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, 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 fa├žade 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.