2022: the year that got away?

A tub of tulips, one about to open in a deep pink colour, frosted with raindrops
It must be April. The tulips are flowering.

In twelve days, it will be Easter. I’m not quite sure how. This year has slipped past without my really noticing.

I noticed Candlemas, because that was the day of Pa’s funeral. I noticed Ash Wednesday, because we had a friend staying and she reminded us about pancakes. I noticed Lady Day (the first day of the year, in old money, and maybe this is a good year to claim that do-over), but I was in no position to do anything about it because I was flat out on the sofa with Covid. And now here we are in April, and this Sunday will be Palm Sunday, and the Sunday after that will be Easter.

2022 has felt rather as if I’m bobbing around on a raft on the ocean, and every time I get myself and my raft the right way up another huge wave has crashed down and swamped me again and all I can do is hang on.

That sounds gloomy, and, oddly enough, I’m not feeling all that gloomy. Not tonight, anyway. I’m reasonably confident that the shore’s over there somewhere and, so long as I keep hold of the rope I’ll wash up on dry land eventually. But the first three months of this year have disappeared in death administration, and fortnightly dashes to the Isle of Wight, and Covid, and I assume I must have been doing my day job in between times.

What I haven’t been doing much of is writing. Or at least I think I haven’t. I never write much on the Isle of Wight. It’s like another dimension. The train journeys have worked their usual magic, it’s true, but I’m way behind on typing up the longhand from those train journeys. I’m very aware that I’ve been neglecting this blog. And the last two weeks have been (wait for it) a write-off. All I managed to write when I had Covid was a report on the event at which I caught Covid.

And I was feeling gloomy about this on Sunday evening.

I had high hopes for this year. I was aiming to get an anthology of short stories out in time for Ventnor Fringe and the Ruritanian novel done for Christmas. Those would have been entirely reasonable goals, if this had turned out to be a usual year. As things are, not only have I lost three months, but those projects have got all tangled up with grief. Technically, they need ruthlessness. Emotionally, they need gentleness. The Book Bus will be at Ventnor Fringe, and I’ll be there too, but there’s no way I’m going to get those little stories finished off and tidied up for July, not when they’ve been joined by hundreds of other stories that perhaps aren’t mine to tell. And really I was writing the Ruritanian thing for myself and for Pa, and at the moment I can’t quite bring myself write Buchanesque chase scenes with trams when I know he won’t read them.

So I’m regrouping. The Ruritanian novel is reclaiming its ‘frivolous side project’ status, and I’ll work on it for fun, when it becomes fun again. The book bus stories will happen one of these years, but it won’t be this year. I’m shifting my focus to the 1920s Romeo and Juliet thing. That’s a little annoying in that I have 26,000 words on that, compared to 58,000 on the Ruritanian thing, but it’s going to be quite a lot easier in that it’s character-driven (very much my strength) as opposed to plot-driven (very much not).

This leaves me with the question of what I publish in 2022. Of course, nothing is an option. But I’ve been publishing a book every even-numbered year since 2016 now, and there’s part of me that’s reluctant to spoil the pattern. One possible answer is an anthology of short stories – not the book bus stories (well, maybe I’ll borrow one of them), but a selection of vaguely sapphic vaguely historical things. Things like Stronger Than Death, which appeared in an anthology by a publisher that has since stopped trading, and The Sisters’ House, which was written for a very specific call for submissions and wasn’t selected, and Prima Donna, for which the rights returned to me ages ago, and The Secret of the Glacier, which has never been published at all. I’d quite like to pull them all together, and write a few more stories to round the collection out. I should be able to manage that over the next eight months. Although, now I come to look at my calendar for May and June and July and August, it might be more of a challenge than you’d think…

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: blue velvet star

Christmas tree decoration in the shape of a five-pointed star, made from blue velvet and embroidered with beads and copper thread

I thought I’d carry this series on until Epiphany. I’m sure I can think of something to say about five more items.

Today’s ornament is this blue velvet star. This came from Oxfam – new. It’s rather fine, if you like that sort of thing, which I do. I love this sort of rich decoration, the sumptuousness of it, particularly at this time of year. I like it in the same sort of way that I like cherry vodka and dark chocolate and going to the theatre and the New Year’s Day concert from Vienna. I wouldn’t want very much of it, and I wouldn’t want it all the time, but once in a while it’s marvellous.

In November, alerted by David at Licence To Queer, I went to see the Noël Coward: Art and Style exhibition at the Guildhall in London. It was excellent – wonderful clothes, fascinating detail about the theatre – but really, my main takeaway was the following:

it is perfectly possible to be a wildly successful polymath while spending most of one’s life in a dressing gown

There was at least one of his dressing gowns on display, as well as some modern ones inspired by Coward’s style. And – which was perhaps equally inspiring – a picture of him sitting up in bed, working, in what looked like a very fancy apartment but was actually a room in the boarding house his mother ran.

This is very much about image, of course, the swan gliding across the surface of the water while paddling furiously underneath. All the dressing gowns in the world can’t replace hard work and talent. (Though I should say that for the next two weeks I intend to read and watch and listen rather than write.) But at the same time, you don’t need to be miserable while doing that hard work. You don’t need to have wall to wall luxury. But if you’re wearing a nice dressing gown, you’re taking your luxury with you.

Daily Decoration: paper stars

Bushy green branch with garland of paper stars draped across it

I learned how to make stars like this from someone at school. I suspect many people did. You cut a long thin strip of paper, tie an overhand knot at one end and, very carefully, flatten it into a pentagon. Then you wind the tail of the paper around it again and again, and when you get to the end you tuck the end under the last but one layer. Then you pinch a fold into each of the five sides, so that it puffs up into a star.

(And then, if you’re doing what I was doing eleven or twelve years ago, you repeat that over and over and then string the results together on red thread.)

These were just scrap paper. One of the stars is unwinding; it says Wednesday on the back. I don’t recognise the handwriting. Goodness knows what was important about that Wednesday all those years ago; it certainly isn’t now. And it clearly wasn’t important for long then, either, or I wouldn’t have cut it up. Although this could make rather a nice mystery plot: a low-stakes Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey, for example.

I used to write my university essays on scrap paper, on the backs of posters and service sheets. These days I work straight on the computer, or else use narrow-ruled exercise books. If I print things out it’s onto that greyish recycled paper, which doesn’t make for a nice bright star. Besides, I print double-sided. When it’s done with it gets shredded and goes into the compost. Still, I’m sure that if I wanted to make some more stars I’d find plenty of bright white paper somewhere…

Daily Decoration: shining sun

Carved and gold-painted wooden sun face hanging from an evergreen tree

This magnificent sun is another triumph of Guildford charity shopping days. I thought I’d share it in honour of the solstice.

I haven’t seen much of the sun today. There was a tiny patch of blue sky visible through grey clouds when I went out for my morning walk; the rest of it has just been plain grey. Even sitting in front of the east-facing living room window, where I’ve been working the last week or so, there wasn’t any sun to be seen.

And oh, goodness, dark days are hard. Working from home makes things a bit easier, in that I can just about get away with staying in bed until sunrise (8.06am today, though I was actually up at 7am), but I think it might make the afternoon slump worse. And certainly as soon as the sun goes down I lose all motivation and energy. Which is annoying, when there are things I’d like to do with my life besides work.

I don’t think I quite got the balance right this year. I made some experiments that didn’t really work out. Writing ten thousand words in two days got that particular project moving again, but wiped me out for anything else; and staying on writing duty for an entire month didn’t work at all. Firstly, four writing weeks doesn’t automatically result in twice as much content as two writing weeks. Secondly, I couldn’t really enjoy anything else. I’d have done better to have taken every other day off and gone to the cinema. I went to the cinema on Friday and, even wiped out as I am, I am suddenly a whole lot more enthusiastic about all of it.

It’s all useful data, though. Next year I’m going back to half and half: writing from full moon to new moon, and doing other things from new moon to full moon. (It’s as good a way as splitting things up as any, and the moon phases are in every engagement diary.) As for what the sun does, well, that’s a different question. All I really know is that I need to be more gentle with myself when there isn’t very much of it. But from tomorrow, we get more. And more, and more, and more.

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.

SOLD BY NOBODY: an unintentional affirmation from a tiny book

Two tiny books: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Church Seasons in Verse by Christina Rossetti, with a penny for scale

In my lunch hour today I went to the British Library and looked at an exhibition of tiny books. (These are not from there; the British Library frowns on people taking photographs in their galleries of precious books. These are the tiniest books that I have in the house.)

Two of the tiny books were by the Brontë children. There was an issue of the Blackwoods Young Men’s Magazine by Charlotte and Branwell. And there was The Search After Happiness by Charlotte, with the following magnificent title page:

THE SEARCH AFTER HAPINESS

A TALE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTE

PRINTED BY HERSELF

AND SOLD BY

NOBODY

Now, that is an attitude I aspire to. Never mind fretting about taking one’s books off Amazon; this is SOLD BY NOBODY and proud of it.

Charlotte Brontë was thirteen when she wrote this. Jane Eyre was several years in the future. Even if she could have foreseen the millions of cheap paperback copies of that, I don’t think she could have dreamt that after a couple of centuries the stories of Angria and Gondal and Gaaldine would have prompted scads of scholarship, books, fanfic, and a small moral panic. And going by this, I’m not sure she’d have cared.

Thank you, tiny book, for a new perspective.

Responding creatively: what I’m not writing

Stained glass window hanging of seven blocks in the colours of the rainbow

When a friend reported that she’d been invited to “respond creatively to Living in Love and Faith“, my immediate response was, “I’m not writing another bloody novel.”

Living in Love and Faith (LLF hereafter), for those who haven’t come across it, is the Church of England’s latest contribution to the LGBT+ debate. I use the word ‘debate’ deliberately: it’s still ongoing and LLF is explicitly a set of resources designed to provoke discussion. My last church (look, you try moving churches during a pandemic; it’s harder than you’d think) did it as a Lent course this year. I didn’t take part due to a combination of the following reasons: a) moving on from that church; b) having led the 20s/30s group through the previous two Lent courses and needing a break; c) having seen it all before.

I wasn’t entirely accurate. I am writing another novel. In fact, I’m writing two. What I meant was I’m not going anywhere near church discourse in either of them.

While I have a vague idea of how the Stancester gang deal with the Covid year(s), I don’t really have a plot to hang that idea off so if I were to write it now it would just be Georgia and Natalie making Frankenstein recordings of the Pergolesi Stabat Mater and Peter worrying about his family in London while Lydia waits for the other shoe to drop. Anyway, Catherine Fox has already done the coronavirus ecclesiastical liveblog novel. More to the point, I just can’t face it. In some ways, The Real World already was a creative response to LLF; I just wrote it before the fact rather than after. (There was a reason it came out on the same day: I thought people might like something different to read. Actually, I’m not sure that was great for sales, particularly after the year we’d all had, but it’s easy to be wise in hindsight. My novels tend to take me a couple of years to write, and I couldn’t have known in 2018 that I’d really need to be releasing something light and fluffy in late 2020.)

At the moment I really don’t feel like doing it again. And at the moment I’m just writing things that I feel like writing, regardless of whether they feel worthy, or how deeply they engage with current affairs. (One of them does, albeit obliquely; the other is set in the early 1920s.)

Moreover, I seem to have no interest in writing in response to any particular call for submissions. Part of that is not wanting to be left with a very specific story with no obvious market beyond the one that’s just turned it down, but that’s not all there is to it: one particular outlet has accepted the last two pieces I submitted, but their current call isn’t generating so much as a spark. (Caveat: if a new, compelling idea attacks me overnight and results in 5000 words by Tuesday I shouldn’t be at all surprised. The thought experiment that goes I’m not writing this, but what would it look like if I did? has always been an effective one for me.)

Anyway, that’s where I am at the moment. I’m not writing another bloody novel; I’m writing two. I’m taking them both very seriously but also doing exactly what I feel like. I’m writing a lot, one sentence at a time, but none of it is engaging creatively with LLF. And you’ll see the results… sometime.

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.

The Real World: a bisexual book, as it turns out

'The Real World' with two pin badges, one reading 'EMBRACE THE POWER OF "AND"' and the other, 'ASSUME NOTHING'

If you’d asked me, say two years ago, what I was writing about, I would have said, Marriage. And academia. And the Church of England. I might have been clever and summed it up as Institutions. Then I might have added, Impossible choices. And Disillusionment. Six months further on, Vocation. And it is true. The Real World is about all of those things.

What I didn’t quite appreciate until a couple of my beta readers remarked on it was how very much it is a bisexual book. I suppose I shouldn’t have been quite so surprised: two things I knew all along were that Colette, the point of view character, is bisexual, and we spend the whole novel inside her head. And this appears to be one of those things where personal experience does help, because it didn’t take too much work to make it feel right. (Unlike some other things in the book.)

It isn’t really about bisexuality – not as a theme, anyway – but there’s plenty of it in there.

There’s the Invisible Bisexual Blogger, who shows up (in this book, anyway) only in the chapter headings. In an early draft she came to Lydia’s birthday party, but I was introducing too many characters there as it was. She serves the same purpose as she did in the first book, where she was in the main narrative rather than the chapter headings: to demonstrate that there are plenty of LGBTQ Christians hiding in plain sight (and possibly feeling somewhat ambivalent about that fact).

There’s the correlation between bisexuality and depression (which is a statistic I myself resemble, yes). There’s the second-guessing and the self-questioning.

There’s the scene with the celebrity ex-vicar. I regret to say that this is only slightly exaggerated from something that I witnessed in real life. I needed that scene in order to explore one possible future for Lydia and Colette. I didn’t have to make the speaker as biphobic as the real one was, didn’t have to push it that bit further to provoke a minor walkout. But it felt truthful. That sense of never being quite sure whether a putatively LGBTQ space is in fact just LG, whether the welcome that has just been extended to you might be withdrawn when you can’t produce a gold star, that’s something I’m very familiar with. It works in the trajectory of the book, too. This is a point where sources of support are dropping away from Colette, and she’s becoming increasingly isolated; this space that’s a source of support for Lydia turns out not to work for Colette at all.

And then, on the flip side of that, there’s the spontaneous little gathering outside the meeting, where the angry bi people come together to rant. My experience of the bi community, online and offline, has been similar: that wonderful holiday from having to explain yourself.

I didn’t set out to write a bi novel. That happened without my knowing. I didn’t have to wrestle with it, the way I had to wrestle with vocation (in and out of the writing). Actually, those aren’t so very far apart. I have a post to write about my experience of vocation as a queerness, but that’s for another day. If someone asked me today what The Real World is about, maybe I’d say, Institutions. And identity.

Badges in the photo above came from Biscuit (‘Embrace the power of ‘And’) and Uncharted Worlds (‘Assume nothing’).