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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
That fizzy, smiling-to-yourself, energy that you get when you have a new crush, and you can’t stop thinking about them, and when you’re with them everything is bright and when you’re not with them you’re thinking about the next time you will be with them, or just thinking about them. That.
This is what happened. That post was 12 January. On 18 January I had an idea. A very hypothetical sort of idea, not the sort that demands to be written. Just a ‘if I were writing this story, this is how I’d do it’ sort of idea. A ‘But even assuming it did work, what was meant to happen next?’ kind of idea. I didn’t do anything about it.
On 2 February (Candlemas, and also the fifth anniversary of the publication of Speak Its Name), some time in the morning, I wrote:
Still not feeling like writing anything [fictional], and feeling OK about that. If something marches in demanding to be written, then I expect I’ll write it, but at the moment it just doesn’t feel particularly relevant.
At about eight o’clock in the evening I was mopping the kitchen floor, and found myself thinking quite seriously about an idea I’ve had floating around in my head for years. Another ‘If I were writing this story, this is how I’d do it’ idea, but one that’s been around for quite a lot longer. It’s an intimidating idea: a historical novel; it would take a lot of research, and I have no idea what the plot would be. Still, there I was, thinking about it.
I had the next three days off, and I think this is important. I’d taken those three days off because I was struggling at work, struggling to get anything done, struggling not to snap, struggling not to cry. I hadn’t expected to ‘get anything done’ during them, because, as I say, I wasn’t writing anything. I was intending to nap, and read, and get my head around who I am this year, and maybe unclog the washbasin in the downstairs loo.
Anyway, I was sitting on the floor sometime in the morning of 4 February, writing in my diary or colouring something in or something like that, and I looked up, and there in my line of sight were all the books – no, a lot of the books; I’d need more – that I’d need to read if I were going to write that intimidating historical idea.
And what seemed immediately apparent was that the Ruritanian novel does not like being my main project. It likes to trundle along in the background while I’m working on the serious project.
Well, fine, I thought. That makes sense. And it seemed to be happy for ‘reading all those books’ to count as ‘working on the serious project’. We can do this.
(Mm. So I’m no longer never writing anything again?)
(You know you never were. But you needed to be in that place in order to rest and recover properly from the last one.)
Then something else happened. That evening, the idea from 18 January came back. Boy, did it come back. It brought with it a setting – not an obvious one, but one that made perfect sense given the themes it would have to work with.
It came in with a fluttering retinue of associated ideas. You could do this. You could do that. And this is how you make this work. And this is how you make that work. She’s called Helen. His cousin lost an arm in the War. It kept prodding me for hours after I’d gone to bed.
On 5 February I had things to do, but I got all those points down. On 6 February I started writing. (I also spent a lot of time cursing and refreshing in order to get Speak Its Name onto Smashwords, so it is now available from more ebook stores.) And the ideas keep unspooling, unfurling. I go for a walk and when I come back a whole new scene has written itself in my head. I get a few lines of that down before it evaporates, or I get distracted by another new scene. I look up at the bookcase and realise that of course his name is Julian. But won’t that be confusing? Oh, but then I could slide in Cherry Ripe, and at least one other person would see why. It’s expanding in all directions, and I’d be scared that I couldn’t keep up with it if I didn’t trust that I’ll be able to catch it all later.
I’d forgotten how much fun this stage of a project can be. I know it’ll get more difficult later, when the initial flow dries up and I have to fill in the gaps. I know that whole chunks of this easy wordery will turn out not to fit and have to come out again. Maybe he can’t be called Julian. Maybe I’ll have to ditch the Cherry Ripe allusion. At this stage, I really don’t care. While it lasts, I’ll enjoy it.
I’m very amused by the timing. I’ve known for a while that I’m a seasonal being, but I hadn’t expected a whole new project to come in with a whoosh immediately after the first day of spring. (I’m aware that much of the country is swathed in snow – just frost here, now – but it seems the increasing daylight has more to do with it than the temperature.) I’m amused, too, by the way that making a deliberate decision to step back, to give myself a break, to spend all January watching the skiing and not beat myself up about it, has resulted in this sudden profusion of new words.
Now I’m taking another break. This does not mean that I am any less smitten with this new beautiful project, just that I have a routine and I’m not going to break it. I may be smiling to myself like a teenager, but I’m thirty-five and I have a better idea of how to keep things going. (So we’ll go no more a-roving/So late into the night.) This is, as they say, a marathon and not a sprint. I could show you my browser history from the last couple of days, and you’d see: the songs, the searches, the Wikipedia pages. Even if I’m not putting words on paper (or in pixels, as the case may be) I’m still reading, listening, watching, around the project, chasing clues, following rabbit-holes, finding a thousand things that remind me of the lovely new thing I’m working on.
I haven’t yet got my act together to buy, let alone read, Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell. I did, however, read it in its previous incarnation as an original work on Archive Of Our Own, so have been following other people’s reviews with interest. Some of them have been ‘loved it when it was The Course of Honour, love it now.’ Some have been: ‘argh! Miscommunication plot! Why don’t they just TALK to each other?’
Myself, I don’t mind a miscommunication plot. Some of them, of course, are just implausible: the classic example is ‘I saw my young lady embracing another man and I am not going to bother wondering whether it might have been her brother, let alone asking her.’ Sometimes it hits my embarrassment squick and I have to give up, but if I can grit my teeth and get through that, and the miscommunication is because of something that actually makes sense, I have no problem with it.
After all, humans are not all that good at communication. We get stuck in our own assumptions. Last year, for example, I discovered that my husband and I had fundamentally different ideas about the ownership of food in the fridge. And we’ve been together since 2005, and living in the same house as each other since 2004. (That was where the problem arose: I was still operating under university housemate rules, in which you don’t eat it if you didn’t buy it; he’d moved on to couple rules, where if it’s in the fridge it’s there for the eating.)
We’d never talked about it, because why would we? We’d never talked about it, because it had never been a problem until we both started eating lunch at home every day of the week. Once we did talk about it – beginning with a hurt ‘YOU ATE MY HAM!’ – we sorted it out fast.
And OK, maybe in some books the miscommunication plot would be more like fifteen years of inadvertent ham theft on one side and martyred ham-buying and deep sighs on the other. (Though even that might make a running gag in a sitcom.) But more often it’s something that nobody involved has ever thought to question, because why would they, until bam! there it is.
Ham is something that you can JUST talk about. But it might be that the issue is too fraught, too painful, for you to even know where to start talking about it. Some people really didn’t like the Doctor Who episode where we discovered that Amy and Rory had broken up because she couldn’t have children because of ‘what they did to me at Demon’s Run’. It was never made clear whether the whole doppelganger memory bending assassin pregnancy business had left her physically infertile, or had just (‘just’) been so traumatic that she had never been able to face the idea of childbirth again. ‘Why didn’t they just TALK about it?’, people demanded. For me, the fact that they never had was one of the most convincing aspects of the whole series.
Writing the sort of books that I write, I’m always a bit worried about someone coming back with a ‘But why don’t they just TALK to each other?’ I ended up hanging a lampshade on it in the last book:
Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling like this? No, sorry, that’s a stupid question, you’ve only just worked it out. Why did you think you weren’t allowed to feel like this?
I’m not going to tell you what ‘it’ is, because it’s not really good practice to spoil one’s own books, but I can assure you that I put the work in to get us all there. This conversation comes on page 292. And it’s not as if nobody’s been talking up until that point, either.
The Course of Honour worked for me. The assumptions that underpinned the miscommunication were plausible, stemming from one protagonist’s history and the other’s genuine attempt to respect that. Sometimes it was painful, often it was frustrating, but it worked. I expect Winter’s Orbit will work for me too, assuming Maxwell hasn’t changed that element significantly.
So for me, no, they don’t have to talk to each other. Not straight away. In fact, a book about a relationship where every problem was immediately sorted by talking to each other would be boring as well as implausible. Because it’s never JUST talking.
But WHY don’t they just talk to each other? Ah, that’s the interesting question. Answer that question to my satisfaction, and I’m happy to spend 320 pages finding out.
There are many, many books that aren’t particularly engaging, and that could really do with a good editor, but shoehorning them all into the hero’s journey format isn’t necessarily going to help. In fact, I think a flat novel can be made more engaging by deepening the characterisation as much as by sharpening the plot.
And then in the replies to the second thread, someone linked this list of alternativestructures, and that ate some more of my day. There are plenty to choose from, even if one is writing an action hero. I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond novels lately, and it’s really striking how adventurous Ian Fleming is in terms of structure. OK, The Spy Who Loved Me is a complete dog’s breakfast in terms of pacing, and you might argue that From Russia With Love starts a bit slow and ends a bit abruptly, but he isn’t afraid to experiment.
Back to inactive protagonists. In at least two of my novels so far I’ve spent most of the book getting my protagonist out of their own head in order for them to appreciate the world around them and make decisions based on what’s really going on rather than what they think is going on. Is that ‘active’? The author of the second thread talks about ‘radical acceptance’, which I think is an important theme in all my books: being who you are, not who you or anyone else thinks you should be. All of my protagonists could be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as inactive. The closet, depression, disillusionment, prejudice and petty politics provide quite enough of a challenge to be going on with. Sometimes they need to become active. Sometimes they need to make their peace with inaction.
And yes, sometimes during the writing process those books felt sloooooowwww. Sometimes I’ve dealt with that by growling at the entity they call the Inner Critic: what do you want, a car chase? Other times I’ve chopped out scenes, characters, chapters. I’ve added bits elsewhere. I’ve rewritten an entire book to come from a different character’s point of view. I’ve taken literal scissors to a manuscript. And the book has been better for it. An inactive protagonist might very well be a valid choice for the story that needs to be told, but that choice doesn’t exempt anyone from editing. (In fairness, I don’t think I saw anyone suggest that it did!)
I’m fascinated by the way that the individual interacts with the system, but writing about that, for me at least, has meant that those individuals have a limited amount of control. As the author, I can pull a certain number of strings, but I can’t reform student Evangelical Christianity/professional cycling/the Church of England/academia through the actions of one character. I can have them make small changes to improve matters locally. (I’ve pulled an ‘And then everybody on the bus clapped!’ precisely once. If I were writing that book now I’m not sure I’d put it in.) Or I can let them step away on their own terms.
Now I’m trying to write a Ruritanian thriller (well, not at the moment, but you know what I mean) and, while I have a good idea of how the thriller beats ought to fall, I’ve been uncomfortably aware that it’s inevitably a bit… condescending? (And I’ve felt like that since before I read Inventing Ruritania.) I want to keep writing it, because it’s fun, and because I love the genre for all its faults. What keeps tripping me up is that the ‘plucky British youngster single-handedly saves the nation of Ruritania’ narrative does not feel truthful. Even throwing in a second plucky British youngster and her Ruritanian partner hasn’t helped a lot. It may be that I’ve worked for a trade union/been a member of the Church of England/followed sports for too long, but I’m very aware of just how many people it keeps to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.
And that, I think, has given me a way in, a way to save this. I’ve ended up with a structure that’s something like a zoetrope: the thriller narrative is broken up by snapshots of the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Spin the cylinder fast enough, and you get a moving picture. The horse gallops. The country keeps on running.
Well, it might work. I’ll keep you posted. When I get back into it.
Incidentally, the consequence of lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) was coming across a thread in which someone was asking for recommendations for Christian fiction, and in which nobody had mentioned me. So I sulked, obviously. But then somebody recced me on another thread, so it all worked out. The moral of the story? It doesn’t really make much difference to the rest of the world whether I’m on Twitter or not, but it’s probably better for my state of mind if I’m not.
If I were to tell you that I’m not writing anything at the moment, it would be an evident falsehood. I mean, here I am, tapping away, writing a post. I spent the afternoon writing things for work. And even when I’ve finished this post I’ll move on to the short story I’m trying to finish for an end of January deadline.
I’m not even not writing a book. Technically.
I have the Ruritanian thing, but that’s something I’m writing for fun, and when it stops being fun I stop writing it. I also stop writing it when real politics makes fictional politics feel either too depressing or too frivolous to write about. There are days when I think I can subvert the trope of the plucky English adventurer fixing other people’s countries, and there are days when it seems too far gone even to be subverted. I think I’ve worked out a way around that, but at present I don’t have the motivation for the plotting and planning and Post-It manoeuvres that it would need. I’ve written about 5000 words on it since Christmas. It’ll get done when it gets done, and if I’m happy with it I’ll publish it.
I have a couple of other semi-active projects – one on writing while keeping the day job, and one very specific and experimental anthology.
I know what comes next for Stancester, but I’m not starting on that for reasons including: a) I don’t know how it finishes; b) it feels a bit heavy; c) [monster story about how everyone who liked the first two will hate it because it won’t be lesfic]; d) I’ve only just been there.
So I’m not not writing, at all. But I am consciously playing with the idea of not writing, of seeing who I am when I’m not writing. I’m playing with the idea of being enough, of being sufficient, when I’m flopped on the sofa watching the skiing, when I’ve slept through my alarm, when I’m writing three words in half an hour, when I’m not writing anything at all. In these times when doing nothing has become the virtue that perhaps it always should have been, I’m giving myself a bit of space, and resisting the temptation to fill that space with work or guilt. Or trying to, anyway.
Perhaps what I really mean is that I’m writing when I feel like it, and writing what I feel like, and giving myself a break from the associated hustle. I am stepping away from Twitter, which (for me) seems to be the highway to fruitless rage and depression. I am dropping my expectations of when the next book will be finished and what it will be. I am going to stop chasing reviews. I might write nothing but short stories. I might write nothing at all. I might abandon the Ruritanian thing entirely, or I might get it out in time for Christmas. I might post here less, or I might post here more. You never know.