For many people we know, the word that best characterises the year so far is Shitshow. Oh, yep, I hear that. But for me and Kelley the first half of January has been a rollercoaster of events clustered around five slightly different words.
Word #1: Abattoir.
New Year’s Eve dawned upon a great slaughter. Charlie and George turned the house into an abattoir and war zone: two moles, one vole, and a bird. It was Charlie who caught most of them—including the bird—and George who ate them—including the bird. The bird, in particular, was messy. Charlie brought it in dying or just-dead (I heard him come in but didn’t see it), and proceeded to toss it around and get feathers everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Then he threw it into the Christmas tree, where it got stuck. So of course he had to pull off ornaments (one shattered) and countless branchlets and pine needles to get to it. After a while, though—once he’d got feathers stuck in his mouth a few times—he got bored, as he always does, and abandoned the bird for his dish of real kitty food. Enter George. But that’s a story for the next Kitten Report, coming soon. Back to the mainline narrative.
Word #2: Rewrite.
Just before the holidays—in our house usually Christmas Eve to the first Monday of January—I did my first rewrite of Menewood, cleaning it up, smoothing it over, taking out about 8,000 words. Then during the holidays I tackled the edit notes for Spear while Kelley read the rewritten Menewood. Spear is a short novel—less than 45,000 words—and Menewood a long one—more than 280,000 words, so their rhythms are quite different. But I think they both benefit from me swapping back and forth; there’s a kind of synergy between them.
The first rewrite of Spear is now done and back with the editor. It gained about five hundred words. This always happens. For example, most of Kelley’s notes on any particular draft consist mainly of How does she feel here? and Yes, but how does she feel? and finally, plaintively, WE NEED TO KNOW HOW SHE FEELS!! I always think it’s perfectly obvious how the protagonist feels—the reader can tell by what she does or doesn’t notice, what she does or doesn’t do—but I always grudgingly unpack things a bit, grumping to myself. And later, of course, I realise Kelley and my editors are always right. (Well, almost always. But, yeah, listen to your editors, kids.) I’ll expect a second edit letter for Spear before the end of the month.
Meanwhile, as Kelley read Menewood, every evening we’d chat about what she’d read—what worked, what didn’t, what she loved, what she found not entirely clear. (But how did she feel at that point?) I love these evenings: wine, conversation, writing, ideas… It’s my idea of heaven, especially with cats purring in front of the fire, a stew bubbling on the stove and veggies roasting in the oven. On these days I love the world and love my life.*
Kelley finished reading and making her notes the day I sent the Spear rewrite off, so without any kind of break I plunged into the next Menewood rewrite. Unsurprisingly it took longer than Spear. Most of the work I did was to unpack emotional moments and explain one battle-planning sequence a bit more clearly. The end result? I put back 3,000 words—different words, better words. That went off to my agent the morning of Wednesday 6th January.
Word #3: Insurrection.
There I was, after I sent off the rewritten Menewood, feeling pleased with myself, and looking forward to a rare afternoon of doing nothing in particular—watching some deliciously unimportant TV, or reading a no-brains-necessary novel. So after lunch I settled on the sofa with a cup of tea, some chocolate, and the TV remote. I happily clicked the power button…and saw a man carrying a confederate flag strolling across the Rotunda of the Capitol building, followed by jaw-dropping scenes of mobs chasing police up stairs, flash-bangs going off, and the president-elect accusing supporters of the sitting president of sedition and insurrection.
It was a surreal moment. I’m a US citizen born and raised in the UK. For the last 20 years I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that this country was heading for a cliff and if people didn’t fucking take these right-wing arseholes seriously they would wake up in an autocracy with no escape. No, no, everyone would say; it couldn’t happen here. But, I’d say, it is happening here, right now: Look at this, and this, and that. And eventually, as you probably noticed, I just stopped talking about it in public forums. So one thing I want to make clear is that I was not in the least surprised by a white supremacist, Trump-supporting mob to attack the Capitol. Similarly, I was not surprised that armed white people weren’t overwhelmed by militarised law enforcement, beaten or killed, and then rounded up, thrown in a cell, and made to eat the key—as would have happened, did happen, with any number of peaceful protests, particularly Black Lives Matter marches.
Nonetheless, seeing lawmakers in gas hoods, seeing that noose strung up outside, seeing law enforcement running or being beaten by white middle-class Americans was surreal. I think what made it even more difficult for me to bring the seriousness into focus was seeing these insurrectionists blithely taking selfies and posting them on social media. That and seeing Republican congresspeople openly encourage the attack. I’m not a person who doubts herself much, but seeing these images made me wonder if I was living in a different world to these people where the notion of consequences had a different meaning.
I turned it off. Drank my tea. Turned it on again. Texted Kelley who was in a Zoom meeting: I’m watching jaw-dropping scenes… By this time the talking heads were just rehashing what I already knew so I turned it off again. After I resolved to donate whatever my next stimulus cheque ends up being to local food banks—because I think it’s the most useful thing I can do to help anyone in this world right now—I did my best to tune it out. No point fretting about things I can do nothing about; it’s beyond my zone of control. Whatever happens with the impeachment is not something I can influence, so I’m not going to pay attention.
Word #4: Reading.
Like most writers, I get many—I mean many—requests for blurbs. I refuse almost all of them (yet still do at least a dozen a year). But late last year I got two ARCs for novels written by queer BIPOC writers at or near the beginning of their careers. Why would I say no to that? The problem: I had just one week to read both and come up with something enticing—all while still feeling as though I were living in an alternate universe, dealing with George-related stress, and, of course, my old friend fatigue. In the end, it worked out pretty well, most likely because they were extremely good novels; I was delighted to be able to offer heartfelt praise.
By this time I was feeling super seriously tired and in need of a break.
Word #5: No.
No will be the watchword of my first quarter of 2021. Unless you are a friend, relative, or former student—or the project is seriously interesting or well paid, preferably both—the answer to your request will be No. Want me to blurb your book? No. Want my advice on crip characters in your work-in-progress? No. Want me to look at your query letter? No. Want me to teach/join your board/do an interview? No. Contribute a story/essay/book chapter to your project? No. Judge a competition? No. There are many things I’m already committed to this quarter—stories, proposals, teaching, essays, etc—and those commitments I will fulfill. New ones? Not so much.
So what will I be doing? Writing, mostly. Also loafing about, sorting out the house (it needs a lot of work), teaching, rescuing cats, reading, and generally having a life. I think it’ll be pretty cool to not be so tired that I can tell the difference between Good Things and Bad Things. I’m looking forward to having grownups in charge of the country in just a few days. Do I think Biden/Harris are endowed with political, social, and economic superpowers and can magically right all wrongs? No. But I think there’s a fighting chance that at some point in the next few months the deterioration will slow to a halt, and gradually reverse. And I want to have the bandwidth to witness that—or, y’know, deal with un/foreseen horrors.
The beginning of 2021 has been a rollercoaster ride so far. I want to have the strength to deal with what’s next.
*Eh, I always love my life and almost always can find something to love about the world, but these days/evenings are especially precious; they are the heart of who we are.