About this blog

This is a window into the weird world of Anglicanism, as experienced on a Cathedral Close. Has anything much happened since Trollope's Barchester Chronicles? You will still see the 'canon in residence' hurrying across to choral Evensong, robes flapping, as the late bell chimes. But look carefully and you will notice he is checking the football score on his iPhone as he runs. This is also a writer's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the novelist's life. And it's a fighter's blog. It charts the agony and ecstasy of the judo mat. Well, the agony, anyway.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

SPCK to publish Acts and Omissions


And right before Christmas, some lovely news: SPCK will be publishing Acts and Omissions next August.  They will also be reissuing Angels and Men at the same time.  This cheers the heart of a novelist.  We don’t like our books to be out of print and only available second-hand for 1p on Amazon.  SPCK will be publishing the sequel to Acts and Omissions as well, which I plan to blog between Easter and Advent of next year, in slightly longer weekly instalments.  Look out for a new blog called UNSEEN THINGS ABOVE.

But why SPCK, you might be wondering?  Don’t they publish Bible commentaries, important scholarly works by retired archbishops, and the complete works of Tom Wright?  This is true.  But they are launching a new Fiction List.  I didn’t know this in August of this year, when I was on stage at the Greenbelt Festival with my colleague Gregory Norminton from Manchester Metropolitan University (where we both teach), moaning about the state of publishing.  Sorry, we were ‘in dialogue’ about the state of publishing.  We both read from our most recent books; Gregory from a collection of short stories about climate change, Beacons (available here: http://www.gregorynorminton.co.uk/beacons/) and me from Acts and Omissions.  The full version of what was said and read on that occasion is available here: http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/media/talks/21534-catherine-fox-gregory-norminton/

In the question time at the end I explained that I wasn’t making any money from blogging Acts and Omissions.  Anyone could read it for free.  ‘It’s an act of love,’ I said (or something like that), ‘but if there are any publishers out there…’  And we all laughed.  But afterwards I was approached by SPCK’s senior editor, Alison Barr.  And we took it from there.

I just looked back to the post I wrote on this blog a year ago, talking about my New Year’s resolution to blog a novel in weekly instalments during 2013.  You may refresh your memory here if you like: http://catherine-fox.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/new-years-resolution.html  What I didn’t say was that right up to the point of writing that post, I was dithering.  Was this a good idea?  Was I squandering good novel material and wasting my chance of writing my Big Important Novel about the C of E?  I can remember sitting in Liverpool cathedral and looking up at the sunlight coming through the big east window.  I must be mad.  I’ll just be giving this away for nothing.  Oh well.

But then I found myself thinking, Wouldn't it be funny if this turns out to be the breakthrough?



Monday, 2 December 2013

WOLF TIDE

Huge excitement!  I've got a new novel out.  Please admire the cover:


Is that big enough?  Yes, I think that will do.  This is my first venture into Young Adult fantasy, and I have to tell you, after years of breaking my heart trying to write a Big Important Novel about the state of the Church of England, I had a blast with this.  I suspect that at one remove I was still writing about the Church of England.  You can take the gal out of the cathedral...

Now, you might think you don't like fantasy, but I bet you'll like this.  G'wan, g'wan, g'wan.  Give it a go.  If you read it carefully and manage not to drop it in the bath, you can always wrap it up after you've finished it and give it to a godchild for Christmas.  It has flying girl detectives, sinister fairies and horsemen in thigh boots.  Something for everyone, really.  Here's where to get a copy (real book or Kindle):
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1490904581

And for more background on teh book itself, visit my new Wolf Tide blog here: http://wolftide.blogspot.co.uk/

Monday, 14 October 2013

Cliché Watch


I offer you this little list, coyly batting my jet black eyelashes, like a butterfly.  Like a  coy butterfly fluttering on a summer breeze.  Coyly, with my heart pumping.  In my jet black lashy pumpy way.

Things creative writers might want to avoid: 

Face/hair
Emerald/piercing green eyes
Cold grey eyes
Raven/jet black hair/locks
Unruly mops of hair
Unruly wisps of hair (especially if pushed back/tucked behind ear)
Rueful smiles
Lean/chiselled features
Dimpled chins
Pouting
Red lips (especially if parted breathlessly)

Physique
Long slim legs (female)
Broad shoulders (male)
Loose-limbed athletic form (male, especially if trousers/jeans hang from hips)
Curvaceous body (female, especially if seen through flimsy nightgown)

Redundancies
‘She thought to herself’
Murmuring softly
Any expletives shouted angrily

Actions
Catching sight of self in mirror/reflective surface in order to describe appearance to reader
Staring unseeingly
Peeping up at people through lashes
Eye rolling/narrowing/glinting/flashing
Excessive eyebrow raising/arching/quirking (especially if done quizzically)
Swallowing lumps in throat
Head/hair tossing
Choking back tears
Small muscles convulsing in cheek/jaw
Overuse of gastric activity to convey fear/panic/foreboding
Excessive shrugging/smirking during dialogue
Repeated nostril flaring and/or lip twitching
Gritting of teeth

Weather and The Natural World
Anything shrouded in mist
Trees with gnarled bark
Generic smells/aromas wafting
Generic trees rustling in the breeze (NB accidental  rhyme)
Unnamed birds chirping/twittering, (especially in green meadows/dark forests)
Copious amounts of anything

Sunday, 1 September 2013

CHAPTER 33

Chapter 33 ready and waiting here: http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

SERIES CATCH-UP

People have been moaning to me that it's a bit of a faff scrolling back through the archives to try and read Acts and Omissions in the right order.  I hear your pain.  And because I am as nice and helpful as Susanna Henderson herself, I've collected the lot and put them in a new blog:

If you're lucky, I may bake you some muffins as well.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

CHAPTER 29

I've spent a week wrestling with safeguarding policies, and trying to work out how my cast of characters would react to the situation I'd left them in at the end of Chapter 28.  You can read the answer over on my ACTS AND OMISSIONS blog: http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Sunday, 28 July 2013

CHAPTER 28

Heatwave in the Diocese of Lindchester.  After a two week break we are reunited with our friends over on my other blog: http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Monthly Instalments

Just before I went on holiday, a friend asked me whether I had a version of Acts and Omissions that was one entire document, rather than lots of itty-bitty annoying instalments that appear in reverse order on the blog.  (She phrased it more politely.)  What she wanted was the chance to upload it all onto her Kindle and read it on holiday.

The answer was 'No'.  But I do appreciate that unless you joined the programme in January, and have remained a loyal weekly reader, the obstacles in the path of reading Acts and Omissions are now considerable.  With this in mind, I have collected the instalments into monthly batches and posted these over on the other blog: http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Hope this helps.  Can't quite believe that we've reached the halfway point.  Thanks for your company, and all the comments you've left, as well as the banter on Twitter.  What I'm hoping, of course, is that before the year is up, this blog will have attracted the attention of a publisher.  If you are a publisher, Yoohoo!  Over here!

Monday, 24 June 2013

CHAPTER 25

Chapter 25 ready for you over on the novel blog.  This week, embarrassing revelations about the contents of the bishop's suit pocket, and naughty goings-on in the new curate's house.
http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Sound Track to Chapter 24

This week's backing track is hard core cathedral repertoire, I'm afraid.  The precentor is preparing for the big service to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the queen's coronation.  The old musical warhorses are wheeled out on these occasions.  In fact, I'm convinced that the following scenario plays out every time:
CHOIR: I was GLA-A-A-AD!
ROYAL VISITOR (thinks): Oh bloody hell.

I'm just teetering on the brink, after some 8 years moving in cathedral circles, of getting fed up with this Parry anthem.  Here's a version of it, with the vivats, (that's real cathedral techie language, that):

The thing you need to understand about Parry is that we are allowed to like him.  This is not true of Handel or Rutter.  Basically, the more you instinctively warm to a piece of choral music, the less likely you are to be allowed to think it's brilliant.  

And then there's the other Herbert Parry warhorse, Jerusalem, lyrics by William Blake.  Now this one I am sick of, so here's a guitar version:

And next up is Handel's 'Zadok the Priest', a coronation anthem for George III.  This is often sung with  more welly (technical musical term for you there) than accuracy, but here's a brilliant and controlled rendition for you from the King's Consort and Choir:

And finally, possibly my least favourite hymn of all, 'I vow to thee my country'.  I've completely given up on singing the first verse, as I cannot find a way of finessing the meaning in my mind into something I feel happy with.  I see no evidence that the scriptures promote a love 'that asks no questions'.  ('How can this be, seeing I know not a man?')  It's a nice enough tune, I grant you.  Did you know there's a middle verse that's been suppressed?  Here it is:
I heard my country calling, away across the sea,
Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.
Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,
And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.
I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,
I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.
Here's a version which seems to be sung by Americans, just so that we can appreciate the shining bounds increasing:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaYsapDNrFw
And finally, here's a way out of the hideous Slane 3/4 versus 4/4 argument.  But I dare say we aren't allowed to like it:  
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMEAlzuEXWI

Sunday, 9 June 2013

CHAPTER 23--The Martial Arts Background

No music for you this week.  Instead, a bit of martial arts.  I have not yet revealed to my readers that Freddie is a karate black belt.  It was hinted at last week, when he remembers his dad telling him not to be 'a girl' at gradings and contests.  

In this week's chapter when he is attacked, Freddie switches into automatic, and defends himself.  Obviously, I have a duty as a writer to make my dialogue authentic.  I don't want to use Freddie's speech as a Trojan horse to sneak up on my poor readers and dump masses of Japanese terminology on them.  (Especially as Freddie is off his face, and struggling to speak coherent English.)  But, of course, I know what went on, because I've done my research.  And the good thing about this blog is that I can show off the 7/8ths of the iceberg the reader wouldn't normally see.  Honestly, we writers are so self-effacing.  We try to wear our research lightly at all times.

And so, for the curious, here are the techniques he used.  The first--the knee buster--is sokuto fumikomi (stamping kick to the knee), and is one of the first techniques you learn when you take up karate.  Here it is being demonstrated very carefully.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsVzHOQ_NU8

I was pretty rubbish at it.  But that was true of all my karate moves, to be honest.  If I were to try it on someone tomorrow, they would probably say, 'Are you all right?' because I would have fallen over.  But used correctly and at speed, it is capable of doing exactly what Freddie says: busting someone's knee.

The second technique Freddie uses is a block, I'm going to say soto uke (outer block).  This is because the second attacker is trying to punch him in the face.    The block knocks the attacker's hand out of the way before the blow lands.  Here's more than you probably want to know about soto uke

And finally he turns and deploys mawashi geri jodan, which I'm guessing was his signature technique, the one he used to win contests with.  Jodan, I'm sorry to tell you, basically means 'to the head'.  So this is a roundhouse kick to the head, and that's why Freddie is feeling sick with dread the following day about the kind of damage he may have inflicted on his assailant.  Here, in rather too much mathematical detail, is why he has good reason to be scared: 

In contests and training, you are not making full contact with your opponent.  You are not supposed to unleash the full mathematical potential of your strikes.   If you are attacked in the street, the best martial arts advice is still: run away if you possibly can.  If not, fight back, then run away of you possibly can. If you use what are essentially designed as disabling and killing techniques indiscriminately and without control to teach your attacker a lesson, then it stops being self defence.

So to sum up my martial arts advice for the week:

And finally, here's the Lara Croft picture Jane sent to the archdeacon:

Sunday, 2 June 2013

CHAPTER 22--THE MUSIC LIST

Here's where to find Chapter 22:
The music to go with this week's instalment begins with one of my favourite choral pieces.  I first heard it in Durham cathedral when I was an undergraduate: 'Jesus Christ the apple tree.'  Fr Wendy sings a verse of it as she sits under a crab apple tree.  Poor old Wendy.  She's one of those countless thousands who think they can't sing, because someone poked them in the back when they were children and told them they were out of tune.  My mother (who sings very nicely, though she doesn't believe it) can remember vividly that poking moment, and the teacher saying: 'Shut up, you: you're growling.'  Never, ever tell a child they can't sing, even if they can't.  Most will get the hang of it later, but if you poke them, you'll snuff out a bright light for the rest of their life.  

Here's the song for you, sung with beautifully rolled Rs in the Anglican manner, by the choir of King's College, Cambridge.  I looked in vain for a version by Durham cathedral choir.  Sort it out, please, Mr Precentor.

The next musical reference is Jane's dystopian vision of a world run by 'the aggressive homosexual community' forcing people to participate in Sound of Music Sing-alongs.  It's quite a big thing, this.  Check  it out for yourselves here:

And apart from a fleeting reference to this again (mwa ha ha!)

that's about it for this week, other than St Patrick's Breastplate, which is the tune to the Trinity Sunday hymn, 'I Bind unto Myself Today'.

This is a hymn with a long history rooted in the stories of St Patrick.  Here's part of it, given a haunting twist, by composer Arvo Part.  I play this when I'm besieged by panic or misery, as many writers are from time to time, I'm afraid. 'The Deer's Cry':


Sunday, 26 May 2013

CHAPTER 21--The Backing Tracks

A little Pentecost treat for you, over on my other blog: http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

And here's this week's backing track.  I'd love to be able to provide a link to something by the Dorian Singers, but as I made them up, this is not possible.  I mention a couple of highbrow pieces in passing.  The cathedral organist was practising Durufle's Choral Varie Veni Creator Spiritus late at night, ready for Pentecost.  Here it is, played here suitably Frenchly:

Meanwhile, Lindchester cathedral choir were busy with that week's setting of the Mass, Missa bell amfitrit altera.  Lovely bit of Lassus for you:

I decided on these two pieces after a spot of internet research: I snooped about in the music lists of a few  medieval Anglican cathedrals.  Liverpool cathedral is sui generis.  What happens here is no real guide for what would be happening in Lindchester.

So those are your solid bits of cathedral repertoire.  And now the fun starts.  I also refer to this (mwa ha ha!):

And it doesn't stop there, because I also mention 'Slane'.  This is the tune that goes to the hymn 'Be thou my vision'; a hymn containing one of the must baffling lines known to the church: 'be all else but naught to me save that thou art.'  It could use a little footnote, like the one which explains the 'mystic rose' reference in another hymn.  The footnote might say, 'Let anything else be as nothing to me, provided you aren't (as nothing to me).'

Here is 'Slane' sung 'properly': http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hs3xg

And here it is, RUINED, RUINED I TELL YOU: http://vimeo.com/11157836

Those evil evangelicals!  They've only gone and switched the time signature from 3/4 to 4/4.  Be very afraid!  This is the music to which the horsemen of the Apocalypse will come cantering through our cathedrals, trampling vestments underfoot and making us all worship with guitars.  You see the problem?  No, nor do I.  Load of cobblers.  I swing both ways when it comes to Slane.  We had the 4/4 version in Liverpool cathedral at the wedding of the bishop's daughter only the week before last and the building is still standing.

And now, just to calm us all down, this is the Wesley hymn 'O thou who camest from above', the last verse of which Dominic finds himself thinking about at the end of this week's chapter.  It is sung in the traditional cathedral manner, with the organ half a bar ahead of the congregation.  Enjoy: 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T1NLdF1L6-8


Monday, 20 May 2013

CAST LIST


Just in case you’ve been getting as confused as I have, here’s a cast list (in no helpful order, I'm afraid) for ACTS & OMISSIONS so far:

Fr Dominic Todd (53, Vicar of St John the Evangelist, Renfold)
Dr Jane Rossiter (51, Lecturer at University of Lindford)
Danny Rossiter (19, Jane’s son, on Gap Year in NZ)
Mickey Martin (Danny’s Kiwi father)
Sal (Mickey’s partner)
Rt Rev Paul Henderson (58, Bishop of Lindchester, ‘Mary Poppins’)
Susanna Henderson (56, his wife, ‘Pollyanna’)
The Very Rev Marion Randall (54, Dean of Lindchester, ‘Maid Marion’)
Gene (dean’s husband, wine merchant from SA, widower, 3 sons)
Linda (dean’s PA)
Freddie May (22, bishop’s driver, former chorister)
Miss Barbara Blatherwick (Close resident, former matron of chorister school)
Rev Canon Giles Littlechild (precentor)
Ulrika Littlechild (his wife, voice coach)
Lukas (18) Felix (16) Littlechild (their sons)
Penelope (bishop’s PA)
Most Rev Dr Michael Palgrove (archbishop of Canterbury)
Rosemary (his wife)
Rev Martin Rogers (bishop’s chaplain)
Becky Rogers (his estranged wife)
Leah (8) Jessica (6) Rogers (their daughters)
Prof Bleakley (Jane’s HOD)
Dr Elspeth Quilter (colleague of Jane’s)
Simeon E Dacre (poet, CW lecturer, colleague of Jane’s, ‘Spider’)
Rev Canon Dr Mark Lawson (canon chancellor, ‘Mr Happy’)
Miriam Lawson (his wife)
Rev Canon Philip Voysey-Scott (canon treasurer)
Pippa (his wife)
John ‘the Bastard’ (former cathedral employee, took dean to employment tribunal and lost)
Amadeus (cathedral cat)
Rev ‘Father’ Wendy Styles (vicar of group of rural parishes, incl Cardingforth, All Saints’ Carding-le-Willow)
Doug Styles (her husband, teacher)
Laura Styles (daughter, killed in car accident 13 years ago, they also have 2 sons)
Poppy Styles (their granddaughter)
Lulu (Wendy’s chocolate Labrador)
Lucy (woman who ran Laura over)
Timothy Gladwin (39, Director of Music at cathedral)
Sir Gregory Laird (former cathedral organist and choirmaster)
Iona (sub-organist with a dragon tattoo)
June (Miss Blatherwick’s successor, matron at chorister school)
Laurence (cathedral organist)
Thomas Greatrix (head chorister)
Gavin (deputy verger at cathedral)
Mr Crowther (head teacher of Cardingforth Primary)
Rt Rev Charles De La Haye (retired bishop who leads triduum)
Rt Rev Robert Hooty (62, suffragan Bishop of Barcup)
Janet Hooty (midwife, his wife)
Mr Hoban (chorister school bursar)
The Ven Matt Tyler (48, archdeacon of Lindchester, ‘Matt the Knife’/’Voldemort’)
Geoff and Pauline (churchwardens of Lindford Parish Church)

Sunday, 19 May 2013

CHAPTER 20

This week I spent quite a lot of time in what felt like a displacement activity: trying to decide what Freddie would sing as his solo piece for his audition for Barchester.  I lingered over various English art songs that might showcase a tenor voice (Quilter's 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal', Vaughan Williams' 'Silent Noon'), then moved on to more churchy things.  

Finally, because time was getting short, I plumped for 'Angels, waft her through the skies', a tenor aria from Handel's Jephtha.  It wasn't until I started writing this section that I realised how well it worked with Ascension Day.  Sometimes the subconscious is ahead of the game: 'Glorious there like you to rise, there like you forever reign'.  

You can listen to it here, sung by Mark Padmore: 

Freddie maintains to the bishop's PA that he's planning to sing the 'Queen of the Night' aria from Mozart's Magic Flute.  This would be an unconventional choice, to say the least.  He claims he used to sing it as a chorister, and this is just about possible.  Here's a boy soprano giving it a whirl:

Eek!  And now, quickly, to take away the effect, here is Ian Bostridge singing 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal':

Monday, 13 May 2013

CHAPTER 19

There are some weeks when writing a blogged novel feels a bit like trying to start a train.  Each week there's one more carriage to drag along after you.  It can take a while to get things moving.  The secret, I suppose, is to uncouple some and park them in a siding for a few weeks.  I can't advance every mini plot line every single chapter.  But I can't leave things for too long either, or the tension dissipates.  

Not that this is proving to be a terrible tense affair.  It feels more like a gentle comedy of Anglican manners. The surprises are usually small ones.  I keep being surprised.  I had no idea what the archdeacon was like until I saw him hang his pork pie hat on the stair knob in the empty vicarage.  It all grew out of that moment.  

I had distinct plans for the archdeacon in Chapter 19, but they came to nothing.  The chapter was going to end completely differently. Here: http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/ In fact, I'd written most of it, but it just wasn't working, so late on Sunday afternoon I deleted it.  We ended up with Fr Dominic remembering his Primary School swimming lessons instead, which I was not expecting.  I was just trying to invent something for him to do on his day off, and came up with bluebell woods.  Which made me remember my own trips to Deer Leap Open Air Swimming Pool in the early 70s.  A trip down memory lane courtesy of google. http://deerleap.ning.com/

Not quite knowing what's going to happen is one of the great pleasures of writing.  It is also one of the biggest stresses.  What if it all falls apart in my hands?

Sunday, 5 May 2013

CHAPTER 18

For your delectation, an entirely new character.  Meet him over on my other blog, in my serialised novel Acts and Omissions.  The Venerable Matt Tyler, Archdeacon of Lindchester.  I hope you like him, because I invented him specially for you.  Perhaps you can tell me what make of car he drives?  http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Sunday, 28 April 2013

CHAPTER 17

Men and Women in Marriage.  What they made of the Faith and Order Commission's report in the Diocese of Lindchester.  And a spot of creative lawn-mowing.  http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Sunday, 14 April 2013

CHAPTER 15

This week's chapter was partly crowd-sourced.  I'd like to record my gratitude to those people on Twitter who told me whether the celandines were out in their part of the country, whether they'd heard any chiffchaffs or willow warblers yet, or if the larks were singing round their way.  This is really helpful, because I'm not routinely walking past Lindchester-style English hedgerows here in Liverpool.

The other thing I canvassed opinion about was what type of tattoos Freddie May has.  Obviously, I had my own ideas already, but I wanted them endorsed.  One person told me he'd have 'Celtic circlet around the bicep' and that she wasn't guessing, she knew.  I found that rather gratifying.  It means that Freddie has become a 'real person' to that reader.  (Ha, bet you'd care if I threw him off the palace roof, now, wouldn't you?)  In this process I also learnt a very rude German word for 'lower back tattoo' ('Arschgeweih': 'arse antlers').  You can read what I decided on for Freddie here (she was nearly right with the Celtic tattoo): http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

In the past Twitter told me what kind of vestments Father Wendy would wear when I enquired, which was also extremely welcome.  What is much less welcome is nitpicking feedback after I've uploaded a chapter.  I'm inclined to flounce, and mutter Write it yourself then, if you're so clever.  But then I go back and make corrections in the dead of night, and never once admit I was wrong.  So I am grateful, really.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Saturday, 23 February 2013

A Word at a Time

Each week I have a small panic about this novel.  I have no idea what happens next!  But as you can see, each week I manage to produce another chapter.    The other day a vicar asked me how on earth I managed to do it.  'The way you manage to write a sermon,' I replied.  'But what if you can't think of anything?' he said.  Then he answered his own question: 'You do, because you've got to.'  The deadline, the event, is what ensures you deliver the goods.

It could be that by writing a weekly column for the Church of England Newspaper for the last two hundred years, I have trained myself to write episodically.  This method of blogging a novel now suits my skills.  So I'm familiar with the panic.  I have no idea what happens next!  The solution is: choose something.  Anything.  Write a bit, and see where it goes.  I'm helped by having a skeleton.  When all else fails, I can check what's happening in the church calendar.  Epiphany.  Candlemas.  There are also the events of the last week to ransack (the pope resigns!).  But most important of all, there are my characters.  What are they up to?  Where did I leave them, and what, logically, will they do next.  By that I don't mean they all act rationally or predictably.  Clearly they don't.  But their actions are acquiring their own inner logic.  Freddie behaves like this because of that.  Martin responds like that because of this.  And once they have both done the logical thing, certain other courses of action become more or less likely.  I am writing to catch up with them, really.

Writing is always a matter of making choices.  This word, not that.  This scene with these characters, not another scene with different characters.  All the time you are closing down one set of possibilities by opening another.  Or at any rate, this is what you are doing when you blog a novel a chapter at a time.  I can't go back and make Jane twenty years younger, or decide that the dean is a man after all.  The big anxiety is that, one word at a time, I am painting myself into a corner.  At that point I shall simply say, And then we all woke up, and behold, it was just a dream!

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Classical Unities

In writing Acts & Omissions I have hedged myself about with various kinds of restrictions.  The obvious ones are the word length: 2000 words (give or take); and the weekly deadline.  This has been the first week when the latter has felt oppressive.  The new chapter is normally written by Friday.  I spend Saturday tweaking it, then copying it into blogger, tweaking it again and then discovering I've somehow bollocksed up the formatting.  This is why the occasional rogue paragraph appears in the wrong font size.  This week has been busy though.  On Monday I went to London to see the making of the new archbishop ceremony at St Paul's.  (New word: 'porrect'.)  And then on Wednesday and Thursday I was in Durham staying with an old friend while the dean was on a deaning conference.  As a result I've spent today neglecting the housework and busily writing.  I believe we're back on track now.  

I have set myself other limits, too.  Rather brilliantly (and quite by accident) these are a loose version of the three classical unities of time, space and action in Greek drama; something I learned about as an undergraduate, dimly remember, and which you may look up for yourselves:

In Acts & Omissions I respect the unity of time in that the novel takes place in the calender year of 2013; the unity of space, in that the novel takes place within the boundaries of the fictional (you will remember this, won't you?) Diocese of Lindchester; and the unity of action, in that the novel is confined to one major plot strand, which I'm not going to divulge because it will ruin the suspense.  

And because I haven't quite decided yet.


Monday, 4 February 2013

CHAPTER 5

Over on my other blog it's septuagesima:

http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The Writer as Magpie

We return in this post to one of the questions writers can count on being asked at public readings:   Where do you get your ideas from?  

Answer: we steal them.  Oho yes!  Never approach a novelist and say you have a brilliant idea for a novel.  Either you haven't, and they will get bored and testy; or you have, and they will pinch it.  Usually our thievery is opportunistic.  Like magpies we pounce on any nice sparkly bit of wit we spot.  We snap up shiny new anecdotes.  There's an example in Chapter 4 of Acts and Omissions.  When I am describing the cathedral chapter clergy I say that the 'the charism of grumpiness has been bestowed on the canon chancellor.'  A line I stole with subtle daring, from Wing Commander Maurice Baring!  Or rather, from Rev Canon Wealands Bell, precentor at Lichfield cathedral.  I rebuked him on Twitter for being grumpy, and he replied that 'grumpiness isn't a sin, it's a charism'.  That's brilliant: I'll have that, I thought.  If Mr Bell wishes to write his own novel and pinch things I've tweeted, I would be honoured.

Keep the gems of your life story out of sight when there's a novelist in the room.  Novelists vary in rapacity and heartlessness.  I am at the tender end of the spectrum.  I don't want to hurt people's feelings.  I have scruples about ransacking other people's biography to furnish my fiction.  So if I am basing my story on something I know to be real, I try to spare people's feelings (or cover my tracks) by changing things like age, gender, hair colour, setting, and so on.  Even so, I am occasionally terrified I have stayed too close to the source of my inspiration and people will spot themselves.  They never do.  They spot other people, and they are always wrong.  

I feel entirely free to ransack my own experience, of course.  If you're reading Acts & Omissions you will have spotted that my character Jane has a son who has just gone off to New Zealand on his Gap Year.  If you follow me on Twitter (@FictionFox) you'll know my younger son has just gone to Australia.  Jane is not me, but I am using some of my own feelings and giving them to her, having herded them through the sheepdip of the fictionalising process.

The other thing I'm doing in Acts & Omissions is weaving into my fictional world some of the events currently unfolding in the real world.  Obviously, I'm editing them to fit.  I have opted for a parallel universe in which Justin Welby was not chosen as the next archbishop of Canterbury.  Instead I've imagined that the selection panel did what the media were speculating they might do: cautiously choose a long-serving bishop with many years of experience.  And because I don't want John Sentamu to come over to Liverpool and shout at me, I've invented a wholly imaginary archbishop of York.

But there are other ideas, ones we have little control over.  We cannot invent them.  They come up from the subconscious and they are the real MacCoy.  All writers can do is patiently put themselves in the way of receiving them, and wait.  Annie Dillard puts it better than I ever could:

At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace.  It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.  You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then—and only then—it is handed to you.  From the corner of your eye you see motion.  Something is moving through the air and headed your way.  It is a parcel bound in ribbons and bows; it has two white wings.  It flies directly at you; you can read your name on it. [Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p75]




Saturday, 26 January 2013

Write What You Know

Write what you know.  That's what they tell you.  I suppose that what this boils down to is, either write out of your experience, or do some research.  Some writers adore research.  They love mooching about libraries or googling the bejasus out of things.  Researching means you can put off the evil day when you actually have to start writing the novel.  I am not one of those writers.  I spent seven years grubbing about in 17th century Quaker pamphlets trying to write a doctorate.  That's quite enough research for one lifetime, thank you very much.

So I'm a write-out-of-experience type of novelist.  And what I have a lot of experience of is the C of E.  But there's an even more important advice to bear in mind: avoid libel writs. This is where the research-heavy historical novel is a safer bet.  I could write whatever fictional nonsense I liked about James Naylor  or George Fox without getting sued, because they are long dead.  But writing about the C of E is a little more fraught.  

My best strategy is to assert loudly that I am writing FICTION.  Acts and Omissions is set in the FICTIONAL diocese of Lindchester.  Look it up: there's no such place.  But if I were to populate my 'fictional' diocese with thumbnail sketches of thinly disguised and easily identifiable bishops and canons, I might still fall foul of our country's fearsome libel laws.  So I make as sure as I can that my characters are COMPLETELY MADE UP, yet at the same time, very realistic.  I'm well aware that many readers will assume I'm lying, and that I'm actually writing a roman a clef.  (That's 'a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction', to save you the bother of googling it.) 

What can I say, other than I'm really honestly not doing that?  I take great pains to avoid any obvious similarities to real people.  For example, the precentor in my cathedral is called Giles Littlechild.  He's a character I've had ready and waiting since about 1986.  I first encountered him (in my head) before he was ordained, even; but have never used him in a novel.  Until very recently he was called Miles Littlechild.  But then we moved to Liverpool, and what do I find?  We have a precentor called Myles.  So despite the fact that my wholly imaginary precentor is nothing like my very lovely neighbour, I have changed his name.

What I really dread, of course, is that I accidentally hit upon something true which reads like some shocking revelation by an author writing what she knows.  From all such mishaps, Good Lord, deliver us.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

CHAPTER 3

Over on my other blog, hot off the press, Chapter 3 of Acts and Omissions.  http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

No bishops were harmed in the writing of this piece. 

Friday, 18 January 2013

Dual-Citizenship and the Novelist

When a writing project is going well, the novelist lives in two places at once: the world of the novel and the so-called real world.  Sometimes the veil which separates these two realms all but vanishes.  You start seeing your characters on the street.  You hold conversations with them while you are on the train to work.  It's as well to have your mobile phone out at these times, so that the people in seats nearby can reassure themselves that you're just another idiot conducting their private life a bit too loud and publicly, rather than a weirdo.

So at the moment I have dual-citizenship.  I divide my time between Liverpool and Lindchester.  With forays into Manchester to convey to my students the thrill of writing, of course.

I'd have to say, 2000 a week is not enough to do justice to Lindchester Diocese.  Still, it's probably true that the art of good storytelling is basically the art of leaving stuff out.  The word length constraint means that I can't include every character every week.  Last week, for example, we saw nothing of Jane Rossiter.  She makes a reappearance this week.  But we will see nothing of Miss Blatherwick or the precentor.  You will be meeting the bishop and his wife; but I still have the dean and the rest of the cathedral community waiting in the wings.  To say nothing of the diocesan staff.  Oh Lord.  And so far I've only got one parish priest, Fr Dominic.  The tale is top-heavy.  It spends its time toadying to the Close, not showing you the coalface of parish life.

In a way this is inevitable.  I've been moving in cathedral circles for the last seven years.  The rhythms of parish life are no longer in my veins.  Someone tweeted me helpfully to point out that Dominic ought to be fretting about the new electoral roll.  Of course!  I hope you will continue to alert me to this kind of thing.

But on the other hand, does it matter if this narrative spend most of its time up on the hill?  Again, it's a question of leaving stuff out.  We aim, as dutiful novelists, to leave out all the stuff that's not actually part of the novel.  I suspect the main characters will turn out to live in the Close.  Another consideration is that novels tend to concern themselves with crises and tension, with the mucky bits of the human heart and human relationships.  This is why on New Year's Eve I show you the drunk priest slandering his bishop, not the other hundred holding Watchnight Services, or tucked up in bed and getting woken by fireworks after two hours of chaste sleep.  I wish them well, but I'm not that interested in writing about them; or you, I bet, in reading about them.

The other thing I'm keeping my eye on is the amount of dialogue.  Personally, I love dialogue.  I love reading it, I love writing it.  But it's a bit greedy of words when words are limited.  I've been making extensive use of authorial summary, telling not showing.  (GASP!  Look away, creative writing students, or you'll pick up bad habits.)  This allows me to convey great chunks of information economically in highly condensed form.  I am supposed to let the reader work things out by drip-feeding information obliquely, and by many cunning sleights of hand to absent myself from the page and create the impression that I'm not actually writing the novel at all.  But bollocks to that.  Tell not show, that's my watchword.  

Where was I?  Ah yes: we do need a bit of dialogue to leaven the lumpen prose.  I've attended to that in Chapter 3, which I will unveil for your greater edification at 7pm this Sunday.


Sunday, 13 January 2013

Chapter 2

Meanwhile, over on the other channel, here's what's been going on in Lindchester this last week.  http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Any resemblance to bishops living or dead is all in your fevered imagination.  I'm making this stuff up.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Writing about Writing

Never trust the teller, trust the tale.  That's what D.H.Lawrence said.  Well, that makes a bit of a nonsense of the premise of this blog, because I intend to tell you all about the tale I'm telling over on my other blog http://catherine-fox-novel.blogspot.co.uk/

Last Sunday was curiously exhilarating.  I sat in Liverpool cathedral staring up at the great east window during the 10.30 Eucharist, and I wondered whether I'd look back on this as the key that unlocked this wretched novel I've been wrestling with for about 8 years.  Perhaps, like a bluebottle finally despairing over ever getting through that closed French window by banging into it repeatedly, I will turn around and find an open door behind me.

The first Chapter went live at 7pm that night.  It was ready well in advance.  This, I suspect, will not be true in the months to come, when I will still desperately be trying to crank out the last 500 words at 10pm.  I'm thinking about it a lot.  Obsessively.  When you are thoroughly in the grip of a writing project it's a bit like a secret love affair.  If not otherwise occupied, your thoughts stray to the beloved.  So when people say 'Oh, you must be very disciplined to write!' they could not be more wrong.  I have to exert huge self control not to spend my whole time in Lindchester.

I ended with a cliffhanger last week.  A cheap trick, but it worked for Scheherazade.  Never give your reader a convenient breaking-off place.  What I didn't realise is that by having someone called Freddie falling off a roof on New Year's Eve, I had very nearly ripped off The Archers.  Entirely accidental.  I'm a class traitor; I don't listen to Radio 4.  However, I was living in Lichfield Cathedral Close when that episode was broadcast, where you can't move for Archers fans, so perhaps I absorbed the plot-line by osmosis.  That is a partial answer to that age-old question, 'Where do you get your ideas from?'  From the air.  We soak them up without realising it.  It's like all those people twenty odd years ago who spontaneously thought Josh was a lovely unusual name for a baby.

Chapter 2 is shaping up nicely.  The liturgy and the calendar year both provide convenient stepping stones, as do the moments when the C of E hits the headlines.  So I can play with New Year's Day, Epiphany, and the latest on gay bishops.  But you can tell me what you'd like to read about, too.  I may not take you up on your suggestions, but then again.  That's another answer to the question 'Where do you get your ideas from?'  We pinch them.


Sunday, 6 January 2013

Friday, 4 January 2013

Constraints

People think writing fiction is easy, because you can just make it all up.  In fact, this is why writing fiction is difficult.  Make all what up, exactly?  Where and when and about whom shall I make it up?  From which angle do I want to observe this made-up-ness, and in what tone of voice?  And so on.

There's an old trick to make this easier: constraints.  If I tell you to write a story, the chances are you will eye the blank page or screen with panic.  But if I say, make up a story of 1500 words, and it has to include a chef, a hill top and a piece of elastic, the task becomes simpler.  It is no longer a story about anything, it's about a chef.  It's confined to 1500 words.  The constraints, paradoxically, turn out to be liberating.  

By choosing to blog Acts and Omissions in weekly instalments, I'm imposing a pretty hefty constraint on myself.  Deadlines focus the mind.  (As do advances from a publisher, but it's a while since I had one of those.)  I'm also imposing few more constraints: each instalment will be around 2000 words.  (By the end of the year that will be a nice fat novel, which will then have to be pruned.)  The action will be limited to the imaginary Diocese of Lindchester.  The time-scale will be 2013, and the story will unfold along the contours of the Church Year.

I have some of the characters and some of the ideas.  What I don't really have is a plot.  Maybe that won't matter too much.  Some novels are essentially a series of short stories strung together like beads on a necklace.  George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life is like that.  Dickens, on the other hand, had a genius for creating a whole novel with a whacking great big proper narrative arc, despite the rigours of the serialised novel form.

We can't all be Dickens or George Eliot.  Sigh.  But striking a vaguely Victorian tone for this project seems fitting.  When I first moved to Lichfield Cathedral Close seven years ago, I re-read the whole of the Barchester Chronicles.  My reaction was that nothing has changed.  Well, of course it hasn't: Trollope was writing about a venerable old institution and human nature.  And that's what I'll be doing.  The C of E doesn't exactly lend itself to tricksy post-modern literary experiment, does it?  Or to the spare, pared down American prose style we use as a stick to beat creative writing students with.  

No.  Let there be imagery, I say.  Let adverbs be used.  Judiciously.  Let there be wit and comic bit-part characters.  Let there be exclamation marks!  And above all, let the benevolent presence of the author brood over the world she has created, and occasionally lean forward and instruct the reader about how to be a nicer person.

This could be fun.  First instalment this Sunday evening.