First, a disclaimer: for all that my long-awaited novel More Tea, Jesus? is to be published as an e-book next week, I can’t claim that it is at all the result of Knowing What The Hell I’m Doing. If I had known what I was doing, I wouldn’t have done it the way I did it. Various people have asked me to explain how said publication came about, and since it is an interesting story and explains why, on a personal level at least, said novel is long-awaited, I will attempt to do so – but whatever else this story is, it almost certainly is Not The Way To Go About Getting Published Yourself.
That said, I think I can promise to give you a fair number of Things Not To Do If You Want To Get Published Yourself, having done so many of them.
Some eight or nine years ago I was fresh out of college and cheerfully failing to get anywhere in terms of career. I was cheerful because I was young and therefore irrationally optimistic but also because I was being fervently creative in the few hours I had available to me each evening by writing music and collaborating on scripts and producing soundtracks for short films which I would spent the occasional weekend making and occasionally disappearing off to Edinburgh to perform with a narrative improve group which some Guardian reviewer had described as ‘actually, properly, non-ironically great’1.
Where I was failing was in turning this frenetic creative activity into any kind of paid career, something I was painfully conscious of in the hours I spent sitting in offices as a temp doing variations on data entry, which paid the rent but didn’t seem a great outlet for my creative urges.
Because it’s thematically relevant I should also note that my novel was also failing, or had at the very least stalled – that is, my first attempt at a novel, which I had ceremoniously started by hand in a big, beautiful, blue notebook at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 and which I had continued to add to on park benches or trains or in pubs for many months until I had accumulated a wealth of character studies, irrelevant scenes, funny vignettes, witty observations and angsty self-reflection, loosely connected by at least two stories which I knew were linked but which needed to join up in a way that was far too complicated for a writer of my limited experience to manage. Not least because I had approached the novel in such a haphazard way, what I ended up with was two big blue notebooks crammed full of ideas and making no sense at all. (Anyone reading who wishes to get published themselves may take note that this was Not A Very Good Way To Approach Writing A Novel)2.
If I was succeeding in one area it was in perpetuating the approximation of a student lifestyle, even if a perpetual studenthood had been denied me by the foibles of government funding. This was partly the result of living in a student town where many of my friends were still students. Some of those friends were students at Westcott House, a church of England theological college rooted firmly in the liberal Anglo-Catholic tradition, so I was spending quite a bit of my time sitting in pubs with trainee priests3. I was also still regularly singing with the chapel choir at my former college, where I would head each Sunday evening for a service of hearty Anglican music with a sermon by a visiting preacher – these visiting preachers came from all walks of life and all branches and denominations of the church, such was the spirit of ecumenicalism in the chapel, a spirit which was ironically embraced by hardly any non-Anglicans in the college but which had to be endured by the small congregation and choir, who were subjected to a very mixed quality of sermon because of it.
Not that I’m suggesting Anglican clergy are necessarily good preachers, but what they do have in their favour – on the whole, at any rate – is an understanding of the importance of brevity. I put this down to a strong choral tradition; no preacher with any sense wants a choir to start to very publically fidget and complain, so will time their sermons accordingly.
I had the idea for More Tea, Jesus? during a sermon from the mouth of somebody who evidently hadn’t benefitted from such a background. Nor did the content of his sermon or the quality of its delivery match the length which he seemed to think it justified. In fact, far more interesting than the preacher was the congregation, who that week had been considerably fleshed out by a visit from the local parish church, with row after row of the varied characters you would expect in such a body, not to mention a young and characterful vicar who, superficially at any rate, could have stepped out of a P. G. Wodehouse novel.
What you have, then, is something approaching a perfect storm: a social life filled with trainee priests, regular involvement with a broadly ecumenical chapel, said chapel full of characters whose very appearance seemed designed to fuel the imagination and an overlong sermon giving said imagination plenty of time to get working.
It other words, the content virtually wrote itself.
If only the rest of the process had turned out to be so effortless.
Next episode: Job – a man being tested or a thing that gets in the way of writing?
1I mention it here partly because it’s a good quote and partly because the journalist who wrote it features in this story later on.
2I came back to this novel five years later, took the few good bits and (I think fairly successfully) pulled together into what became my second novel, is now partly up on Authonomy and awaiting criticism. It is due another draft and if it appears slightly unwieldy and structurally bizarre, the way in which I started to write it ought to explain why.
3Correctly known as ordinands.