The patchwork analogy

For some people, writing a novel is like knitting. You begin at the beginning, and you go on until you get to the end, and then you stop.

Personally, I’m very glad that I was born into the age of the word processor, because I absolutely cannot do that. Oh, I’ve tried. But if a scene, a moment, a phrase, from chapter thirty-two is dancing around in my head, then I can’t settle down to write chapter one.

For me, it’s more like patchwork. Or one particular project, anyway, which was more of a freehand effort than most of my quilts. Let me demonstrate:

You have a general idea of what you want to create, and you start with an idea that takes your fancy. In this case, it was the four seasons, and I thought I’d begin with a jolly yellow sun for summer.dscf9859

You might want to incorporate something that wouldn’t quite fit into a previous project. (I made more of those blue flowers than I needed. Never mind! The spares will do for spring!)


(This is a bit meta. Any patches in here which are in English, as opposed to gobbledegook, are from the now-deleted first chapter of Speak Its Name.)


You get all your ideas down and then move them around a bit, seeing how they fit best, what needs to come after what.


As you go along joining things together, you see where things can be tightened up.


You see where the gaps are, and you start filling them…


… until you get something that’s more like the right shape.


At that point, you can start tidying it up, taking out the things that were only there to hold it in shape during construction.


Now comes the backing and the pinning and the quilting, the crawling around on the floor and swearing a lot. You feel like you’re nearly there, but there’s still a frustrating amount left to do. (This is where the analogy falls down a bit. This is, oh, I don’t know, the proofreading. And waiting for people to get back to you to tell you where you’ve got things wrong.)


But once you’ve done that then there’s just the finishing off. And then you can feel rather pleased with yourself. Because the thing’s done, and while it doesn’t perhaps look exactly the way you once envisioned it, it’s not nearly as bad as you once thought it was going to be.


The first year


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.



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.

The colour of curtains

Here’s a meme that’s been annoying me:

The curtains

The curtains…

I have never written any blue curtains, so I can’t comment on those. In fact, I think I’ve only written two pairs of curtains, and specified the colour of one of those pairs. They were yellow.

This is what my English teacher told me:

Every word on that page is there because the author wanted it to be there.

The curtains are only in the book at all because the author wanted them to be there. If they described every item of furniture, every fixture and fitting, in a room, then the reader would die of boredom long before any action could begin. Instead, the author has to trust that the reader will fill in the background details subconsciously. This can cause problems for someone trying to convert a textual work into a visual one. In fact, it’s called the Jane Austen’s curtains problem.

Given that, why mention the curtains at all? Why make them blue, if not some other colour? There’s probably a reason, and it’s worth thinking about what it might be.

Colette’s room looked out over the back garden, down towards the railway and across the town. The terraces ran in neat russet lines down the hill; on the other side of the river, the beech trees in the park were vivid amber, and the yellow-grey stone of the old town glowed gold in the October light.

‘Wow,’ Lydia said, ‘you get a lovely view of the cathedral from here.’

‘I know; I’m very lucky. It’s my reward for having the smallest bedroom.’

The window was open, a cool breeze stirring the yellow curtains. Down in the garden they could hear Peter bellowing, ‘Fa-ac me-e te-e-cu-um plangere!’ as he put his laundry up on the clothesline.

When I gave Colette a pair of yellow curtains – and, almost more importantly, when I didn’t take them out again during editing – there were various things in my mind.

Real curtains

I don’t have a particularly visual imagination, and find that inventing objects doesn’t come naturally to me. Consequently, I do tend to appropriate real life objects. The horrible red leather sofa at Balton Street, for example, is real; it was an eyesore in a university friend’s flat. Colette’s curtains belonged to one of my own housemates. (No, that doesn’t mean that she’s the model for Colette. If it comes to that, the friend with the red leather sofa is nothing like anybody at Balton Street.)


The yellow curtains call back to the first paragraph in that extract, where there’s already a lot of colour. Russet, amber, yellow-grey, gold: Stancester in autumn. Autumn is traditionally associated with decay, but this is the beginning of the academic year and the beginning of the story. I had to make it all glow very brightly. And yellow can be autumnal but it’s also strongly associated with spring: jasmine, daffodils, primroses, and so on. The beginning of the year. Things awakening.


In the Church (not Lydia’s church, but she doesn’t need to know this) yellow equals gold equals white: the colour of rejoicing, the colour for feasts, for Christmas and Easter, for weddings and baptisms. In most of the rest of the book the dominant colour is purple. Partly because I like purple, yes, but partly because it’s associated with waiting, penitence, mourning, fasting. Colette, the out bisexual character, could very well have purple curtains. But she doesn’t. She isn’t waiting or penitent or mourning or fasting at the moment, though she’ll do all of those things over the course of the book. She’s content in who and what she is in a way that Lydia can’t understand yet. And the curtains are yellow.

Did I do all that consciously, deliberately? I doubt it, at least in the first draft. As best I can remember, my thought process went something like:

looking out of the window – oh, better have some curtains, then – any particular curtains? – A’s curtains – yellow curtains

That’s not really the point. The point is that they remained yellow. This mention of yellow was a lot less deliberate than any mention of purple, but I kept it because it worked.

Later, when Lydia recalls the incident, the curtains are mentioned again, but their colour isn’t:

And the clear autumn breeze lifting the hem of the curtain, and Peter singing in the garden, and her soul standing on the threshold of its self-made prison, not yet ready to step out, but knowing for the first time that there was a world outside it.

Because their colour isn’t relevant here. The point now is that the window’s open.

It’s always worth thinking about the curtains.

And this approach goes for any detail. Why is Peter singing that particular line? Because it’s a lot of fun to sing, and I know that because I’ve sung tenor in the Dvorak Stabat Mater myself. Because it does sound a bit dirty if you don’t immediately realise that it’s not in English, and this scene needed to go a little way beyond Lydia’s comfort zone.

One could also say that the meaning of the Latin is relevant. Make me weep with you. The speaker is asking to enter more fully into the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, and there is certainly a sense in which the book is about expanding one’s spiritual experience.

But that’s a bit of a stretch. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t thinking of that when I put it in. So I don’t know, maybe the maker of that meme has a point after all.

Yes, the curtains were fucking yellow. But if there hadn’t been a reason for that then they wouldn’t have existed at all.

December Reflections 7: five things about me


Five people I am:

  1. the Fairy Godmother. I’ve been the Fairy Godmother on and off for years, mostly at work. She’s the one who knows the answers, the one who gets things done on surprisingly limited resources.
  2. the Queen of Hearts. This is a very new persona and I’m still finding my way into being her. She’s the one who lives by love and not by guilt; she’s the one who’s managed to find a balance between living with integrity and not burning out.
  3. Black Pen and Red Pen, Writing and Editing, go hand in hand. I love them both and I’m counting them as one.
  4. the Pilgrim. Always on the way to somewhere, or looking at a map, working out where the next somewhere will be.
  5. the one who looks fantastic in hats, and bright red, and bright red hats, and knows it, and also doesn’t care what anybody else thinks.

December Reflections 1: on the table


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


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.