Getting it Published #7: Genesis

More Tea, Jesus? has been perceived by some as rather a neat, parochial book. In fact, being the first novel I ever finished (if not actually the first one I ever started) it has a huge number of ideas and influences rattling around in it, so I’m never sure whether to be baffled or insulted when the ‘cosy’ or ‘neat’ epithets are applied; to my mind it’s a miracle if it feels like it has any sense of cohesion at all. Here are a few of the more obvious elements that went into the cocktail.

P. G. Wodehouse

Perhaps a foolish opening gambit, given that any comparisons will reflect negatively on my own work, but there is so much to admire in the greatest of Wodehouse’s comic writing that it would be wilfully deceptive to pretend I hadn’t been influenced by it. Probably a lot more obviously in earlier drafts. In its earliest form it opened with an introduction to the village through the eyes of an anthropomorphic sun, which I mercifully realised I had copied directly from a Wodehouse I read as a child (I’m pretty sure it’s Spring Fever) and expunged quickly (though some vestiges may remain). Although my breezy prose may all too often show Wodehouse peeping through at the linings, the way in which I was more consciously influenced was in the story’s structure; I love how Wodehouse builds up a whole community of characters in a novel through any number of subplots, which trundle alongside the main story and overlap with it when you’re least expecting them to. This is why I didn’t feel too guilty about spending so long on Bernard Lomas’ obsessive fads or his plot to steal Ted Sloper’s harpsichord. I suppose one might see more than a passing similarity between the scene in which Ted gets very drunk before the church entertainment and Gussie Finknottle’s speech to Market Snodsbury Grammar School, but it would be insane to invite comparisons with one of the finest pieces of sustained comic writing in the whole of English literature.

By the same argument, it would be extraordinarily foolish to write an entire blog about how basically my biggest literary influence of all is Charles Dickens.

The Church and Sexuality

This is the theme of one of the more substantial subplots and it looks even prescient now than when I was writing the novel. The way in which most of the priests in the story show thoughtful, accepting and supportive attitudes on the issue whereas half of the congregation have an unpleasant knee-jerk reaction towards the very idea of ‘an homosexual’, reflects the recent vote on women bishops in which the House of Laity showed themselves (again) to be by far the most conservative part of the Anglican Church. Different issues, of course, but they might as well be the same for the way a set of principles are clung to in the face of logic, compassion and even theology. I’m fairly certain that an immediate survey of churchgoers would show the biggest concentration of homophobia to be amongst ordinary heterosexuals who have never studied scripture in any great depth, whatever impression is given by very vocal handful of priests.

Priests

Through various twists of fate, I seem to have made friends with a large and growing number of priests over the years (once you’ve been invited to one ordination party you’re going to meet a whole new batch and several more invitations follow – they’re just so damn friendly, these priests). Much as I would like to take the credit for many of the stranger episodes in the book, they are most likely to be copied from real life. A priest drinking to the point that they become so red they think they have the stigmata? Check. A priest making an omelette in a family service? Check. A priest dashing to turn off a CD because the word ‘alleluia’ is about to feature and it is Lent? Check. Even though some of the characters on whom stories are based weren’t priests at the time, they have all become priests now. I like to think that I am in some way responsible.

The slightly barmy sad woman I met in a pub

I was once sitting with some trainee priests in a pub and a woman who was definitely drunk and probably a bit mad and who had just lost her mother decided to unload a lot of her unworked-through grief on us, perhaps because she sensed that trainee priests would make for a sensitive audience. In fact, I suspect we were rather less sensitive than we should have been, partly because what she said was so barking mad. Largely stuff about consenting animals. I already had plenty of human misery in my novel, but nothing at that point about consenting animals, so that’s the bit I borrowed.

William Burroughs

An unlikely sounding one, but when I wrote the first draft I was still young and pretentious enough to be playing around with techniques I had no idea how to use, and the cut-and-paste thing appealed to me a lot. It came in especially useful when dealing with really tricky things I didn’t know how to write using proper sentences. Eventually I realised that the best way to write these bits, even if I did it by messing with the English language, was to do it deliberately, but the random approach was a valuable starting point. Most of those bits have, again, been rewritten altogether because they jarred so obviously with everything around them, but I remain quite proud of Chapter 14 which aims quite high and I reckon succeeds in its depiction of Gerard Feehan’s rude awakening into adulthood. It could so easily have been dreadful – mawkish or unpleasant or just plain pornographic – and I don’t think I would have approached it in the way I did if I hadn’t been so moved by the end of Cities of the Red Night once upon a time.

The vicars and tarts party

There is very little in the book that is even semi-autobiographical, but I once went to a vicars and tarts party and had a rather profound experience when I happened to glance at myself in a toilet mirror and realised I looked better as a vicar than I did as a real person (or indeed as a tart) and briefly contemplated taking the cloth purely out of vanity. Not only did I feel my evening as a vicar equipped me to write with absolute authority about what it is like to be a vicar, but the whole anecdote found its way into the novel pretty much unchanged, in the mouth of a vicar who actually had taken the cloth after the same experience.

All of the above, and much more, were rattling around my head as influences when I wrote More Tea, Jesus?. Surprisingly, however, one of the things that was not amongst them was:

Parish Choirs

I finished the first draft of More Tea, Jesus? a little while before I became an actual director of a parish choir. My lot were quite a talented bunch, so there wasn’t even any material to be incorporated into later drafts. That said, given that up until then I had very little experience either of singing with or listening to parish choirs, it’s amazing how much I got right about the rehearsal process.

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Getting it Published #6: Judges

It was Clare Christian, the original editor of More Tea, Jesus?, who suggested it might be worth putting it on Authonomy. The website was pretty new at the time and was designed to unearth the brightest, freshest new literature through a community of writers philanthropically reading new work and pushing the good stuff ever closer to the desk of an editor at HarperCollins.

In fact, for most authors and most books – even the good stuff – it’s nothing of the sort.

Even back then, when the website was much, much smaller, the Holy Grail of the editor’s desk required a concerted effort to maintain support and a degree of luck in terms of timing. I didn’t have time to make any kind of effort at all in this respect. To get noticed you really do need to have time to spend on self-publicity, cultivating relationships and – vitally – reading other people’s books. It is a community quite rightly based on reciprocation and, having recently found myself in a full-time composing job, I had little time with which to reciprocate.

Not that the editor’s desk is the only reason to join Authonomy: far from it. The value of a community of writers and enthusiastic readers commenting on your work is self-explanatory. But again, this was not something I was in any position to appreciate; I had already been through the lengthy editorial process and questioned, rewritten and chopped the novel as much as I could bear. The last thing I wanted was a load of well-meaning suggestions about what needed changing.

The prologue came in for quite a battering from a few people who either thought prologues were plain unnecessary or that it slowed the pace. In the case of the latter they were absolutely right, but they hadn’t considered the dramatic importance of the prologue (do you really begin a novel about the apocalypse with a vicar giving a sermon about an omelette?) and they weren’t aware that it was balanced by an epilogue, the mirroring of the two being one of the important satirical points of the novel, not to mention a (funnyish) joke. When More Tea, Jesus? was eventually giving a publishing contract, I went back to the comments that had been written about it and found much of them to be wise and useful in the rewrite that followed. I didn’t get rid of the prologue, but with the benefit of a bit of distance I did see that it wasn’t working and made big changes, apart from anything else making it considerably shorter. However, back when I first started using Authonomy I had not so long ago been on the verge of having this novel published, so I wasn’t in a great emotional place to listen to people whose only basis for criticism was their own writing, which was itself of… ah… variable quality.

I have read some brilliant books on Authonomy. Not many, but some, actually brilliant books. It is reassuring to see that many of those were noticed by other people and have found success since.1 Other books on Authonomy are full of good ideas but desperately in need of an editor, some read like fan fiction or school essays and some are so badly written or lacking in basic punctuation that you wonder if the writer ever read it back after they wrote it. It is a great cross section of the thousands of people who feel they have a book in them and have actually been bothered to write it down, which I think is great (though I do think people ought to self-edit their work a bit if they’re going to put it on the internet2). If nothing else, it shows that publishers, or at the very least editors, do still have a vital role to play in the whole publishing process.

(Mind you, there’s plenty of mediocre stuff put out by publishers as well. And some of the brilliant writing on Authonomy is so refreshingly uncommercial and therefore I presume unpublishable that it makes my youthful Canterbury Tales parody look like Dan Brown. I digress.)

Unfortunately, the vague promise of a fast-track route to publication has given Authonomy a sometimes rather competitive (or just plain cynical) atmosphere, in which people desperately try to bump their own work up the ratings by commenting nicely on somebody else’s after skimming through the first chapter (another reason the website didn’t and doesn’t work terribly well for me, because my inability to lie about a book I don’t think is very good makes it seem as though I hardly ever read anything on there). There is enough empty praise floating around to give you an inflated view of your own brilliance, if you’re not savvy enough to assess the quality of the criticism you’ve received, and it leads to a kind of Britain’s Got Talent syndrome where everybody thinks they’ve got something astonishing to offer the world without considering the hard work that ought to form a part of their contribution.

The forums in particular are rife with resentment from authors who feel their work is being unfairly ignored or that they are somehow being duped or taken advantage of by the powers-that-be. It is something which I experienced in a pretty full-on way when the acquisition of More Tea, Jesus? was announced: Scott Pack had been brought into the Authonomy team to ‘shake the site up a bit, iron out some of the kinks and find some books to publish’ and in keeping with this remit he plucked my book from the depths of the website and put it in front of the readers. But the announcement was followed by an explosion of fury in the forums from people who seemed to think they were uncovering a conspiracy (my previous association with Scott was already documented on the world wide web so it didn’t take a lot of uncovering). Suddenly I was under the scrutiny of people questioning why I had or had not been on Authonomy at various times, to the extent that they seemed to be (inaccurately) taking note of the length of time between my visits. The suggestion was that if I popped in it was to publicise my book and if I didn’t I wasn’t a serious member of the community. It was even suggested that my account had been retrospectively fabricated. It was nothing more or less than a collective cry of outrage from people who thought their books should have been published and not mine. And it wasn’t a lot of fun to be at the receiving end of it.

If you’re starting to think all this paints a rather negative picture of Authonomy, then STOP! Authonomy is brilliant. It is a website wonderfully full of novels, finished and unfinished, absolutely brilliant and utterly crap, and the people who wrote them encouraging each other to write more. Authonomy is doing something that plenty of schools are failing to do: it is inspiring creativity, it is getting people to write stuff down, it is even (sometimes) getting people to go back over what they have written and make it better. When I got the news that More Tea, Jesus? was going to be published I realised that it was badly in need of a rewrite and took it off the website; but I tentatively replaced it with a rather less thoroughly worked through (and completely uncommercial) novel, about which I have now received a great deal of really useful feedback, some of it from people who demonstrably know what they’re talking about. I have had a wealth of advice and feedback from kind, committed readers who have given their thoughts and encouragement for nothing except perhaps the agreement of a mutual read. That is exactly the spirit in which I would wholeheartedly recommend aspiring writers use the website.

I also seem to have recently started receiving propositions from a young lady called Donzo on the website. I get the impression she hasn’t read my book, but she seems keen on me so it’s a start.

1The Morning Drop, a startlingly good first novel by Andrew Hughes, sticks in my memory still, and I’m delighted to see will be published by Doubleday/Transworld at some point in the next year or so.
2Insert your own snarky joke about this blog here, if you like.

Getting it Published #5: Lamentations

Apologies for the delay in resuming this rather lengthy saga. You can reward your patience by visiting the new webpage for More Tea, Jesus? or liking it on Facebook. Or, if you haven’t already read it, you could read it.

It would certainly be a good time to do that, what with the recent women bishops farrago and Church House regularly putting out anonymous statements about gay marriage that don’t represent the views of the average member of the Anglican Church any more than Mike Freer represents the average member of the Conservative party. What with the Anglican Church’s penchant for finding itself misrepresented by the media – willfully or otherwise – even when I was writing More Tea, Jesus? I was rather hoping that it would not only be timely, but also commercial. After all, my book was all about religious and sexual politics, distortion of facts by the media and social injustice, all of which have been selling points for literature for centuries. And I had already had the stamp of approval from one publisher – so they had gone into liquidation, but surely I could find another who would see the book’s potential to reach a wide audience?

It didn’t take long to find a literary agent who agreed with me. Probably that was something I should have done already, but the fact that I’d already had a deal with this book (not to mention all the editorial input it had been given) certainly helped speed things up.

Sadly, that was where my luck ended. After an enthusiastic start and exciting emails about all the publishers the book had gone to, I received a sobering follow-up from my agent saying that nobody was interested, and advising me not to let it get me down, with the not-very-comforting reminder that it took Graham Greene six novels to get published. Frankly the idea of having to write six novels was a pretty depressing idea and I did not have the advantage of being Graham Greene either.

My agent was kind enough to send me the offer sheet she had sent out, enabling me to see not only how many publishers had rejected my novel but the reasons why. That was perhaps the most soul destroying thing of all: it was clear from the comments that I had not written a bad or an unlikeable book – quite the opposite, in fact, with comments like ‘absolutely wonderful’ all over the place – but that nevertheless, not one publisher wanted to risk taking it on because they didn’t think it would sell.

For all the sexual politics, media and social commentary I thought my work communicated, the stifling cloud of the Anglican communion had done its work: what the comments made clear was that publishers couldn’t see past the cosy, parochial exterior of the church. Almost a case of life imitating art, given some of the horrors hidden by the church in the book. Curiously, readers’ reviews of More Tea, Jesus? show that this is still the case – it surprises me how often the word ‘charming’ is used to describe it when I consider some of the genuinely awful things that happen in the story. Perhaps it feels more raw to me because it was my own pain and frustration that went into it, or perhaps my own flippant tongue is more distracting than I imagined. But one friend of mine wrote to me, when he finished an early draft of the final chapter, ‘that’s the most depressing thing I have read in a long time’ – and I think he had it about right.

All that aside, it was still pretty bloody annoying having publishers telling me that religious comedy didn’t sell, given that it was (and is) demonstrably untrue. (Ironically, this all came hot on the heels of several theatre producers telling me that Tony Blair – the Musical was lovely but politics in the theatre meant commercial death so thank you but no thank you. And shortly before Enron transferred to the West End. But new musicals in the West End seem to be flourishing, so what do I know?)

It is worth bearing in mind a couple of things: firstly, this all happened under the shadow of the beginnings of the financial crisis from which the country is still failing to recover, and publishers were, by all accounts, running a mile from anything which didn’t immediately scream commercial success. Secondly, the very nature of publishing had started to change – people had started to buy their books online and read them on strange mechanical devices and most publishers didn’t have the first idea how they were going to carry on making money. Many of them still don’t.

In other words, I had written the wrong book at the wrong time. And short of writing five more of them, I had been offered no useful suggestions as to what I could do about it.

Next episode: Judges – along comes Authonomy.

Next time can we celebrate it without mixing tenses so much?

Well, here’s a troubling little video, made by the (I would suggest rather inaccurately named) Coalition For Marriage. Have a look and see if you can work out exactly why they are arguing that marriage should not be redefined.

As far as I can see, their argument boils down to either:

1. Marriage is all about making babies.

or:

2. Marriage is all about bringing up babies.

…though it is not clear which.

If it is the first then their stance is very problematic for reasons that are already well rehearsed – where does it leave couples who can’t have babies and couples who don’t want babies? Where indeed does it leave my parents, who took steps some time ago to ensure that babies were no longer a possibility? Have they essentially relinquished their marital duties and re-entered singledom?

The second argument has more going for it (though it still leaves childless couples in an odd situation) – a stable, committed family unit in which children can be brought up is desirable for many reasons. Which is an excellent argument in favour of redefining marriage, given the number of same-sex couples now adopting children.

I’m assuming that’s not the conclusion I was supposed to reach. But even the stated conclusion, ‘let’s celebrate marriage’, seems perfectly compatible with the redefinition of marriage, given that it would be a struggle to find a same-sex couple desperate to marry in order to not celebrate it.

The video perfectly sums up the paucity of reason in arguments from people absolutely unable to contemplate the redefinition of marriage. As the video’s reference to ‘ancient and organic’ origins shows, the standpoint is grounded in the completely flawed assumption that marriage as we understand it is as old as Adam and Eve (or, if you prefer, the dinosaurs), rather than a hybrid of pre-Christian traditions that didn’t even involve a Priest until the 12th century and has been regularly redefined since. Looking for ancient and organic? Try polygamy, there’s plenty of that in the Old Testament.

The reason the video is troubling is that, being presented as simple logic (even though it is nothing of the sort), it exists entirely so that people with no intention of changing their views can nod sagely and say ‘you see, it’s perfectly logical and straightforward, marriage is between a man and a woman’. And whilst it hardly ranks as YouTube’s most popular video, the number of people who have hit the ‘like’ button suggests that there are plenty of people doing just that.

There are far better informed and logical arguments out there for people willing to think, not least this one.

Literary endeavours

Apologies for those of you waiting for the next instalment of the very-exciting-story-of-how-I-wrote-a-novel. Are there any of you? Well, I’ll assume so, for rhetorical purposes at least. I am sorry, and I haven’t forgotten about you.

The thing is, I have also been slightly involved in getting things ready for a different thing, which is a theatrical adaptation of a book called The Snow Spider.

Unlike my novel, this project has taken under three years to introduce to the general public, but I’d still very much appreciate any interest you wanted to take in it.

Here is an image associated with the show to whet your appetite:

Want to know what it’s all about? Well, it’s obvious, really. A coming-of-age story set in Wales. With snow. And a spider.

I promise I’ll get back to the self-publicity really, really soon, but in the meantime, you can book tickets for The Snow Spider here.