Titled.

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The sequel to Speak Its Name has been coming along very nicely in recent months. It’s now standing at 75,000 words, with only a few holes left to fill before I can move into the editing phase.

But I’ve been having to refer to it in just those terms, because I have had dreadful trouble coming up with a title for it.

At first I was thinking of it as Scandal and Folly, but I had to admit that this sounded too much like a bodice ripper. I thought of doing something with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but no variation on that seemed to work. Later I came up with Truth and Power, but that sounded too much like a political thriller. In between times, I’ve just been calling it ‘the sequel’.

On Tuesday I had a rather varied evening. First I went to the pub with some people I used to work with, and a few people I still work with, and ended up spending most of the time I was there talking to the boyfriend of someone who’d only just started working with the people I used to work with. Then I dashed off to catch a train and then lead a session on the Holy Spirit with a small group from church.

And through the evening there was one phrase that kept coming up. The real world. Trade union employees tend to be pretty much resigned to the idea that people think they don’t live in the real world. One of the church group felt that it was very important to live in the real world. In actual fact, it’s a phrase that I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with: unless this is the Matrix, all of us live in the real world.

Anyway, I was walking home at the end of the night and thinking how many times I’d heard the phrase the real world over the course of the previous few hours, and wondering whether it held any particular significance for me, or whether it was just coincidence.

And I realised: that’s my title.

The Real World

It works across several of the themes of the novel (we are picking up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name, with the characters in their early twenties and trying to work out what they’re doing next) and it has a good few layers of irony, too. Not least, of course, the fact that this isn’t the real world at all. It’s fiction.

But nobody in it knows that.

Back on the Book Bus (where do you get your ideas?)

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Last week I was back on the Isle of Wight for Ventnor Fringe. I had good intentions about selling a lot and writing a lot. As it was, I sold very little and immediately spent all the proceeds on other books. I finished a short story (submissions deadline was today) and managed to get the current novel about a thousand words further forward and a little bit tidier.

Apart from that, I sat in the sun, and listened to and watched other people doing their thing. Poetry. Music. Theatre. Comedy. I looked for lizards (and found them) and drank Belgian beer.

In between times, I did quite a lot of thinking, and I noticed how my best ideas seem to come from thought experiments of the ‘What if?’ variety. For example:

I know the Society of Authors aren’t expecting a novel inspired by the three weeks of foreign travel their award funded, but, if they were, what would it look like?

(Answer: a modern Ruritanian adventure with ice dancing!)

Or, this week:

If I were going to write something that I could sell at a price point of £4 or under, so that buyers aren’t going to be put off it in favour of the cheaper, and excellent, second-hand books around it, what could that be?

(Answer: a little book that can double as a souvenir!)

So that’s two projects in the pipeline. I’m also attempting to write more short stories. Some of those I’m submitting them to other people’s anthologies and magazines; others, I have other plans for. For example, I’m thinking of setting up a mailing list, and I’d like to offer an exclusive short story as a thank you for joining it.

At the moment, though, my main focus is still the sequel to Speak Its Name, which is currently standing at just over 62,000 words. It still doesn’t have a title. I thought of Scandal and Folly (sounds too much like a bodice ripper). I thought of Truth and Power (sounds too much like a political thriller). I’ll just have to trust that I’ll come up with something before it’s finished. And that’ll be early next year, at a guess. I’ll keep you posted.

50,000 words: getting past the stuck bit

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There comes a point with every novel I write where I’m convinced that I should just give up on this one. And guess where I am now?

This time I’m dealing with it by:

  • reminding myself that this always happens;
  • reminding myself that I’m doing better than I did with the first one, which I went so far as to give up on at least three times;
  • setting myself wacky challenges (The Song of Songs mentions 21 types of plants and 15 species of animals. See how many you can include.)
  • printing the whole lot off and scribbling on it.

This last has been by far the most effective. I’ve added a few lines, and I’ve improved some existing ones. More importantly, I’ve been able to see where the gaps are, and I have a reasonable idea of what I need to write next, and a better idea of what the overall structure needs to be.

The next sticking place after this one, if I remember correctly, is the one where I become convinced that all my friends will read it and hate me. Which will mean it’s nearly done.

train lines: a writing exercise

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When writing time is scarce, it helps to have some sort of ritual, something to mark the transition from ‘not writing time’ to ‘now we’re writing’.

Joanne Harris starts the day with a Tweet about her Shed. But I don’t have a shed, and I know that if I were to look at Twitter then I’d lose the rest of the train journey – and my writing time. So instead, I write a line in the back of my exercise book about my train, or about where it’s going.

Some of them come out better than others; but that’s not the point. It’s the writing of a single line, a single line that doesn’t matter at all, that bypasses the bit of my brain that thinks I can’t write the ones that do matter.

I thought I’d share a few of them:

The 0729 toils through a burning desert, over sand dunes a mile high, through strange landscapes that might only be a mirage (but best not to bank on it). Keep the window closed at all times.

The 1742 stands still while the world moves around it. Its passengers run, run, run on the spot to turn the earth.

The 0729 runs between rock strata, and chips of quartz glitter in its path.

The 1742 stops at a weathered halt in a village in a forest, where no birds sing, and no passenger waits on the platform.

The 1340 never runs at all. Also it’s a bus.

The 1742 flies noiselessly, without bump or friction, between the galaxies, guided by a pinprick of starlight.

The 0754 drifts from cloud to cloud. We’ll get there when we get there.

The 1712 bounces from wall to wall of a fibre optic cable, miles beneath the surface of the ocean.

The 1742 is a jigsaw puzzle with a picture of a train on it, and if you shake the box hard enough it might assemble itself. Or the lid might fall off, sending pieces flying across the room.

December Reflections 21: paper

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“What people bring with them is treasure“.

I was tidying my desk, as one does on the last day in the office before Christmas, and turned up my coursebook from the autumn’s tutor training course, and remembered what I’d scrawled on the cover.

I’ve underlined ‘people bring with them’, so that must have been a quotation. And I’ve double-underlined ‘treasure’, so that must have been something important.

My recollection is that we were talking about the mental and emotional baggage that people bring with them to courses. They bring bad memories from school. They bring a grudge about having been made to attend the thing in the first place. They bring cynicism. They bring whatever’s going on in their life outside the classroom.

They bring knowledge. (Something that stuck with me from the first two days of the course was the estimate that, when dealing with adult learners, 85% of the knowledge already exists in the room, and the task of the tutor is to bring it out and then fill in the gaps.) They bring wisdom. They bring experience. Curiosity. Good ideas.

And perhaps that was what I meant by ‘treasure’.

But I think it must have been something more than that, to make me write it down there, on the cover, rather than next the activity that prompted it. And I think I meant something like: people bring with them is everything that’s gone to make them who they are; all their triumphs and their tragedies; everything they’ve ever learned and seen and been through, and everything that they’ve forgotten; all their fortunes and misfortunes; all the lies they’ve heard and all the truths; all their hopes and fears.

People bring their whole complicated selves.

A phrase that has come up a couple of times for me this year is this: Nothing is wasted. I’ve seen it on writing Twitter (nothing you write is wasted, even if it never sees the light of day). It’s been murmured to me in church (to which I brought things ill done and done to others’ harm – or, in this case, my own – /which once you took for exercise of virtue). I’ve reminded myself of it as I wonder what I’m meant to be doing next, and whether I’m in the right place now. Even if I end up on a different path, my experience on this path will come in useful. (Sometimes I think that I see them converging at the horizon, and sometimes I think that’s just the vanishing point…)

Nothing is wasted.

What people bring with them is themselves.

What people bring with them is treasure.

Don’t look down

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It’s been a while since I last began a book. I wrote down the first words of A Spoke In The Wheel in early 2016, just as I’d got Speak Its Name out of the door. It took me two years to get that written, edited, and published.

Then I decided I’d give myself a couple of months off writing novels, while I caught up on my travel write-ups.

Then I decided that actually I did want to get started on the next novels (yes, plural) after all.

Since then I’ve been very carefully not freaking out.

It honestly is like remembering how to ride a bike. (And I know what I’m talking about here.) It’s not so much that you forget how to do it, as that you lose your nerve. You don’t lose the physical ability; you lose the unthinking trust that you can take both feet off the ground and still not fall over.

Except in this case I’m not just riding the bicycle, I’m creating the very ground it’s traversing. I’m setting out into the unknown, knowing very well that the unknown doesn’t exist yet.

And it’s not that I haven’t been writing. I’ve been writing blog posts; I’ve been writing short stories; I’ve been writing up my travels. It’s just that a full-length novel feels so much bigger, and until it’s written there’s so much empty space where I know there should be words.

It would be daunting, if I let myself think about how daunting it is.

I’m not a plotter, never have been. The best I can say is that I know where I’m headed. I know what needs to have happened for the ending to be satisfying. As to what’s between here and there, I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet. It’s a bit scary, really. I find myself wanting to go slower. I want to get off my bicycle and walk.

Don’t look down, I tell myself. Don’t look at the yawning chasm that represents all the research you haven’t yet done, all the words you haven’t yet written.

Just write a little bit.

Put one foot after the other. Get the notebook out. Take the cap off the pen. Open the notebook to the next blank page.

If the world of fiction is refusing to co-operate, write about Venice, or Bratislava, or the red-painted wooden houses of Sweden.

Writing about my own experiences is easy, and, sooner or later, fiction co-operates. I try to remember what I had for dinner in Ljubljana and find myself writing Lydia’s musings on the question of idolatry instead. And slowly, slowly, the novel begins to materialise. The snappy exchange, written down, brings its context in after it. Writing down the context raises questions. Why does she think that? Oh, hang on, does he really know that, or is it just a lucky guess? Answering those questions invokes new scenes. The more I write, the more I know what to write next.

At the moment, the sequel to Speak Its Name is standing at about 6000 words. More to the point, I’m beginning to see how the whole thing is going to fit together. I’m beginning to understand the dynamics between the different characters. Things that I’ve known for as long as I’ve been planning this book suddenly make sense: Oh. She’s upset because they turn up unannounced. And the bedroom thing is awkward because they’re not allowed to live together… Awkward facts that I thought I was going to have to work around turn out to fit in nicely. OK, the timing won’t work for the transfer, but instead we could have the RA quitting, maybe he was really stressed because he was about to get married and thought it would get better when that had happened, but it hasn’t, but he can also be the example of the marriage that does work. And I am beginning to get a better sense of what I still need to find out, and who I need to talk to in order to do that.

What I’m referring to in my head as ‘the Ruritanian thing’ is a way behind, with a scant thousand words on the page and only the haziest idea of what needs to happen in between the beginning and the end. Half of the characters are missing names, and the plot is missing all sorts of vital components like what and how and why. Maybe this one won’t happen. I hope it does. I think it’ll be fun. And I’m aware that a large part of my unease probably comes from the fact that I haven’t got very far into it yet, that, the further I get in, the better I’ll feel about it.

Heigh-ho. All I can do with either of them is keep on writing. The main thing is not to look down.