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.

I have worked out what is wrong with this book

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It’s been three months since my last major wobble with this book. When I put it away before moving, I wrote myself a note:

It’s not going to be as bad as you think. I promise.

And you will see what you need to do. You’re coming to this after a break of time and a change of space. This will give you room to see what needs changing…

You might not work on it at all in March: that’s fine. But you must pick it up again in April. Start with a read through; look for the gaps, in the first instance – not the physical omissions, but the thin parts, the bits you’ve been telling yourself you’ll get away with… your focus for the moment should be on adding substance, adding depth, making your characters and your setting more solid.

I spent the last couple of weeks doing that. And I worked out what is wrong with this book.

It is the reason why I always have trouble with writing books in this series (based on a sample of one, so far): it’s about people quietly trying to get on with their own lives while drama happens around them.

And writing it from Colette’s point of view accentuates the problem, because she’s always taken minding her own business to a fine art, and has always had to be dragged into plot by main force (in the first book, by Peter and then by Lydia). Consequently, I’ve got at least four other characters’ plots going on which are, at the moment, very boring, because she’s either giving people space to deal with their own stuff or just doesn’t care. And then she tends to suffer in silence rather than do anything about it. In this book I’m going to get her to the point where she does do something about it, but I need to keep the interim suffering in silence from being too tedious.

The problem is, of course, not so much that she doesn’t care, as that I don’t. Because I am the one who is writing this thing, and I do need to tie them up a little better than I have at present. I’ve worked out how to inject some suspense into one of the four subordinate plots, and another two are things that she really ought to care about because they have a major influence on her life, and actually one needs some work and the other is better than I think it is. The fourth can and should fade into the background, I think.

I also wrote:

We’ll talk later about the deadline for this. I’ll tell you this: it isn’t September. This one is too important to rush. Take your time; get it good.

And I still have no publication date. What’s different now is the fact that this doesn’t seem to be worrying me at all. I think I’ve adapted to this weird timelessness in the air. This book will come out when it’s ready, and that’s the only logical way to schedule it.

I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, my existing two books are still free.

Rookie errors/lessons learned (?)

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Back in the December of 2018, I thought that I’d really like to have a completed first draft of my next novel by the October of 2019. I did the maths, and worked out that I needed to write 680 words on each of my scheduled writing days, to get to 80,000 words by October.

As of this moment, the word count of The Real World stands at 93,422 words. That’s not counting the page of longhand I’ll be typing up when I’ve finished this post. That’s not counting the major expansion of the final scene that I know needs doing.

It is not done. It is a long, long way off being done. I need to add quite a lot more. And then I need to take a hell of a lot out.

Nevertheless, I sent it to my friend Sam. And even when I sent it I knew about a lot of things that needed doing. A showdown with Barry/expand the final scene/give Rowan a description FFS!/ditch the boring Freshers. And so on.

I tell myself that I don’t usually get people to read my drafts until I can’t think of anything else to do that will improve them. I’m not sure this is actually true. I thought I’d learned last time round that if I send things to people too early, I inevitably end up sending a follow-up saying, no, please ignore what I sent you last month: I’ve deleted three chapters and introduced a new character!

Anyway, I sent it to Sam. I think (he was too polite to say this in so many words) he was disappointed. And when he explained what seemed to be lacking (and after I’d taken myself out for a coffee and a chat with myself) I saw his point. I’d sent it about three drafts too early, and most of the characters were stick people with religious affiliations affixed.

This morning I read an interview with Stéphane Lambiel, in which he talked about his work as a skating coach. And he said this:

I see a lot of ballet performances, and I see the ballet dancers – they are real athletes. And they need every cell of their body to be conscious, to be spot on. And it’s not only about the tricks, it’s really about every single move – and you don’t lie when you are on stage. Every judge, every crowd, every person will see it, will see you – there is no way to hide. No way.

It’s equally true of writing. Many times I’ve been tempted to let something slip past, some tiny change I know I ought to make, and don’t, have shied away from writing a scene that scared me.

‘I’ll get away with this one,’ I think.

I never do. If I don’t pick it up and do something about it, one of my editors will.

And what’s annoying me is the fact that I already knew this.

Part of it was loneliness. I just wanted someone to talk to about my book.

But the other thing, the thing that threw me, I think, was the fact that with A Spoke In The Wheel I was working with a much more obvious structure. I had a much better idea of what I needed to write. Last time, I undershot. Ever since Speak Its Name came out at 80,000 words, I’ve had that in my head as a decent length to aim at. A Spoke In The Wheel only just got to 70,000 words, and it never needed any more. There are 260 words in the ‘deleted, might still come in useful’ file. I knew where things had to go, I could see where the gaps were, I knew what the end had to look like and how to get there. I got it done in less than two years. Speak Its Name had taken me eight.

I thought I knew how to write a book now.

I know, of course, that Speak Its Name was up at 115,000 words at one point. But I cut most of those extraneous 35,000 words simply by ditching anything that wasn’t from the main character’s point of view, and it didn’t hurt much.

I thought I knew how to write a book now.

And yet here we are, 93,422 words and still counting; 93,422 words, and a lot of work still to be done.

In fact, it turns out that both the Stancester books are slippery beasts, liable to twist and change and turn out to be very different from what I once thought they would be. My perception is that The Real World is even more troublesome than Speak Its Name, but I probably would say that from where I am inside the middle of it. Ten months ago, something happened inside my head that made me revisit one major plot strand, not to make any huge changes to what happens within it, but to adjust the language I’d used around it: I knew more, now; I knew enough to know that I hadn’t got it right. In January, that thing in my head changed back again; two days after that, the House of Bishops released its ‘pastoral statement’ and I realised that the book wasn’t nearly angry enough… It keeps changing. I trust that it will, eventually, settle down into what it’s meant to be: a decent book.

I remember that I know all this. I have learned it before. I know that I need to move the tedious but necessary political bits into the chapter headings. I know that I need to give my characters physical descriptions and interests outside whatever the main plot is this time. I know that if I’m letting my characters be influenced by outside events, I have to find a way for them to own them.

And I know not to get other people to look at it until there is nothing else I can think of to improve, or, if I do, to prepare for a tantrum from the part of me that doesn’t like other people seeing me in a state of anything less than perfection.

Stéphane Lambiel goes on to say:

You’re out there, the spotlights are on you – it’s a big, big pressure. But it’s beautiful. I love it, and I love the process – and the skaters should own the process.

Here’s to that.

Relatable: writing the real world, and The Real World

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Last week I told my faithful beta reader Sam that I would have something ready for him to read fairly shortly, and gave him the blurb (at least, as far as I could remember it off the top of my head).

He said,

Well, there’s a story I can relate to! Not the being a lesbian part, or the doing the PhD, or wanting to talk to a dead person… just the real world being a bit of a confusing mess! And that seems like it might be the joy of the story. Personally, I can’t relate to anything you just said in that blurb other than the real world being a crazy place, but I do feel I can relate to the whole thing still. So something’s right with it all!

And this strikes, albeit at something of an angle, at something that has been worrying me a little bit about my book. It’s something that worries me a little bit about every book that I write: what if X reads Y and thinks it’s about them?

I don’t mean the deliberate things. I borrowed the wheelchair conga line in the last book knowing exactly what I was doing. (I still have very fond memories of that party!) This time round I emailed somebody to ask, ‘Do you mind if I appropriate your church’s backstory?’ I don’t mean things like that. I mean the occasions when I go, ‘hang on, that thing happened! to X! I wasn’t thinking about X when I wrote it! oh shit! what if they think it’s about them and then they hate me?’

It’s usually something that was quite an obvious way to take the story, something that was quite easy to write. It hits me when most of the plot’s nailed down and I can’t easily take it out.

The thing is, whatever Y is, it probably also happened to several other people.

One’s early twenties are a confusing, difficult time. It’s the combination of having to deal with money, large amounts of money, or the lack of large amounts of money when one needs them to survive, and coming to understand that one’s parents are human and have human failings and are mortal and will eventually die, and wondering what on earth one’s going to do with the rest of one’s life, and encountering failure, and learning how to deal with serious relationships, and, and, and…

For some people it happens earlier; for some, it happens later. Personally, I spent the year after I turned 21 letting go of what I thought I was meant to be doing, and 22-23 just about clinging on to what remained. There are whole chunks of time that I just can’t remember at all. (This is a little irritating, because some of them would have made good material for this!) I look back at diary entries from that period and think, goodness, I really should have talked to somebody about that. And of course some people have more going on, more to deal with, than others.

But it’s very likely that what I’m writing about is going to match up with somebody’s history more closely than I’d intended. And on the one hand that’s good – as Sam points out, I’m trying to write things that people can relate to! And on the other I am hoping and trying not to inflict needless hurt.

Which brings me on to something that was originally going to be a separate blog post, but what the hell.

Yesterday the House of Bishops released some ‘pastoral’ guidance responding to the fact that opposite-sex civil partnerships are now possible in the UK.

It didn’t say much that we didn’t already know, but it said it in a spectacularly insensitive fashion, which has inevitably and deservedly been reported as ‘sex only for opposite-sex marriage, say bishops’. And there are a lot of LGBT+ Anglicans who are feeling pretty hurt and angry, and a lot of allies who are being very vocal too. It hurts. I have dodged a load of bullets and it still hurts. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are right in the firing line.

Meanwhile, lit Twitter was talking about American Dirt, which I don’t think I shall bother reading. I was particularly struck by this piece, which actually predates the current kerfuffle, but which got linked to illustrate the point that books about marginalised people don’t need to be trauma porn to be important. Life isn’t, and literature doesn’t have to be, wall-to-wall misery for immigrants, for queer people, for anyone. And the message that you’re doomed to unhappiness simply because of who you are is… not one that I would wish to endorse.

This is a balance that I’m trying to strike.

One of the major points of conflict in The Real World is the fact that ordained ministers in the Church of England are not allowed to marry someone of the same sex. This is a source of grief and pain in the real world; it’s destroying relationships and distorting lives. I have done my best to work with this and still write a book in which the richness and beauty and joy and delight of queer relationships can be discerned.

Whether I have succeeded… is the wrong question. Whether I will have succeeded, we’ll find out. It still needs work. I’m still filling in holes in the text, even as Sam looks at what I’ve done so far (‘seventeen pages of red marks’, he says). It is a way off being finished; a long way off being as good as I can get it; further away still from being as good as it can be.

(And then sometimes I think that all I’ve done is written a less posh, more liturgically accurate, Four Weddings and a Funeral. But that’s another story.)

Welcome to The Real World

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I’ve been ignoring The Real World (my book, I  mean, not the actual real world) since October, in order to get a bit of distance. Last week I printed the manuscript out and (when I wasn’t standing in the rain for three hours waiting for a rail replacement bus) read it through and scribbled on it.

It isn’t bad at all. It isn’t done, but what’s there is OK. If all goes to plan, it will come out in September.

In the meantime, I wrote a blurb for it, and here it is:

Colette is trying to finish her PhD and trying not to think about what happens next. Her girlfriend wants to get married – but she also wants to become a vicar, and she can’t do both. Her ex-girlfriend never wanted to get married, but apparently she does now. Her supervisor is more interested in his TV career than in what Colette’s up to, and, of her two best friends, one’s two hundred miles away, and the other one’s dead.

Welcome to…

The Real World.

December Reflections 30: thank you for…

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… surprising and exciting developments.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be surprising. When in the autumn we added up the balances of our various savings accounts and found that they made a mortgage deposit, that was after many years of channelling a direct debit in that direction.

What else?

The opportunity to serve on a Cursillo weekend. I wrote a couple of days ago about ‘the privilege of loving people’, and this was largely what I had in mind. Making tea for people, putting chairs out for them, washing their hands… it was wonderful.

Good progress on two books. The Real World is more or less there in terms of word count, and I’m looking forward to diving back in with a red pen in a couple of weeks’ time. The Rassendyll Kidnapping is a lot more nebulous, but a whole load of plot came together in my head at the beginning of December, and I got most of it down before I forgot it again.

Time with family and friends – particularly a week with my family at and around Ventnor Fringe, and a week with the in-laws on a narrowboat on the river Avon, and another week with my friend Anne in York. I’d like to see more of more people next year, though.

The chance to see the best cyclists in the world ride past me.

New people and new places. Theatre. Museums. Good books. Good food. A really interesting talk that made me think about food differently. (The very short version: delight and sharing.) Wide-ranging conversations, leading (I think) to interesting places.

2019 hasn’t been a year of fruition, exactly, but it’s certainly been a year of emerging shoots. And I’m thankful.

December Reflections 15: best decision of 2019

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I’ve made (or received) two fairly major decisions this year, but I don’t yet know the outcome of either of them, so it seems a bit premature to call either of them the best. Not least since they appear to be pulling in opposite directions… It’ll be interesting to see how that all works out.

Taking the first week of December as annual leave, and then doing absolutely nothing in it, is a very good decision, but it’s one I’ve made every year since at least 2014 now, so I’m not sure that I can really count it as a decision of 2019. It’s more a very longstanding tradition.

After growing my hair out to a bob last year, I got it cut short again in May, and immediately felt 500% more like myself. But I wouldn’t say it was the best decision.

Going to the work disco on Friday night was a good decision, since it meant spending the evening with a group of other despondent people, none of whom were going to attempt to tell anybody else to cheer up, but also being able to dance and dance and dance. And staying off Twitter and Facebook was also a good decision. Some people need a good rant/vent/whinge, and I respect that, but I find that listening to or reading other people’s ranting/venting/whingeing just gets me (even further) down, and actively gets in the way of my doing anything to improve matters. So I danced instead. Anyway, that feels too depressing to be the best decision of the year.

But in fact I have had a moment this year where the rightness of a thing seemed to sing and sizzle and settle: of course this is the right thing. And that was the evening when everybody was talking about ‘the real world’, about whether or not they lived in it, about whether or not other people live in it, about whether anybody really lives in it. And I realised that in fact this was the title of my next book. That’s my best decision of 2019. The Real World. More on that next year.

December Reflections 4: white

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Today I had to buy a box of tissues, as the cold which has been making me lethargic, despondent and irritable for the last two weeks has finally got to the ‘runny nose’ stage, which for me means nosebleeds too.

Actually, the current bug aside, 2019 hasn’t been too bad for me health wise. A slight iron deficiency got picked up in the summer when I attempted to give blood, and there was another bug which had all the symptoms of a nasty cold except the cough and runny nose, but I think that was about it.

Most excitingly, there was one morning this year when I woke up with the motivation, energy, enthusiasm, everything, squashed by depression, and managed to be kind to myself about it. This is revolutionary.

I think I know how it happened, too. I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing from the perspective of a character who spends much of the action becoming increasingly depressed. I have had to take care to differentiate between her perception of reality and actually reality. It’s hardly surprising if that has helped me get a bit of perspective myself, to remember that what’s really there is bigger than the space in my head. Even if that’s a little bit more difficult when that head is completely bunged up.

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