Q & A Tag: The Debut Novel

Good luck to everyone attempting NaNoWriMo!  I haven’t been able to make NaNoWriMo work for me since I started working full-time, and also I’m in the middle of a non-writing fortnight, so I’m not taking part. I’m reading instead.

And what I have been reading, among other things (Ankaret WellsAnna Chronistic and the Scarab of Destiny came out yesterday, just saying…) is Speak Its Name. This is partly in search of details I’ve got wrong in The Real World (Rory never went to St Mark’s! Gabe has always had a surname, and it isn’t Murtagh!) but mostly because I happened to pick it up and start flicking through, and then decided I might as well keep reading…

Then I remembered that an early draft had an epic ecumenical argument about Hallowe’en, which might have made a good deleted scene. I couldn’t find it. I did find that all the early drafts meandered all over the place (which I had remembered) were quite unbelievably camp (which I hadn’t).

So all in all this seemed like a good moment to answer a Q & A that I’ve been meaning to do for a while: Niamh Murphy‘s ‘The Debut Novel’ Q & A tag.

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What is the title and genre of your debut novel?

Speak Its Name is a contemporary f/f novel about a Christian student finding her way out of the closet against a backdrop of student politics.

What gave you the idea to start writing it?

Originally I wanted to tell the story of an episode of the great Christian Union wars of the early 2000s. If you weren’t at university in the early 2000s, or didn’t get involved in student politics if you were, then you may well have missed these entirely, but they still crop up from time to time. There’s almost always more going on than makes the press. This was certainly the case in the kerfuffle that I got involved in, and I wanted to tell what really happened.

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately!) ‘what really happened’ was actually quite boring. Looking back, I feel like Lord Palmerston:

“Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

How long did it take you to finish?

A long time! I wrote the first word of the first draft in November 2007, having spent much of the summer planning. By the summer of 2014, I thought it was more or less done. I eventually published it in February 2016.

What was the biggest challenge you had when writing it?

The moment when I realised that actually the whole thing needed to be written in the point of view of a character who at that juncture had absolutely nothing. And who wouldn’t come out even to herself until half way through the book.

This development had its advantages, though: for one thing, it made it much easier to incorporate the political storyline. And it made the book much better overall, much tighter, and less susceptible to in-jokes and digressions.

How did you get it published, indie or trad?

After spending a summer trying to interest agents in the book, I gave up and decided to self-publish – a decision I’ve never regretted. Speak Its Name was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize in 2017, after which I did get some more interest from the traditional publishing world, but we decided pretty much simultaneously that it wasn’t an avenue that any of us wanted to pursue.

What was the most important thing you learnt from the process?

How to write a novel. That might sound flippant, but I’m serious. I started with a string of real life events and a handful of characters. Over the years I learned: to let my characters make their own mistakes; how to harness my own emotions to make my characters’ reactions convincing; how to get characters to drive plot; what to leave out; what to take out; how much I really enjoy editing.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on the sequel. It’s called The Real World and it picks up the action about three years after the end of Speak Its Name. As the title suggests, the characters are having to adjust to life after graduation, and none of them have picked a particularly easy path (if such a thing even exists). There are difficult decisions to be made and challenging situations to work through.

But I’ve actually got to the stage where I put it away for a few months and try to ignore it, so that I can return to it with fresh eyes.

In the meantime I’m writing some shorter pieces, a couple of which are also set in Stancester. One is a prequel to Speak Its Name – Becky’s first term at university – which I’ll be offering as an incentive to sign up to my email newsletter, when I actually get around to setting that up. The other is more of a standalone, and I’m aiming to submit it to the Reconciling the Rainbow anthology.

 

Q & A Tag: The Debut

Degrees of stuckness

The Real World is currently sitting at 83,000 words. This ought to be enough words, but of course not all of them will end up in the final version.

At present I’m wondering whether I’ve got to the point where I put it away for three months. I probably have. At the beginning of the year I told myself that I was aiming to have a first draft in October, and, apart from a few [insert science fact here] notes, I’ve filled in most of the gaps.

In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to compare it with its two predecessors – not in terms of word count (that wouldn’t take long) or in terms of what precisely I was panicking about, when (that’s a question for another post), but in terms of what you might call the emotional arc.

Thus far, I have always written about what one of my friends called ‘people sorting their heads out‘: characters who are stuck in their own assumptions, their own worldviews, and how they get unstuck.

What makes The Real World different is the fact that I show much more of the process of getting stuck.

Here’s a diagram:

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Speak Its Name chugs along for the first hundred pages or so with Lydia operating within the same narrow constraints that she’s known all her life. When she takes a long, hard, look at herself, everything suddenly opens out – and keeps opening.

What we can’t see, of course, is how the increased exposure to people outside her own social group is affecting her without her knowing it.

In fact, all three diagrams show only what’s going on in the protagonist’s head, and only what they’re conscious of (or would be, if they thought about it). They don’t show the external circumstances or other characters’ decisions that are working on them. Nor do they show all the little accumulations and releases of tension that drive a story. Just the perceived stuckness, if you like.

In A Spoke in the Wheel, the most stuck part is actually before the opening of the book. When we meet Ben, he’s not quite at his lowest point: he’s just coming out of it; he’s made a major change in his life. He still has a very long way to go, and the process isn’t quite as smooth as the diagram implies, but the only way is up. Or, to put it another way, it’s all uphill from here.

The Real World starts out in Colette’s head with a reasonably broad worldview, and then compresses and compresses things until it’s almost intolerable. But, as you see, it finds a bit of space right at the end.

I’m a bit apprehensive about what people will make of it. Will it all be hideously depressing (or, worse, boring) – or will the increasing stuckness drive the tension up?

The answer is, I honestly don’t know, yet. It’s difficult to tell when I’ve been buried in the text. That’s why I’m putting it away until the new year. I’ll let you know.

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.