Friday, 29 November 2013

Help! This title isn't working!

OK, that is not an attention-grabbing metajoke about titles. My blog site is genuinely doing something weird. 'You request cannot be fulfilled', it says, when I try to type in the title bo-- oh. Wait. Maybe this is metaphorical, after all. Anyway, if I were sensible I'd stop right here and check whether this will post, in case I spend hours writing and then discover I've lost it all. But I'm not. I'm going to write it anyway. (Ever feel like you're really not trying to be metaphorical, but the bloody metaphors WON'T LEAVE YOU ALONE?)

I can't remember what I was going to blog about now. :)

Was it the Stonewall party? Yes, maybe it was the Stonewall party. Which was fabulous. I don't have any photos of the actual place, because I didn't have any pockets and therefore no camera or mobile, but I do have this:

Hmmm, it's very small. It wasn't meant to be that small (obviously today is not a good day for me and techonology*) but you can at least see that we were really overdressed and enjoying it. But then, if we are occasionally overdressed we make up for it by always being immensely overeducated...

Also, we got congratulated by the hotel staff. That was fun. If slightly awkward, in a how-do-you-explain-that-yes-you're-in-a-wedding-dress-but-actually-you-haven't-just-got-married? kind of way. 

And since then... well. Work goes on. It went quickly for a while and now it's going slowly again. As I explained to a friend of mine, it's like watching a video on youtube - if you fast forward you have to wait for it to catch up with you before you can go on watching it. So while I'm not actually stuck, I'm wading a little bit. Although I'm generally quite excited about the book, and I'm not complaining. It's going to be long, though. I'm on 80,000 words and only two-thirds of the way through. 

Anyway, I'll keep you posted. If this posts. Here goes...

* Or typing. 

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Stonewall Writer of the Year - Shortlisting...

That is possibly the most unimaginative title for a blogpost ever, but I am feeling excited to the point of incoherence.

I have been shortlisted for Stonewall Writer of the Year!

No, really, I have.

This means that someone at Stonewall knows who I am. That is pretty cool in itself. Also, I think (I hope) I get to go to the party, which is at the V&A and actually costs real money to go to if you buy a ticket. ('Do they know you're not gay?' my mother asked me. 'Should you pretend you are?' To which I replied, 'Mum, if Stonewall don't think you should be allowed to love who you want, the world is a sad and hopeless place.' Or would have done, if I'd thought of it. I think actually I burbled something about, 'Er... no, does it matter?')

The news came yesterday, totally out of the blue. As far as I'm concerned, the symptoms of being a Proper Writer include your heart sinking when you see your publishers' or agent's number coming up on your phone, so it came as a complete shock that my agent wasn't just ringing to ask me where the new book is.* I was so taken aback that it was good news that I didn't hear the word 'Stonewall' and thought he was talking about an in-house Bloomsbury Writer of the Year or something... (Luckily I think just having been shortlisted for something means you can be a bit more of an idiot than usual without your agents frowning and idly crossing you off the list of writers on their desks. Hopefully.)

Then: the V&A, he said.

Oh, I thought. That sounds... posh.

Sarah Waters won it a few times, he said.

Oh, I thought again. She's... well, a proper writer.

Stonewall, he said.

Stonewall? I thought. Stonewall?! What, like the - like really, Stonewall?!

I must have sounded utterly punchdrunk. Maybe he did absent-mindedly black out the letters of my name, after all.

But seriously, as well as being honoured and excited and all that (also, did I mention that my agent said he didn't think any other YA writers had ever been shortlisted? That was cool), I feel really proud. Because - as those of you who follow this blog might remember - Love in Revolution had a bit of a rough ride. Could I, my editor asked me - after the book had been accepted - change the love affair to, well, a "passionate friendship"? Because, you know, it's difficult, teenage fiction is really bought by the gatekeepers, the parents and librarians, and, well, we don't want to put anyone off... No one actually said, AND SOME PEOPLE WHO MIGHT OTHERWISE BUY THIS BOOK DON'T LIKE LESBIANS, but really they might as well have done.

I said no. I just said no. (I have said no on other occasions to my editor, but I'm not sure it's ever stayed no.) Bollocks to sales, I thought.** I mean, imagine calling a book Best Friends in Revolution.

And kudos to my editor, who respected that decision entirely - and indeed foregrounded the love story in the blurb, with no fudging or blurring of pronouns so that people might not notice the characters were both girls. Kudos to the cover designer, for making it look romantic. Kudos to my publishers for going with it and not putting pressure on me.

Right now I feel really proud of them, too.

* Still being buggered about with, and probably will be for some time, but that's another story.
** No change there, then. :)

Monday, 13 May 2013

Quaker Meeting, Quaker Ministry

This is a slightly different post to the sort of thing I normally write. Feel free to stop reading right now, because it's not about writing or my life as a writer, and only tangentially about words. But it was such an odd and extraordinary thing for me that I wanted to try and write about it - even knowing that I'm almost certainly going to fail to convey what I mean.

I've been going to Quaker Meeting for several (3? 4?) years now. For anyone who doesn't know much about Quakerism (or, more properly, the Religious Society of Friends), I should say that Quaker Meetings, or at any rate the sort of British unprogrammed Quaker Meeting I go to, take place almost entirely in silence. You sit there for an hour or so, and wait in case the spirit moves you to stand up and speak. Which it rarely does - at least in our Meeting. In our Meeting, the spirit definitely bloweth where it listeth, and we spend the majority of our Meetings in silence. I think most of the Quakers I've spoken to have ministered a few times in their religious lives, if ever.

The thing is, you see, that you don't - no one does - ever just decide to speak. A lot of people, I think, imagine a Quaker Meeting to be a sort of religiously-themed free-for-all. It isn't. Nor is it a discussion. Nor is it even a place for people to give considered, economically-phrased mini-sermons. You don't get up because you think you have something valuable to contribute, or because someone else's ministry could be improved upon, or because there's something that you've been thinking about all week. You get up because you have to. That's it.

Now. As I say, I've been going to Meeting for years now, and I've read things here and there about Meeting, and Quakers generally, and ministry*. I'd read about the impulse to stand up and minister. (One of my favourite stories is about two Friends sitting next to each other in a Meeting. There's a silence and one of them fidgets and shuffles about in his chair for a long time. Then, finally, the other one gets up and ministers. When he sits down he leans across to the other Friend and says, 'Next time, say it yourself.') I'd sat in several Meetings and thought, hmmm, I can think of something I could say at this juncture... but I won't. I was used to that.

But on Sunday something else happened to me.

It was... odd. Extraordinary. I keep coming back to those words.

There'd been a couple of ministries already - which, as I say, is quite rare for us - and one of the things that had come up was a bit from the Advices and Queries** which says, 'Attend to what love requires of you.' I sat there and thought about it, and about how it was particularly resonant for me at the moment. I thought in words, which isn't always the case. I thought of a metaphor for how I felt. I thought, hmm, that's an interesting thought. I could say that. But I won't.

Then... This is the hard bit to explain.

My heart started pounding. I started to find it hard to breathe. It was as though I was terrified. I have never felt such extreme physical stress without any kind of outside stimulus. I suppose I was quite scared, because it was like having some kind of attack, and I thought I might faint or black out or my heart would actually stop because it was beating so hard and so fast. I moved a bit in my chair and tried to take deep breaths, but I couldn't. I tried to say to myself that I could calm down a bit and then decide whether I should minister or not. I tried to tell myself that there was no urgency and I should deal with what was happening to me physically before I thought about ministering. I really didn't want to stand up. But nothing I did was any good and I somehow knew that I would either have to stand up or run out of the room, and even if I did that I wasn't sure that it would be any good.

So I stood up. And I said something fairly lucid, not exactly profound, something that didn't encapsulate exactly what I meant but was sort of in the right area... and then I sat down and had to struggle not to burst into tears. Not because of what I'd said or the experience of saying it, but because of the intensity of what had made me say it.

I suppose this is hard to write about because it isn't the words, the ministry itself, that stays with me - although I think that ministry was for me as much as for anyone, as though it was a way to make myself listen and take seriously something that would otherwise have been a passing thought. No, it was the absolutely irrational, unpredictable, mysterious physical phenomenon. It felt as though I'd been in the grip of - of what? I don't know. Something Else. I wasn't afraid of standing up in Meeting to speak (I'm an actor, I do school visits, blah blah, that really doesn't bother me). I wasn't worried about what people would think. I didn't have any of those trivial, comprehensible, personal fears.*** It was something entirely other. I'm not sure I want to say that it came from outside myself. Maybe it did, maybe not. I'm not sure if that matters.  

I have never felt physically compelled to do something. It was not about desire, or obligation, or decision, it was... physical necessity. It was frightening. Really.

But later, when I was walking home, and thinking about what had happened, that it occurred to me: there was no way I could say to myself, well, you idiot, why didn't you just stay sitting down? Because I couldn't have done. I literally had no choice.**** (Apart from leaving the room. As I say.)

And for someone like me, who thinks and rethinks and analyses and edits, who always wants to go back and say it better or differently... or indeed for everyone... that's a blessing. I said the right thing. I did the right thing.

I must have done, because I couldn't have done anything else.

* Incidentally I should point out that one of the joys of Quakerism is that there is no central authority who decides what is or isn't true. Which means pretty much all the generalisations I make here are debatable. Sorry.

** The closest Friends get to a statement of belief. (You have to love a religious movement where the closest we/they get to formal commandments is advising and querying.)

*** Later I did. Of course. (See the next paragraph for details.) I don't want to imply that I'm above all that. Nothing could be further from the case. It was just - in that moment...

**** Before you think I am using the word "literally" to prop up an exaggeration, I would like to say that I am doing my damnedest to write the exact truth as I experienced it. As you can imagine, it's difficult for me. But the whole point is that I'm trying not to exaggerate at all.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Art of Beginning Again

That's probably a pretty appropriate title for this post, in the sense that you might have thought that I'd been kidnapped, got seriously ill, become entirely disaffected with this whole writing thing or indeed just died. (Out of interest, I just googled "is B. R. Collins dead?". Happily, I seem, on the whole, not to be.) But in fact it's apropos of something entirely different, namely my new novel.

I had a bit of an arid patch over the summer. (Metaphorically. There was room for a hell of a lot more aridity in the actual weather.) A lot was happening, and my life has undergone a lot of personal changes since then - which I won't go into, but suffice it to say that more of my 2012 New Year's Resolutions were successfully completed - and the writing kind of went on a back-burner. That was OK, until I started to think about having to earn a living, and then I tried to force myself to start something new. It was a struggle. It really was. But then I had this brilliant (no, really!) idea. One of those ideas which remind you why you want to be a writer at all. I didn't really care about selling this book, or winning prizes with it, or even getting it published. I just wanted to write it.


I wrote it. Well, some of it. I sent it to my agent, who really liked the idea. I carried on writing it. She showed it to my publisher. I carried on writing it. I got to 40,000 words of it.

Whereupon my agent got back to me with the news that two books with similar "hooks" were being published next year. This book, she said, is not the one that you should be writing now.


Now. I realise that this is not the end of the world. The book I'll write with Hook A is not the same book you'd write with Hook A. It wouldn't be the same book if I used the same blurb as your book. My book will always be mine. (I was going to say "special"... but it might not be, actually.) There might be a good time for it eventually. If those other books are successful it might be a positive advantage that they have something in common. ("If you liked Hook A, you'll love this...") It's just that right now... well. It's not the book I should be writing.

Why don't you have a think, my agent said, and maybe send me five or six ideas, and we'll talk about which one you should work on...?

Five or six? I said. (Well, no, I didn't. I thought.) Five or six?! If I had five or six ideas I'd be rich by now.

So all was sombre in the Collins household. My beautiful little book was half-formed and not going to be born. The world was a vast wasteland, idealess and unforgiving.

And then... I had another idea.

It happens. Eventually. You batter at yourself and fume and rage and sigh and give up. And then, invariably, you have the idea. They come, not at your bidding, but in their own infuriatingly sweet time.

It took me a long time to turn round, like a battleship. But now I am on a new course, cautiously optimistic, and a Better, Stronger Person.

Well. Optimistic, anyway.