Emerging from the fog

Half-open tulip streaked red and yellow

I think I’m getting better. I cycled up the hill to the post office this lunchtime. Granted, I also had to have a nap at the end of the working day, but it’s still encouraging. What’s particularly encouraging is the fact that both the bike ride and the nap left me feeling more cheerful. And optimistic.

I’ve been having ideas. I’ve been thinking how remiss it is of spy thriller writers who set their books in 1960s Paris to fail to include a Paris bus. That might be another one for the Book Bus stories. I’ve been thinking what a lovely meet-cute I gave my B couple in A Spoke In The Wheel and wondering if I might write a spin-off. That’s another two ideas to add to ‘something inspired by Saints Felicity and Perpetua’ and ‘something in Victorian Stancester’ for the sapphical-historical anthology I was talking about last time. (I added up all the existing stories that could go in there, by the way. 25,000 words, so I’d want to write at least as much again.)

Ideas are great, but they’re only the beginning. Where I’m having difficulty is developing them into something that’s sturdy enough to support a narrative. That’s the kind of thing that I’d usually work out with myself over the course of a walk, and I haven’t been up to walking. Usually I’d be saying to myself, So, this spy, why is he on this bus? Is he meeting someone? Going somewhere? Half an hour into a walk, I’d have an answer, and with the answer I’d have a plot. But that circuit just isn’t running at the moment.

And ideas aren’t even necessarily terribly useful, since there’s at least one school of thought that says that I’d be best off returning to the Romeo and Juliet thing. And I will do that, just as soon as I’ve finished this blog post. But my goodness, it’s nice to have something going on in my head.

I remember that this time last year I was talking about reading St Augustine over Easter. I’m not sure that I’d have managed it even without taking into account a complicated and tiring, though ultimately very enjoyable, family event. The best-laid schemes and all that… But even so, it is spring, and the tulips are out, and so is the apple blossom, and today I saw two goldfinches at the bird feeder, and I have ideas.

Lost and found

Two books, 'Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland', 'Floral Patterns of India', and a white ceramic coaster with a gold letter K, on a padded envelope with 'KAFJ BIRTHDAY 26 JUL 21' written on it in red ballpoint pen

Every time I spoke to Pa over the last few months of his life, he said to me, ‘I still haven’t found your birthday present’. Found, that is, in the room that he used as half study, half bedroom, half model railway layout, and indeed, good luck finding anything in there. He’d given me a hideous charity shop coaster as a sort of joke present on the day itself, but my actual present was lost.

I assumed we’d never find it. Or, rather, I assumed we’d find it and we wouldn’t know. That it would be loose among his own things, indistinguishable from them.

But there it was: a padded envelope, with my initials and the date of my birthday. I cried a bit. Inside: a book of birds, and a book of stickers. Yes. Something I’d like, but something that might have been his own.

We found all sorts of things. There was another envelope, a much older one. Inside was a scarf. The writing on the envelope told us that the scarf was made by my great-grandmother for my grandfather, and it was in remarkably good condition one hundred and twenty years later. Other things were not so well documented. In the same box as the scarf we found several lovely early twentieth century Christmas cards, with no clue as to who sent them, or to whom. Somebody must have kept them for some reason, but I shouldn’t think we’ll ever know now.

We fill our homes with things – because we like them, because somebody important gave them to us, because we don’t get round to getting rid of them. We know what the reasons are; the people who come after us probably won’t, unless we tell them. I can see myself hanging onto that padded envelope; if so, I can see my children, if I have any, chucking it. And we will both be right.

Every item in a house is there for a reason. Some of those reasons are not particularly good ones.

‘Every word on that page is there for a reason,’ my A-level English teacher told me. It was quite possibly the most significant thing I learned at school. Every word represents a choice. Saying it this way, not any of the other ways one might have said it. Keeping it there when you come to reread. Deciding that it needed to be said in the first place.

Pa was an expansive, digressive, eclectic writer. He wrote about all sorts of things, though the nominal subject was usually mass transit. Most of his readers were quite happy to come along for the ride. And I think that his reason for most of the words, like most of the items, was, quite simply, that he liked them.

Here’s something that’s in my house for a reason, a birthday present I most definitely knew about. This was what Pa made me for my fifth birthday. It says so on the back.

A large wooden dolls' house in a cluttered room

Daily Decoration: cumulative icicles

The top portion of a Christmas tree, hung with decorations made from beads threaded on wire and representing icicles

There’s nothing particularly special about these icicles. There are six of them. They always go around the top branches of the tree: their length fills in the gap and they pick up the lights and sparkle pleasingly. They’re made from plastic beads threaded on wire, and they were yet another charity shop find in the penniless Guildford days. The beginning of the collection, if you like. That’s rather appropriate, given the way real icicles form: a drop freezing, another drop running over it and freezing onto it, over and over until it’s an elegant spike. It’s rather appropriate given the way that these were obviously made: a bead after a bead after a bead.

2021 was very much a year to be got through one day at a time. While 2020 is, in my head, a timeless, expansive, almost gentle, stretch of enforced freedom, 2021 seemed to call for gritted teeth and the continual effort of putting one foot in front of the other in front of the other in front of the other…

Early on in the year, someone I follow on the internet mentioned that they were aiming to add one sentence to their work in progress every day. I liked the sound of this. As mentioned elsewhere, I have more than one work in progress, and I thought this seemed like a good way of keeping faith with all of them. It has been. I’ve written short stories, fanfic, an essay, one sentence at a time. I’ve written twenty-six thousand words of one novel. I can’t remember the starting wordcount on the other one, but I do know it’s longer than it was. One sentence, one sentence, one sentence. Maybe two if they seem to come as a pair. Maybe more. Even when I didn’t know what I was doing at all, there’s been something to add. A line of description. A line of dialogue. After a while the thing gathers enough momentum to unspool itself into whole paragraphs, chapters, and I can sit down with it for a couple of hours and finish it off. Or else it runs down again, and once again I add another sentence. Just one today. Just one more tomorrow. Open the document. Add a sentence. Save the document. Close the document.

I decided that I wanted to read more poetry. I have loads of poetry books but the imagined sunny afternoons with a glass of white wine and an hour to dip in didn’t materialise nearly often enough. I started to work my way along the bookcase. The next book along. One poem. Tomorrow, the book after that. Today, Amy Clampitt. Yesterday, Kate Spencer. Tomorrow, Omar Khayyam (translated by Edward Fitzgerald) and the day after, Mary Oliver.

Last year one of my brothers gave me a book called My Year In Small Drawings. I can’t really draw but with a space that’s maybe two inches by three inches it doesn’t really matter. Yesterday I drew a man using a laptop from a stock photo. Today I will draw a picture of a picture. I still can’t really draw but that stops being important.

Duolingo. I can tell you that the boy is eating an apple in Polish, Italian, Spanish, French, and German. (Il ragazzo mangia una mela.) I can tell the cat that she is a cat. (She might not know. It’s best to be sure. Jestesz kotem.) Well, I had an A level in French already (le chat mange une pomme) so that doesn’t really count, but as far as the rest of them go I’m building on, at most, a couple of terms of formal learning plus a couple of months in the country in question. Well, there’s a pandemic on, but I can sort out my verb endings while I make my coffee (le chat ne mange pas des pommes; le chat préfère la nourriture sèche).

Teaching myself the piano. A twenty minute timer, and Michael Aaron’s Adult Piano Method. I have yet to master Home On The Range, but I’m getting there faster than I would if I were doing nothing.

Filling in my diary. I use an ordinary engagement diary, A5, week to view, and it’s part scrapbook, part commonplace book, part record of days. That way I can look back and see when was the last time I gathered the compost and when was the last time my right eye did its funny loss of vision thing and when it was I started reading the book I’ve just finished. And I can write down the quotation I want to remember, and I can stick in the pretty oddment that would otherwise be floating around my desk forever.

It hasn’t been every day. Of course it hasn’t. At present everything to the right of middle C is blocked off by the Christmas tree. Some days I’m too tired to write. Some days it is raining and I do not wish to go out to draw strangers using their phones. Some days I forget to read a poem. The diary tends to get updated all at once in front of whatever’s on Eurosport on a Saturday afternoon. It doesn’t matter. If I miss a day, if I miss a week, a month – no guilt. Any day is a good day to do it again.

A poem.

A phrase.

A drawing.

A sentence.

A drop.

The third dimension: when a book comes to life

A cardboard cut-out character from a toy theatre in front of a backdrop from same

I love the moment when it turns out that the book I’m working on is, in fact, going to turn out to be a book.

The first time this happened to me was with Speak Its Name. That was my first book and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had the backdrop (student politics) and I had the characters (students) moving in front of it, occasionally affected by it, but never affecting it. It was flat. Boring.

Then I realised that what I needed to do was to get my most political character involved in the politics.

It sounds so simple. Perhaps it was. All I can say is, it took me a very long time to realise, and it changed the whole book for the better. It turned it from two dimensions into three, like inflating a bouncy castle, or sewing a pair of trousers together. It wasn’t just that my characters were now joined to the background at the point where one of them decided to involve the Students’ Union. It joined all sorts of other bits together, and it made the whole thing neater, more coherent. More interesting. It made the whole book work.

A Spoke in the Wheel and The Real World were, so far as I can remember, better behaved. Oh, getting The Real World nailed down was rather like wrestling an octopus that was also Tam Lin, but it always felt like something, well, real, if I could only get a handle on it. And with A Spoke In The Wheel both characters and plot landed more or less fully formed, bar a giant hole in the middle that I had to work out how to fill.

This time it happened at about the 50,000 word mark. No, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I decided to take advantage of the general #AmWriting mood to make some progress on the Ruritanian thing. This is the project that I’ve been working on, off and on, for the last three years if not more. It seems to prefer being a side project. It modestly shuffled out of the way to let me concentrate on The Real World. It refused to be written at all earlier this year, and only started cooperating when I got swept off my feet by the historical thing. Nine months further on – nine months in which I’ve been trying to add a sentence to each project each day – it’s suddenly taking itself seriously.

Now this, being a Ruritanian thing, requires plot. It requires plot on a level that I’ve never contemplated before. There are double-crosses and Chekhov’s guns and timetables. The action of the last book happens over the course of a year. The action of this book takes place over the course of five days. I discovered the other day that I had my main character drinking five coffees between midnight on Saturday and Sunday lunchtime. I’m counting the espresso martini here, but still.

Of course, that’s easily fixable. I’ve already turned one of those coffees into a slice of cake. The real challenge has been getting the characters to do the things that are needed for the plot to happen in ways that make sense for them. Because if the characters don’t work, then the plot doesn’t work.

When I’m stuck on a book, one thing that helps me is writing down why I’m stuck. Sometimes I like to make an occasion of this. This time, I was just on the train. (Not that taking the train isn’t an exciting novelty these days.) I wrote down the things I needed to invent or research. Then I wrote down the thing that was bothering me, the thing I knew I’d have to fix sooner or later:

George shouldn’t be involving his untrained relations and he knows that.

Or, as paraphrased for Twitter,

Bringing Milly back makes George looks like a callous dimwit.

And yet Milly has to come back (she’s the narrator!) and George has to be both decent and competent. That’s the whole point of his being in this book at all.

So I kept writing.

He doesn’t have a choice with Amelia. But he needs a damn good reason for Milly to come back… There’s got to be more to it than ‘it might come in useful’.

I went down a couple of dead ends. Something that Amelia tells George that Milly doesn’t know about? Something that brings in a couple of other characters? My brain was working faster than I could write, so it wasn’t coming out as great prose.

Milly is the only person who has seen several key players by sight, so it makes sense to keep her on the spot. But that’s what’s putting her in danger. Sending her home is for her own safety.

I kept writing. Half a page later, it hit me.

Hang on. What if they do get Milly to share – and then don’t act on that? Yes. Milly spills the beans and thinks it’s all cleared up. George arrives, wants to find out more. Milly is the obvious candidate to find out more.

Bingo.

That adjusts the stakes just enough to make everyone’s actions plausible. It makes sense for Milly to come back. It makes sense for George to let her.

A (really encouraging) bonus: I now have a much better idea of at least one of the villains. And the [plot goes here] bit in the antepenultimate (there’s a good word) chapter.

Of course it’s going to demand a whole lot more changes – because most of the 54,000 words I had down were written on the assumption that Milly didn’t share – but I don’t care about that. It makes the whole thing work.

I love that moment.

Time is cyclical

I’ve been feeling quite ill these last few days (not COVID – I got the test results back this morning) and was looking back through my locked journal to see how long it took me to get over it the last time I was feeling this awful. Quite a while, it turns out – the thing kept coming back – but it reminded me that I was feeling much worse then than I am now, so on the whole I found cause for hope. What I also found was the following, which amused me rather, given the fact that I didn’t properly get going on the, er, sequel to Speak Its Name until September 2018. And it didn’t have a title until September 2019. Or so I thought. Just have a look at that last line. Apparently there was some little part of me that knew all along.

Jan 28 2017, 12:58pm

A Spoke in the Wheel

65K; first draft finished. I read it through this morning, having been avoiding it all January, and discovered that it’s neither as bad nor as miserable as I’d though it was. There is, as always with my first drafts, too much talk and not enough action; there’s a break that doesn’t need to exist between the middle and final thirds; but there’s nothing that isn’t fixable.

I’d got very hung up on the fact that it’s not going to be as good as Speak Its Name (whatever that means); and probably it isn’t, but that’s not really the point. It’s definitely going to be different.

Sequel to Speak Its Name

About a thousand words worth of oddments. Real-world developments in the Church of England are depressing, and look like they’re going to settle down into a sort of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell stalemate. I can work with that, plot-wise – in fact, it means that I could continue bimbling along in the vague non-timeline that I was using in the original, though having thought about it I’m not sure that I do want to do that any more – but you know, given the choice, I’d rather the real world sorted itself out.

Small patchwork quilt of hexagons in primary colours
No particular reason for this picture, beyond the fact that it’s cheerful and also dates from January 2017.

Fragment (consider revising)

Seedlings in small pots of composts

Jack Kerouac famously stuck hundreds of sheets of paper to make one long roll so that he could write On The Road all in one go. This is not an approach that would have worked for me.

As I’ve remarked before, I’ve never been one to start at the beginning of a story, and go on until I get to the end, and then stop. And it seems that over the last year I’ve become even less inclined to do that. At the moment I have six documents open:

  • an experimental anthology that may or may not be going somewhere (4,532 words since summer 2019)
  • the Ruritanian thing (30,642 words since summer 2018)
  • the historical novel (13,659 words since this February)
  • a how-to-write-your-book-while-holding-down-a-job workbook (7,886 words since summer 2020)
  • and two short stories (6,851 words and 631 words respectively)

Not to mention, of course, this post.

My current approach is, every day except Sundays, to open up everything I’m working on and add a sentence to each of them. Depending on where we are in the month and how knackered I am, I might then keep going on whichever one or ones of them take my fancy.

Sometimes I manage whole paragraphs; very rarely, whole scenes. Sometimes I come back from a walk with the next scene in my head. Sometimes I write it. More often it was my morning walk and I have to do my day job, and so I write myself a note at the breakfast table:

Cherry Ripe – the garden at the Beaumont house – resolves the Parry question

crisis: factory brawl, domestic brawl

Ben & Mack could go to Paris?

Which gives me something to start from later in the day.

(Please do not suggest that I get up earlier. Getting up earlier does not work for me.)

I do not always add complete sentences. I have a feeling that I used to add complete sentences, but lately I’ve found it easier just to write the words that are in my head and come back to the other ones later.

Blame pandemic brain, or else the fact that I’m doing all my writing on the laptop at the moment and can get away with this sort of approach. Either way, it results in a lot of my writing looking something like this:

[He leaves]

Did I feel weird about sleeping in Amelia’s pyjamas in Amelia’s bed? Not remotely. I was far too tired to have scruples about something like that. I slipped between those smooth, white, hotel sheets,

It would have been nice if it had been a dreamless, untroubled, refreshing sleep. I thought I deserved some peace and quiet. I didn’t get it.

[nightmare]

[phone ringing]

All except the alarm, which turned out to be the phone. Automatically, I reached for the receiver.

There’s a lot that isn’t there yet, and what is there isn’t exactly inspired. It leaves me a lot to sort out later, of course. But, weirdly enough, that turns out to be an advantage. When I open up my six (or however many) documents it’s quite handy to find a pair of square brackets that I can fill in, or half a sentence that I suddenly know how finish off. And sometimes I keep on going.

It probably isn’t the most efficient way to write a novel. (Or, in this case, two novels, an anthology, two short stories, a workbook, and a blog post.) I’ve no idea when or if I’m going to finish any of them (except the blog post). But at the moment it seems to be the only way that I’m writing anything at all. And it adds up. And it keeps the pilot light on. So let’s go with it.

Limerance

A straight-edged patch of sunlight falls across snowy grass and illuminates a couple of metres of a bare hedge with golden light

That fizzy, smiling-to-yourself, energy that you get when you have a new crush, and you can’t stop thinking about them, and when you’re with them everything is bright and when you’re not with them you’re thinking about the next time you will be with them, or just thinking about them. That.

I said a month ago that I was between books.

Now I’m not.

This is what happened. That post was 12 January. On 18 January I had an idea. A very hypothetical sort of idea, not the sort that demands to be written. Just a ‘if I were writing this story, this is how I’d do it’ sort of idea. A ‘But even assuming it did work, what was meant to happen next?’ kind of idea. I didn’t do anything about it.

On 2 February (Candlemas, and also the fifth anniversary of the publication of Speak Its Name), some time in the morning, I wrote:

Still not feeling like writing anything [fictional], and feeling OK about that. If something marches in demanding to be written, then I expect I’ll write it, but at the moment it just doesn’t feel particularly relevant.

At about eight o’clock in the evening I was mopping the kitchen floor, and found myself thinking quite seriously about an idea I’ve had floating around in my head for years. Another ‘If I were writing this story, this is how I’d do it’ idea, but one that’s been around for quite a lot longer. It’s an intimidating idea: a historical novel; it would take a lot of research, and I have no idea what the plot would be. Still, there I was, thinking about it.

I had the next three days off, and I think this is important. I’d taken those three days off because I was struggling at work, struggling to get anything done, struggling not to snap, struggling not to cry. I hadn’t expected to ‘get anything done’ during them, because, as I say, I wasn’t writing anything. I was intending to nap, and read, and get my head around who I am this year, and maybe unclog the washbasin in the downstairs loo.

Anyway, I was sitting on the floor sometime in the morning of 4 February, writing in my diary or colouring something in or something like that, and I looked up, and there in my line of sight were all the books – no, a lot of the books; I’d need more – that I’d need to read if I were going to write that intimidating historical idea.

And what seemed immediately apparent was that the Ruritanian novel does not like being my main project. It likes to trundle along in the background while I’m working on the serious project.

Well, fine, I thought. That makes sense. And it seemed to be happy for ‘reading all those books’ to count as ‘working on the serious project’. We can do this.

(Mm. So I’m no longer never writing anything again?)

(You know you never were. But you needed to be in that place in order to rest and recover properly from the last one.)

Then something else happened. That evening, the idea from 18 January came back. Boy, did it come back. It brought with it a setting – not an obvious one, but one that made perfect sense given the themes it would have to work with.

It came in with a fluttering retinue of associated ideas. You could do this. You could do that. And this is how you make this work. And this is how you make that work. She’s called Helen. His cousin lost an arm in the War. It kept prodding me for hours after I’d gone to bed.

On 5 February I had things to do, but I got all those points down. On 6 February I started writing. (I also spent a lot of time cursing and refreshing in order to get Speak Its Name onto Smashwords, so it is now available from more ebook stores.) And the ideas keep unspooling, unfurling. I go for a walk and when I come back a whole new scene has written itself in my head. I get a few lines of that down before it evaporates, or I get distracted by another new scene. I look up at the bookcase and realise that of course his name is Julian. But won’t that be confusing? Oh, but then I could slide in Cherry Ripe, and at least one other person would see why. It’s expanding in all directions, and I’d be scared that I couldn’t keep up with it if I didn’t trust that I’ll be able to catch it all later.

I’d forgotten how much fun this stage of a project can be. I know it’ll get more difficult later, when the initial flow dries up and I have to fill in the gaps. I know that whole chunks of this easy wordery will turn out not to fit and have to come out again. Maybe he can’t be called Julian. Maybe I’ll have to ditch the Cherry Ripe allusion. At this stage, I really don’t care. While it lasts, I’ll enjoy it.

I’m very amused by the timing. I’ve known for a while that I’m a seasonal being, but I hadn’t expected a whole new project to come in with a whoosh immediately after the first day of spring. (I’m aware that much of the country is swathed in snow – just frost here, now – but it seems the increasing daylight has more to do with it than the temperature.) I’m amused, too, by the way that making a deliberate decision to step back, to give myself a break, to spend all January watching the skiing and not beat myself up about it, has resulted in this sudden profusion of new words.

Now I’m taking another break. This does not mean that I am any less smitten with this new beautiful project, just that I have a routine and I’m not going to break it. I may be smiling to myself like a teenager, but I’m thirty-five and I have a better idea of how to keep things going. (So we’ll go no more a-roving/So late into the night.) This is, as they say, a marathon and not a sprint. I could show you my browser history from the last couple of days, and you’d see: the songs, the searches, the Wikipedia pages. Even if I’m not putting words on paper (or in pixels, as the case may be) I’m still reading, listening, watching, around the project, chasing clues, following rabbit-holes, finding a thousand things that remind me of the lovely new thing I’m working on.

An uninvited journey: active and inactive protagonists

A child's plastic sled cable-locked to a bike rack on a snow-free pavement

Lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) I came across this thread about inactive protagonists, and this other thread pointing out that it was an extremely Western-centric take. I think that both threads make good points, but the first one offers an extremely limited solution to a genuine problem. (When you have a hammer, etc, etc…) I rather like the way that they’ve both linked to each other, so the conversation rolls round and round forever. And this post isn’t really meant to be an answer to either of them, but more an excursion on my own train of thought.

There are many, many books that aren’t particularly engaging, and that could really do with a good editor, but shoehorning them all into the hero’s journey format isn’t necessarily going to help. In fact, I think a flat novel can be made more engaging by deepening the characterisation as much as by sharpening the plot.

And then in the replies to the second thread, someone linked this list of alternative structures, and that ate some more of my day. There are plenty to choose from, even if one is writing an action hero. I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond novels lately, and it’s really striking how adventurous Ian Fleming is in terms of structure. OK, The Spy Who Loved Me is a complete dog’s breakfast in terms of pacing, and you might argue that From Russia With Love starts a bit slow and ends a bit abruptly, but he isn’t afraid to experiment.

Back to inactive protagonists. In at least two of my novels so far I’ve spent most of the book getting my protagonist out of their own head in order for them to appreciate the world around them and make decisions based on what’s really going on rather than what they think is going on. Is that ‘active’? The author of the second thread talks about ‘radical acceptance’, which I think is an important theme in all my books: being who you are, not who you or anyone else thinks you should be. All of my protagonists could be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as inactive. The closet, depression, disillusionment, prejudice and petty politics provide quite enough of a challenge to be going on with. Sometimes they need to become active. Sometimes they need to make their peace with inaction.

And yes, sometimes during the writing process those books felt sloooooowwww. Sometimes I’ve dealt with that by growling at the entity they call the Inner Critic: what do you want, a car chase? Other times I’ve chopped out scenes, characters, chapters. I’ve added bits elsewhere. I’ve rewritten an entire book to come from a different character’s point of view. I’ve taken literal scissors to a manuscript. And the book has been better for it. An inactive protagonist might very well be a valid choice for the story that needs to be told, but that choice doesn’t exempt anyone from editing. (In fairness, I don’t think I saw anyone suggest that it did!)

I’m fascinated by the way that the individual interacts with the system, but writing about that, for me at least, has meant that those individuals have a limited amount of control. As the author, I can pull a certain number of strings, but I can’t reform student Evangelical Christianity/professional cycling/the Church of England/academia through the actions of one character. I can have them make small changes to improve matters locally. (I’ve pulled an ‘And then everybody on the bus clapped!’ precisely once. If I were writing that book now I’m not sure I’d put it in.) Or I can let them step away on their own terms.

Now I’m trying to write a Ruritanian thriller (well, not at the moment, but you know what I mean) and, while I have a good idea of how the thriller beats ought to fall, I’ve been uncomfortably aware that it’s inevitably a bit… condescending? (And I’ve felt like that since before I read Inventing Ruritania.) I want to keep writing it, because it’s fun, and because I love the genre for all its faults. What keeps tripping me up is that the ‘plucky British youngster single-handedly saves the nation of Ruritania’ narrative does not feel truthful. Even throwing in a second plucky British youngster and her Ruritanian partner hasn’t helped a lot. It may be that I’ve worked for a trade union/been a member of the Church of England/followed sports for too long, but I’m very aware of just how many people it keeps to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.

And that, I think, has given me a way in, a way to save this. I’ve ended up with a structure that’s something like a zoetrope: the thriller narrative is broken up by snapshots of the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Spin the cylinder fast enough, and you get a moving picture. The horse gallops. The country keeps on running.

Well, it might work. I’ll keep you posted. When I get back into it.

Incidentally, the consequence of lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) was coming across a thread in which someone was asking for recommendations for Christian fiction, and in which nobody had mentioned me. So I sulked, obviously. But then somebody recced me on another thread, so it all worked out. The moral of the story? It doesn’t really make much difference to the rest of the world whether I’m on Twitter or not, but it’s probably better for my state of mind if I’m not.

The miracle

A deciduous tree, with most of its leaves gone, with three cormorants perching in the upper branches. It is lit up by rose-gold morning light.

Last year. An autumn morning, probably very much like this one. Sunday. October, rather than November, because the clocks hadn’t gone back. A slow morning. Not the morning, really. Me. Sluggish. Lethargic. I couldn’t summon the energy to get out of bed because getting out of bed meant crossing the room to find my dressing gown and then I would have to have a shower and how do you even take a shower, I’d have to take my pyjamas off and step into the bath and ugh, then decide which clothes to wear, as if anybody cared, and eat something, and probably I hadn’t done any washing up, and could I face making toast…

But something wonderful had happened. Something had changed. All that was true, but I no longer felt like the worst person in the world. The moral judgement that usually accompanied such a morning had evaporated. It was as if someone who actually liked me had taken charge, someone who thought it was perfectly reasonable to take an hour to get out of bed if that was what was needed.

Every book I write disentangles something in my mind in some way. Speak Its Name sorted out a lot of internalised biphobia. A Spoke In The Wheel showed me how to deal with burnout and overcommitment. And The Real World seems to have taught me about depression.

The Real World is very much a book about depression. I’m not sure that I even mention the word in the text, but it shapes the protagonist’s experiences and, even more, her perceptions, in a way that’s almost bigger than the text. I nearly painted myself into a corner with it; had to tear the walls down to get us all out of there. There are several levels of irony to the title, and one of them is the fact that depression creates a world that isn’t real at all and keeps you trapped in it.

Writing about a fictional character’s depression, writing both the world she’s moving through and the world she’s limited to, reaching deep into my own experience to convey the sheer awkward clumsy fatigued too-bloody-muchness of it all, the way it narrows your horizons and stalls your momentum until it’s as much as you can do to put one foot in front of the other, I was able to find the compassion for her that I’d never been able to find for myself. Writing about someone who loved her and could see her as she was, not as she thought she was, helped me understand that I, too, could be loved as I was. And something inside me, something wiser than my rational brain, was able to apply it to me, too.

It’s still here. Even having been relieved of my 6am alarm and my commute by the lockdown, I’m still finding mornings difficult. I prickle at sympathy and suspect well-wishers of wanting to fix me, of thinking me unacceptable unless better. But my miracle is here, too, singing its serene quiet song: I am loved. I am enough.

This was not the only interesting thing that writing The Real World did to my head. I’ll tell you about the other thing another time. But I’m not sure it wasn’t the most important one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apart from that:

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

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

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