Beth Miller

Writing and tea

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Someone who talks through their nose (Yiddish)


A sporadic blog about writing

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On setting a book while living in interesting times

Posted on July 7, 2020 at 8:20 AM

‘May you live in interesting times...’ Damn you, apocryphal Chinese curse, I want my uninteresting times back. When you’re slap bang in the middle of interesting times, all your usual certainties vanish as fast as my interest in The Archers now they’ve gone monologue.


Living in the maw of uncertainty causes a great many problems, large and small. But none are as small as the issue of when to set my next novel, my sixth. All being well, though let’s face it, all may not be well, this will be published in Autumn 2021, an impossibly futuristic date by which uninteresting times will hopefully have resumed.


Small problem though it is, I thought I would pull it apart, why not, as it’s easier than actually writing my novel. Plus the guy outside with the strimmer and a grudge against hedges is still at it, for feck’s sake, and it’s been four hours, and my concentration’s shot for the day.


This new book is contemporary fiction, like my previous novels. But what does contemporary mean, right now? With previous books I’ve always known when the events in them take place, to the day (though only after I’ve finished the first draft; more on this later). I keep a sacred document which tables what happens on every day of the novel’s span, even if those events don’t appear on the page, because, well, I suppose because I am a top level nerd.


But this new one is tricky to set, because of Being In the Middle of Interesting Times (henceforth BITMOIT, like Bitcoin, only not really like it at all).


So when to set this book? I have several options, none problem-free.




1. Set it in 2019

Ah, good old 2019, when all we had to worry about was Brexit, Trump, climate change, racism… but at least we didn’t have to worry about a massive unfolding daily-changing POX, as those fake Samuel Johnson quotes doing the rounds call it.


Advantages - Characters can display old-school, scarcely remembered behaviours: standing close together, kissing and hugging, going to pubs without a detailed explanation of the seating and hand sanitiser arrangements, travelling to foreign countries when the writer has tired of setting scenes wherever they kicked off the first chapter, running in and out of shops mask-less without a care in the world… *gazes wistfully off into the distance*


Disadvantages – Firstly, publishers are likely to receive a massive rash of 2018 or 2019-set novels this year. I don’t mind being one of many, but will readers tire of books which shy away from at least addressing the biggest thing most of us have lived through? Secondly, is it possible to have a meaningful ending to a book when the reader knows that something much bigger and more meaningful is just over the horizon?


Book: ‘They lived happily ever after.’


Reader: ‘Until a few months later, when she was furloughed then made redundant, he got really sick and had to quarantine, his business went bankrupt and they discovered that under pressure, they weren’t actually as in love with each as they’d thought.’


It’d be a bit like writing a book that ends in 1939, without any hint of approaching swastika-shaped storm clouds.




2. Set it in the recent past

How I envy my historical fiction colleagues, who already know how big events have played out, or at least, how they’ve played out till now. Unfortunately, my story idea doesn’t lend itself to the distant past, but maybe I could go back a little bit, say to 2005?


Advantages - No corona virus, hurrah! Can put in wryly self-aware references to Camilla Parker-Bowles/Hurricane Katrina/Revenge of the Sith that give colour to the times without overdoing it, probably.


Disadvantages - Won’t it look like I set it in 2005 purely because I don’t want to set it now? Also, I can’t remember anything about 2005, apart from eating Ben & Jerry’s by the fistful, because I had two kids under two and was sleep-deprived. What phones did people have? What did a loaf of bread cost? I know I can look these things up but what’s the point of being a contemporary author if you have to look things up? If I wanted to do tons of research I’d be a historical fiction writer, and I wouldn’t because I’ve just remembered that I don’t like doing research. Maybe I don’t envy them after all.




3. Set it far into the future

How I envy my sci-fi colleagues, who shine a light on our current world via the brilliant creation of a brand new world of their own devising. (I don’t really envy them – world-building looks awfully difficult.)


Advantages - No corona virus, hurrah! The year 3020 sounds wild! There will be no food, only nutritionally-precise pills! We’ll all live till we’re five hundred years old in hygienic white bubble-pods! Hover-boards will finally be a thing! In a thousand years there won’t be men or women, as Renton says in Trainspotting, only wankers!


Disadvantages - My creative imaginings of the future are pathetically derivative. I have always been hopeless at picturing events further than a couple of days ahead. Plus the future feels a slightly odd setting for my small, domestic story about family relationships. I could see myself constantly having to make up reasons why my characters don’t use the fabulous technology available to everyone else in their world, but insist on communicating via emails and phone-calls.




4. Set it in a parallel universe

How I envy my speculative fiction colleagues! (I don’t: world-building again.)


Advantages - It may be 2020, but there’s no corona virus in this world, hurrah! This will be a wistful, shimmering picture of what our lives would have been like had that pesky disease not reared its ugly molecules. All those 2020 things we’ve had to cancel, all those carers and nurses we’ve been worrying about, all those shuttered shops, restaurants and theatres, all those ill people, all those people who’ve lost relatives and friends, oh god, I’m so depressed.


Disadvantages – It’s clearly not going to suit my mental health to spend more than five minutes trying to imagine the world as it would have been.




5. Set it now

Yes, real 2020, I’ll grab you by the horns, you twisted, demented monster, and wrestle you onto the page.


Advantages – One of the problems when starting a novel is that there are too many choices. Before you’ve properly pinned down your characters, they can do anything, go anywhere. You have to make so many decisions that fatigue sets in. Setting the book in lockdown could be a blessing in this regard: your character can’t go anywhere, and they can’t do very much either. Far fewer choices: marvellous!


What’s more, everything can be subject to delicious, conflict-producing misunderstandings, as Zoom links freeze and masks muffle. People can fight over whether it’s safe to meet in the pub, and tell off young people congregating too bigly, and argue over who is morally superior. Loads of conflict: marvellous!


Disadvantages – Whatever this book thinks it is about, it is actually about the corona virus. Speaking as a reader, do I want to read a corona novel? Feck, no. Mind you, this is also subject to BITMOIT. I sure as eggs don’t want to read one now, but I suppose I might well want to read one in a year or two, to try and make sense of the strangeness of it all. Speaking as a writer, do I want to write a corona novel? NO I DO NOT.




6. Set it in the near future

Dear sweet 2021, you’re going to be better, aren’t you? Aren’t you? Well, look, as I write, lockdown has already started to dismantle, and we’re determinedly not focusing so closely on the death rates, la la la la I can’t hear you Statistics, which means that there’s a vague hope that 2021 will be back to some kind of normal.


Advantages - Like 2020, but with more eating out.


Disadvantages - It’s impossible, in the midst of a crisis, to know how we will look back on this year. I could have my characters referring vaguely to Covid as something that happened the previous year, but what if a vaccine comes along and completely rewrites the narrative (forcing me to completely rewrite my narrative)? What if it turns out that the lockdown method of tackling the crisis is a mistake, and the Swedish model of staying open is right? Or vice versa? It’s too soon to call.


Looking at earlier writers BITMOIT, what did they do? For instance, how did writers depict the second world war during the war? Casablanca, released in 1942, sure stands the test of time, but it had lucky prescience on its side. There must be hundreds of books and films that we no longer consume, ones which tried to second-guess the outcome, or how we’d feel about the outcome, and got it horribly wrong.




So, whither the setting of my novel? Well, I’m only three chapters in. I don’t need to know exactly when my books are set until the end of the first draft, when I'll go back over it, sobbing. That’s my method, and while it doesn’t work, I defend it to the death. I go through the completed manuscript carefully, with increasing hysteria, noting that I have three Wednesdays in the same week, July coming after October, a pregnancy that lasts 18 months, and a character who is younger at the end of the novel than the start. Slowly and painfully, I sort that out.


I haven’t even got started on the extra uncertainty of having parted with my agent last month, after eight years, so I’m living through another Great Uncertainty of submitting Novel Five to agents, and waiting, waiting, waiting.


So I think I’ll kick the setting decision into the long grass, until the first draft’s done. By then we’ll either know the ending of the corona story, or there will be a new world-shattering event to take into account. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll be back to uninteresting times, and The Archers will be back to normal, and if so, I will never complain about Will Grundy’s unnecessarily aggressive line delivery again.

The song went on forever

Posted on January 11, 2016 at 4:00 PM

Everyone over a certain age – and some under it, too - has a David Bowie story. This is mine.

 

My first proper gig was on the Serious Moonlight tour, in the badlands of Milton Keynes. It was 1983. I was too young, alas, to have seen Bowie in Ziggy times. Here’s what I remember. The horrible crush outside the Milton Keynes Bowl; an uninspiring support set from The Beat, who’d I’d been keen on up till then; the thrilling smell of dope in the air; taking a handful of unspecified pills that my friend gave me, though even back then I suspected they were nothing more daring than aspirin. We took pills because of Rebel Rebel – ‘a handful of ludes’ (or was it ‘blues’?) was one of the lyrics we feverishly decoded. Then I remember Bowie coming on stage, a tiny figure, miles away, and feeling that pull, that surge of excitement in the crowd. We were right near the back. We were scared to be nearer, I guess. We tried to move forward, but so did everyone else. He sang Let’s Dance. And that’s it. That’s all I got. Like Nora Ephron, who describes in her essay ‘I Remember Nothing’ how she was present at a large number of seminal occasions for which she retains little more than the food she ate later, I don’t remember anything else about the gig.

 

Here’s what I do remember: going home. Fifty-thousand people all left the Bowl at the same time, and the homely little train station couldn’t cope. Me and my three friends eventually got back to London several hours after the last train home had gone. We quickly worked out that I had the Dad Most Likely to be willing to be woken up. I rang him from a payphone, and with relatively good humour, he drove from Ilford to Victoria Station at three in the morning to get us. Thanks, Dad.

 

Here’s why I went to see David Bowie. I had his posters on my wall. I knew the backstory behind his different eye colours, knew the correct pronunciation of his name. I read Angie Bowie’s autobiography, thrilling to the scene in which Bowie and Mick Jagger emerge from a bedroom together, laughing, clothes mussed. Phwooar. I even liked The Laughing Gnome. All right, I wasn’t keen on the Thin White Duke: stark monochrome, piss-covered Berlin walls, cocaine chic and Nazi salutes (the famous salute, incidentally, was photographed at Victoria Station, seven years before my dad turned up there to blearily herd four excitable and overtired teenage girls into his Vauxhall Viva). But Ziggy and Hunky Dory pulled my heart-strings. Listening to my kids tonight singing Lady Stardust, my heart-strings were pulled again. When I hear his music, there’s part of me still there at the Milton Keynes Bowl: a very young and unformed person, standing at the back of the biggest crowd I’d ever seen, straining to see the extraordinary person on the stage, feeling as if my life was just about to start.




 

 

 


On being published and being sacked: My crazy roller-coaster fortnight.

Posted on June 9, 2015 at 12:00 AM

 

On 28th August 2014, my first novel was published. Even now, I can scarcely believe that I can type that, or rather, I can scarcely believe that when I type it, it’s not a lie. But it is so. In fact, there is only going to be one lie in this post, and one mild inaccuracy. And I’ll point them out when they come, so you aren’t left wondering.

So, my novel was published, and I was very excited and did all the new-writer things that you have to do, like going into W H Smiths and pretending I’d heard of this great new book and asking if they could order it, and slightly mispronouncing my own name so they wouldn’t suspect it was my book. And signing a copy for my sister-in-law with a great big flourish only after spending ten minutes choosing my most authorly pen.

You can’t earn a living from writing novels. Well, you can if you’re one of those people, the JKRs and the Stephen Kings and whatnot. But most writers who publish a novel go back to work, once they’ve finished fake-ordering copies of the novel. People don’t want to hear this. They think once you have published a novel you are automatically rich and successful. They don’t want to know that: 1. Your advance for two books is less than a year’s national average wage. 2. Your agent gets 15%, so your advance is now much less than one year’s national average wage. 3. You are paid your advance in four instalments and so far you’ve had only one, which you spent on a new carpet for the stairs because the old one was an accident waiting to happen.

So I went back to work. I was glad to. I liked it. I worked for my local town magazine and it was a fun job. I’d been there for six years – the first three as a columnist, the second three as the deputy editor. We had recently been taken over by a new owner, and to cut out the boring detail in the middle, on 22nd September he called me into his office and sacked me. Well, there’s the lie and the inaccuracy I promised you. The inaccuracy: I couldn’t really be sacked because I was a freelancer, even though I was a freelancer of six years’ standing. So I was simply told to leave, that my services were no longer required. It was like that moment on The Apprentice when Alan Sugar’s stubby finger of doom points at the candidate and they have to get their wheely bag and go. Except for these differences: I’d been there six years, not six weeks; I didn’t get the chance to try and convince him otherwise in a heartfelt speech that invoked ponies and my youth as a cheeky-chappie market trader; I didn’t go on to a C-List TV career; I wasn’t wearing high heels; Nick and Karren didn’t smile sympathetically at me as I staggered out; I don’t have a wheely bag.

The lie is in the title. It wasn’t a crazy rollercoaster fortnight – it was just over three weeks. Twenty-five days, from 28th August to 22nd September. But fortnight sounds better.

People who knew what had happened were really wonderful and supportive and kind. People who didn’t know assumed I’d left my job because I was now a rich and successful novelist. But see paragraph 3, above.

Anyway, I cleared my desk and went home. Every so often, I’d forget about the sacking, and remember my novel, and smile. Then I’d forget the novel, and remember the sacking, and cry.

My second novel comes out this September. I am wondering what its accompanying shattering life event will be. Diagnosis of a terminal illness? A house flood? Divorce? I’ll tell you what it won’t be, though. It won’t be being sacked. I have cleverly avoided that by not finding another job. I’m glad, really. It frees me up to go into more branches of Smiths and ask them to order my book.


"I'll 'ave three copies, while yer at it"


 

 

 

If you unravel a jumper, do you still have a jumper?

Posted on August 4, 2014 at 4:45 PM

I finished the first draft of my difficult second novel, and showed it to my esteemed agent. The novel has three main characters. Let's call them A, B and C (it's that kind of experimental novel, where people are just, like, not bogged down with the baggage of names). Well, said my esteemed agent, I think Character B is upsetting the focus of the book and it would be better if he wasn't in it at all. Even as I started to protest, I knew she was right. That's why she is esteemed. We talked some more, and I went away feeling that junking Character B would be little harder than pulling out a long piece of bindweed that has tangled itself round a sunflower. Get me with the gardening metaphor. Anyway, you know how bindweed looks like it's going to be impossible to get out but it gives itself up surprisingly easily, leaving the plant intact, if a little gasping for breath? Well that completely isn't how it was with the excision of Character B. It was considerably more like unravelling a large knitted jumper from neck to hem, and then being surprised to see a muddle of tangled wool instead of an intact jumper.

 

Character B has now exited the book. But does a book still remain? I'm not sure yet.

 

In happier news, a large box arrived for me the other day. The only delivery I was expecting was two packs of 50 C5 envelopes, so I went into a lengthy yet, I believe, entertaining, rant about the sheer over-packaging of the modern world. My husband cut across me with the characteristic respect we show each other by saying, 'Be quiet you silly moo, it's probably your book.' Much squeaking and ripping of cardboard followed. He was right. Since the age of seven I have wanted to have a book published. So to finally hold it in my hands was. It was. I don't know what it was. My overwhelming feeling was gladness. I was very very glad to hold that book.


Q: What's the difference between books 1 and 2?

Posted on April 4, 2014 at 7:05 AM

A: About eleven-and-a-half years.


The first book, When We Were Sisters, took about twelve years to write. Well, I wasn't writing solidly for twelve years. I took a few breaks, had some children and jobs and things, and a lot of cups of tea. But from the moment I wrote the first sentence, to the moment a publisher said yes, was about twelve years.


I started the second book - working title: The Good Neighbour - in September 2013, and finished the first draft last month, in March. Six months, pretty much. Though it needs a good kicking before it's in shape. It's not finished-finished. It's not even the end of the beginning. But the raw shape's there.


These are the things that were different this time round.


1. The publisher wanted a second book. So the whole time I was writing The Good Neighbour, I was thinking, ooh someone's waiting for this. Someone will read this when it's done. It was a nice thought. I sort of imagined them in a conference room, just sitting round, waiting for the book. They were smiling in happy anticipation, and drinking coffee. They had bowls of boiled sweets and some of those meeting-room blotters to doodle on; I didn't want them to get bored.


2. I knew what the story was this time. First book, I had no idea - for years - about the story. I was barely aware that it was something I should know. I wrote into a void, wondering where it would all go and trusting that it would come out right. That was a mis-placed trust. There was a lot of shouting and crying and ripping up bits of paper* before I was able to glimpse a beginning, middle and end in the gloaming. Second book, I decided what the story was before I started writing, planned a beginning, middle and end, and wrote accordingly. What a revelation! They ought to publish a few writing books that suggest this! Oh.


* but I put all the paper into the recycling. I am not a barbarian.


3. I am a quicker writer now. I learned a lot about writing while spending all those years on WWWS. I learned that I need to just splurge out words, any words will do, and go back and sort them out later. The more words I've splurged, the more clay there is to get my hands into, and start moulding.


4. My memory's not great. The quicker I write, the more of the book I can hold in my head. When I re-read the first book, I kept finding sections I absolutely could not remember writing. Once, a whole chapter. Had the little elves of 'Shoemaker' fame changed career? Were they now coming into my computer at night and writing whole scenes? I haven't ruled out this possibility. With the new book, I can more or less remember what I wrote a couple of months ago, so re-reading isn't such a surprise, and I can mostly remember the key traits I have given my characters. I can't let it drag on much longer though as I already have no recall of Chapter 1. And a woman who started out Cockney now seems to be quite posh.

Chapter 1 saved from the knackers' yard

Posted on November 29, 2013 at 6:10 AM

Publisher's edits - tick.

Copywriter's edits - tick.

Feeling like it was all going nice and smoothly - tick.

Ready for a fall - tick.

Since the lovely Ebury at Random House have said they will publish my book (which is coming out on July 3rd, 2014, bate your breaths now), I have had little to do but tinkering. The publisher's and copy-writer's edits were brief, to the point, and made complete sense. So I did them, sat back, put my feet on the desk, and broke open a family bar of Galaxy. Ok, I didn't just do that, I also started writing The Difficult Second Novel, once I'd eaten all the chocolate, but essentially I was at peace. So that'll teach me. Be not at peace. That is my new motto.

For all at once there was a request (not from the publisher, but from someone whose opinion I take very seriously) that I cut down Chapter 1. Oh. Blast. Thought the book was finished. Well, OK then. Always room for improvement, I say. Never too late to do a bit of a snip, I say. After a bit of wingeing, and with a bit of help from my superb writing group (LOVE YOU GUYS - they're mostly Americans, I can say stuff like that to them), I lost 1000 words from Chapter 1. OK, now it maybe read  a little oddly, but I was sure I could sort that out by sticking some of it in other chapters. I submitted it, and felt pleased. But BE NOT AT PEACE.

Now came the suggestion that turned my blood yellow. Is that a thing? (No, it's not. I just googled 'turned my blood yellow' and got a Googlewhack (only one person has ever said their blood turned yellow, and when I read their account it didn't actually mention blood and seemed to be something to do with Lotus).) This was the yellow-blooding suggestion: 'I think the cuts haven't worked; we should just lose Chapter 1 completely, start the book with Chapter 2 instead.'

As though suffering from a slow gunshot wound, I spent a couple of weeks limping round the house, clutching my side, railing to the heavens. I wondered where I was going to cram Chapter 1's exposition, and dreaded how much of a knock-on re-write I was going to be in for. I wailed, I gnashed my teeth, I rent my garments (but no-one was interested so I took them back). And then finally I got a grip and realised that this was the very definition of a first world problem. I'm going to be PUBLISHED! None of the rest of it matters!

I got out my axe, which is shaped like a red rollerball pen, mainly because it is in fact a red rollerball pen, and I held it high above Chapter 1. I was ready to cut like I'd never cut before. Chapter 1 quivered in terror, far below. 'Die, you bastard!' I cried, and began to plunge my axe into its very heart. And at that exact moment I got an email. 'Actually, we're happy with Chapter 1 after all. Don't worry about removing it.'

I put down the axe, and gave an embarrassed cough, hoping no-one had seen my potentially murderous actions. They hadn't, because unlike JK in her cafes, I write alone in a bedroom. Then I patted Chapter 1 a bit, so it would know there were no hard feelings, and popped to the shop for another bar of Galaxy.

I just signed my contract

Posted on July 25, 2013 at 5:15 PM

Oh yes I did. I just signed my contract from my publishers. My PUBLISHERS.

I never particularly wanted to be able to say 'my hairdresser' or 'my gynaecologist' or 'my plumber.' But I did always want to be able to say 'my agent' and 'my publisher.'

The reason this sounds so smug is because I am writing it whilst wearing a big shit-eating grin.

Inching closer

Posted on March 31, 2013 at 2:55 PM

Continuing in the pattern of posting once a year, in March, here I am. Since this time last year

    • I have sent the book off to three or four agents, all of whom hastily rejected it
    • I've been taken under the wing of The Literary Consultancy, whose reader really liked the book, and they have sent it off to three or four agents, all of whom hastily rejected it
    • I have sent it to one of the two agents I met at the Nightmare That Was Winchester - not the one who felt the book was anti-semitic - the other one and she said...
    • ... yes, but you need to lose 100 pages
    • I lost 100 pages
    • She said YES,  but louder this time

and that's where it's at. She has sent to a few publishers and I am waiting to hear.

How do I feel?

Elated (that someone in the business liked it enough to take a punt on it). Ecstatic (that my hard work on losing almost a quarter of the book paid off and made it a better book). Relieved (beyond measure that when she saw the shorter book she liked it). Anxious (that she won't find a publisher). Wondering (what I'll do if she doesn't). Wondering (what I'll do if she does).

Sorta finished

Posted on March 26, 2012 at 5:15 PM

I see that almost exactly a year ago I was knocking down walls. Well, here I am now, with what I'm tentatively calling a 'finished novel.' I've sent it somewhere; I'm waiting. Actually, I'm not waiting. I'm sitting back with my feet on the desk, enjoying the peace. My novel is like a disruptive child with ADHD. Suddenly, after I've spent years being the sole carer, it's been whisked away to a holiday camp for the loud and over-energetic, and someone else has responsiblity. Just for a short while. It's respite only. But here is a hiatus during which I don't have to worry about it.

 

The book's got a new name, too, though I have no expectation of this title sticking. I'm not getting too attached. The book began life as 'Two-Thirds Happy.' This became 'And Then We'd Be Happy,' which lasted a while, till I realised that it didn't actually match the theme of the novel any more. And more problematically, that it used a song lyric and would thus cost me a fortune in copyright payments. Latterly it was 'The Solidest Thing We Know,' which wasterrific apart from me being the only person who liked it. Everyone else hated it and said it made them think of taking a crap.

 

The new title is fine. I won't jinx it by writing it anywhere except on the front cover of the manuscript. Which I have sent off, did I mention that?

 

* Sits back, puts feet on desk, lifts tea mug to lips, revels in the blissful silence *

The wrecking ball

Posted on March 15, 2011 at 1:35 PM

I started writing this novel in 1947, and have interrupted it on several occasions to run a business, have children, eat more cake and so on. So, because I am a better writer now than when I started - not through any clever planning, simply by dint of the passing years - I'm having to make some tricky decisions with the rewrites. It's akin to restoring an ancient building. At what point do I give up on shoring up unsteady old beams, and just knock the whole thing down and start again? I read some of the oldest pages and I have to hide under the desk in embarrassment at myself. But then again, some of the old stuff has a passion and spark that some of my clever new stuff lacks...

 

As I am fond of saying, this will ALL BE DIFFERENT WITH THE NEXT BOOK.


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