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, 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


Over on my other blog it's septuagesima:


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]