flirtatious!’ I wondered if I ought to clarify that it wasn’t flirtatious, and, if so, how.

Except the more I thought about it, the more I realised that… yes, it does make an awful lot more sense if she is flirting with him. Which puts a whole new complexion on the first half of the book, and leaves me with the problem of how to have her get over him, but it also makes the end a lot more convincing.

So now my challenge is to incorporate this new knowledge into the draft. My narrator can stay oblivious, but I can’t.

Unlikely writing techniques 2: take the book for a drink

The practice of buying your project a beer, like many others I’ve come to use regularly, comes from Havi Brooks’ The Fluent Self. Thoroughly recommended for feeling less like a giant disaster.

Raspberries in cream soda
What a cool drink might look like. This is not sour cherry lemonade, obviously; it’s actually cream soda with frozen raspberries in it. I didn’t take a picture of the sour cherry lemonade because my phone had run out of battery, and also I had other things on my mind.

A couple of Tuesdays ago, opening my notebook after a fortnight’s hiatus, I was conscious of a nasty suspicion of impending stuckness. I’ve written before about how stuckness scares me much less than it used to, but I was still a bit scared by this one. Apart from anything else, the idea behind the deliberate hiatus was to pre-empt the stuckness.

I was hanging around in London for an hour after work before catching the train home. I’d thought that I’d sit somewhere and have a cup of coffee and do some writing. After all, the stuckness hadn’t quite landed. Yet. I thought I had another few hundred words that I could squeeze out.

I went to a bar that came in just below my ‘not for the likes of us’ cut-off, and I sat outside under a parasol, and I ordered a sour cherry lemonade. Across the square, people were watching a big screen with the Williams sisters playing the Wimbledon doubles. I got my notebook and pen out of my handbag.

I’d meant to just work on the book itself, but instead I wrote:

The problem is, I feel I haven’t really got a handle on Polly.

I kept writing, and new possibilities emerged:

This may not actually be a problem if Ben hasn’t got a handle on her either.

Do I need to write something from Polly’s POV and be prepared to junk it?

Do I need to keep ploughing on with Ben and trust that Polly will come through his self-absorption for me as well as the reader?

Then I wrote the thing that was at the root of the stuckness:

I am afraid of running out of plot before I get anywhere near the target word count.

But I had an answer to that, too:

Does Ben have any sort of love life aside from Polly? Has he ever had one? If so, it’s going to have been a mess.

The answer, it seemed, was yes. But it only raised further questions. I knew some of the answers, but not all of them:

(Mélanie, soigneur, tracks him down – but how, why, has she left the team or something – parents tell her where he lives hoping she’ll get him back into the sport. OK, so what happens, is this before or after the middle of the book, it’s got to be after the CC debacle or it’ll anticipate the blackmail aspect, what do Polly and Vicki make of it?)

Then I ordered a vegetarian scotch egg. And very tasty it was too.

I kept writing:

So Polly’s just beginning to fall for Ben, no, not even fall for, look kindly on, and then Mélanie turns up WHILE VICKI’S AWAY WITH GIANNA. Ben neglects Polly, she gets back together with Michael

Why don’t Ben and Mélanie work?

Because the thing that they have in common is misery.

How does it end?

Ben realises that he’s happier 9-5ing than he ever was cycling, even with a team he liked

and Mélanie doesn’t get his responsibilities

nothing awful happens to Polly – in fact, Michael happened to look round so she was fine – but Ben feels awful about it – maybe a burglary?

(what is it? doesn’t go back to organise a meal? ends up staying out all night?

Mélanie doesn’t see Polly as a sexual threat. Ben finds this perversely irritating.

he’s pleased to see her – cross with his parents – painful memories

Polly’s cautiously pleased

Vicki doesn’t approve at all, thinks he should move on or at least make his mind up

maybe Mélanie secretly wants to expose Grande Fino and is looking for other

Bang. I wrote 863 words on the theme of ‘Mélanie secretly wants to expose Grande Fino and is looking for other people to help’ on the train home. By the end of those 863 words most of the rest of the braindump was out of date (Vicki wasn’t away, Polly and Michael were already an item…) but I had the makings of a creditable subplot.

I still don’t have a handle on Polly, but I expect she’ll make herself known in time. I might go out and get a drink and see if she turns up.

Talk of the Town

What you think the project is, and what the project really is

Minor spoilers for Speak Its Name in this, including an extract from a chapter very near the end.

Visibility charm
Visibility charm

I mentioned last time that my main purveyor of author tracts (warning: that’s a link to TV Tropes, and if you follow it you may lose the rest of the day) in Speak Its Name was Peter. Which is not really surprising, when you consider that the book started out as a story of how getting too interested in student and/or Christian politics can play havoc with what you thought was a vocation to ordained ministry. That’s pretty much where I was when I started writing it, after all, so it made sense to bestow some of my own opinions upon the character who was dealing with that.

The other one was Abby, who is Lydia’s cousin, and who is in some ways much closer to an author avatar (TV Tropes again), or at least an author caricature. (‘A self-insert who turns up at the end to pontificate,’ was how I put it to one of my editors.) I am not blonde, or pregnant, or given to wearing pink, but at the time of writing I was very aware that I looked a lot like the Perfect Christian Woman. And – aside from the fact that my family is much less of a clusterfuck than the Hawkins – this was very much what my experience looked like.

‘What I wanted to say,’ Abby said, ‘was that I know that our family is not at all helpful when it comes to relationships that happen in anything like the real world, and that I know that your parents are if anything less helpful than my parents and that – if you wanted me to – I would come out.’

Lydia choked on her prosecco. ‘What?

Abby told Colette, in a stage whisper, ‘I said it wasn’t a helpful family.’ Then, in more serious tones. ‘I’m bi.’

Lydia could think of nothing to say. Colette, clearly amused, said, ‘She looked less shocked when I told her I had a crush on her.’

Abby smiled, though it looked like an effort. ‘I wasn’t ever going to tell anyone. Not in the family, at least. It never occurred to me that I might not be the only one.’

‘Same,’ Lydia just managed to squeak. ‘Does Paul know?’

‘Of course – I wouldn’t have married him if I couldn’t tell him that.’

‘People must do,’ Lydia said. ‘Oh, God, this must happen all the time.’

Abby nodded. ‘I know four or five – happily married, most of us, still in love, still Christian, still trying to find a way to be truthful, always knowing how bloody lucky we are: that we could so easily have gone the other way, fallen for someone we couldn’t take to church with us…’

Except… when I was reading it through, on the second to last editing pass, I was struck by the horrifying thought, Good grief, that sounds miserable.

And then I remembered that was me, that the last paragraph there describes precisely the way I thought about myself and my faith and my bisexuality at the time I was writing. I might as well have put it in there so that I could say to anyone who asked, ‘You know the bit with Abby at the end? That’s basically where I am.’

Not any more. Somewhere in the writing process I’d moved far beyond where Abby was. I was mostly out, as opposed to being mostly closeted. I’d stopped thinking that the only appropriate way for me to be bisexual was quietly. I’d realised what a mess I’d made of myself by trying to do that. I’d started speaking up, and out.

The project is never what you think it is. I thought Speak Its Name was about vocation, and politics, and faith, and sexual orientation, and it is, but it is mostly about being OK with who I am, and I had to learn more about that before I could finish it. Writing a book changed the book, and changed me.

I suspect that writing Wheels will have something to teach me about working too hard and physical capacity and the importance of not doing things. I asked to learn more about that, after all.

I suspect that I do not currently have the breadth of understanding to imagine what it’s going to teach me. I suspect that it’s going to go far beyond juggling my working patterns and keeping every other weekend free. I suspect that it’s going to take me apart and put me back together again, and maybe I’ll notice while it’s actually happening, and maybe I won’t. Maybe, like last time, I’ll just happen to glance back over my shoulder and think, Good grief, is that where I was? What a very long way I’ve come.

Overload before Me before You

Here’s how this post works. I talk a bit about a book club I used to belong to. Then there’s a picture of an electricity pylon. Then there’s a content note. Then there’s the same picture of an electricity pylon. Then there are spoilers for Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and for Overload by Arthur Hailey. If you wish to avoid spoilers, stop reading before you get to the pylon.

My previous office had a book club. From the beginning the emphasis was more on the ‘club’ than the ‘book’. At first we waited until everyone had read the book before we arranged the meeting. When we realised that it had taken us two years to read eight books we started going ahead with the meetings regardless of how many people had got through the one in question. The result of that was that the meetings became five minutes of book talk against two hours of gossip. The night we were meant to talk about Me Before You was hijacked by… in fact, I think it was my leaving do – and we never talked about the book at all. It’s been in the news, and therefore my mind, recently, and so I’m going to talk about it now.

Here is that picture of the electricity pylon that I was telling you about
Here is that picture of the electricity pylon that I was telling you about

[content note: discussion of euthanasia in fiction in the remainder of this post and in the external posts linked to]

Here is that picture of the electricity pylon that I was telling you about

I’ve been following the coverage around the release of the film version of Me Before You with some interest. I was troubled by the book at the time that I read it, over two years ago now, but what with one thing and another (read: my leaving do) never got around to discussing it.

If you want an itemised list of the problematic aspects of Me Before You, I can’t do better than refer you to this comprehensive sporking by Cara Liebowitz.In fact, I’m going to quote her summary, too:

“Me Before You” is a novel turned movie that focuses on Louisa, who takes a job as a personal care attendant for a wealthy quadriplegic man who hates himself, her, and everyone around him, in that order. She falls in love with him, though she can’t dissuade him, in the end, from going to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life. Because being disabled is soooooooooo terrible and tragic, didn’t you know?! /sarcasm

The problematic aspects of Me Before You can be sorted into the following categories:

  • ableist attitudes coming from a sympathetic but ill-informed character, deliberately intended to present them as ill-informed
  • ableist attitudes coming from an unsympathetic character, deliberately intended to present them as unsympathetic
  • relatively realistic portrayals of the obstacles
  • coming from a sympathetic character, unintentionally presenting an ableist attitude as objective fact
  • an overarching ableist assumption by the author herself

My impression is that I would sort these differently from the way that Liebowitz does, and other readers will of course sort them their own ways. I’ll also refer you to this post by disabled writer David Gillon. Whether Jojo Moyes would agree with any of us is of course another question, and to a certain extent is irrelevant.

My own feeling is that she forfeits the benefit of the doubt. Choosing the ending that she does – for which I was basically prepared from the start by the cover of the paperback edition I read, which makes some problematic assumptions of its own – she acquiesces to the prevailing cultural narrative that it’s better to be dead than disabled. She never really interrogates that, not in any meaningful way, and the net result is that Will gets no character development whatsoever.

Of course there’s an argument to be made about autonomy, and personal choice, and what that looks like when physical capability is restricted, but, contrary to the protestations of the film director, the direction that Me Before You chooses doesn’t feel like the ‘brave’ one to me. In fact, it felt far less progressive than Arthur Hailey’s Overload, which, though it was written thirty-three years earlier, I’d read only a couple months before.

Overload is magnificently tacky, and occasionally plain bizarre. It has ecoterrorism, irresponsible parenting (don’t let your children fly kites near overhead lines, people), a man who loses his penis and is promised a prosthetic one, some frankly appalling health and safety failings, and an equally appalling protagonist who spends the book shagging his way around the female half of the cast list. And mostly this makes my skin crawl, but

One of said cast list is Karen Sloan, who is a far less miserable and more interesting fictional quadriplegic than Will Trainor. She’s portrayed as a sociable, attractive woman who desires and enjoys sex, who desires and enjoys life. She has a fulfilling social life. A neighbour’s child regards it as a privilege to perform small acts of care for her.  Her eventual death, when the overload of the title leads to her respirator running out of battery, is presented as a tragic accident, not a ‘merciful release’.

I’ve been taking notes on how not to fail on my own account. After all, Wheels or Bonk or whatever we’re calling it these days has a disabled main character and a non-disabled narrator who starts out as a clueless jerk. Some things I’m going to try:

  • undermining my unreliable narrator from page one
  • reading around the subject more. A lot more.
  • extrapolating from my own experience
  • having a happy ending for everyone
  • getting a friend who has a similar condition to my disabled character to read the damn thing and tell me where I’ve messed up
  • offering her copious amounts of gin for her trouble

It really doesn’t feel like rocket science. Perhaps ‘fail less than Me Before You‘ is just a very low bar.