Tag Archives: writing

Republishing Between Boat & Shore

At long last, my novel Between Boat & Shore will be available again as an ebook on Amazon. It’s open for pre-order now and will be published on July 18th 2022.

The new cover of Between Boat & Shore

It’s a gentle story about a woman, Aleuks, who arrives in a new village looking for shelter from a storm and somewhere to trade. She finds those, but also much more: Trebbi, not a traveller or a trader, is a beautiful and compelling woman who is trying to support her community through a difficult times of change. Aleuks and Heln, her young nonbinary relative, find themselves adapting to their new surroundings and getting involved in the life of the village – making friends, helping to uncover a murderer, and realising that they might be going to settle down. The main plot is the romance between Aleuks and Trebbi, but we also explore Neolithic Orkney through other events in the life of the village.

What we know about people of the Neolithic comes from archaeology. They left behind amazing structures, such as stone circles, megalithic tombs, and houses, and more subtle signs which can be found in digs – piles of seashells, charred seeds, post holes, butchered bones. This gave me both a structure to work from and a space to play in: what we don’t know for sure about Neolithic people is anything about their social structure, language, or religion. (I wrote about some of the issues around language in a blog post the first time this book was published: Stone Age Speech.) To fill in the gaps, I drew on my understanding of community and faith from modern-day situations, including Quaker and Neo-Pagan possibilities. 

At the moment, the ebook is only on Amazon. On the other hand, that means supporting Amazon, a huge company with ethical problems and a worrying dominance over the book market. On the other hand, that means having access to Amazon’s market, which is simply the biggest, especially for genre readers of ebooks. Many regular readers of romance books and other genres use Kindle Unlimited, which is great for authors because it means being found by lots of new readers who will take a chance on a book they might not buy under other circumstances. Being in Kindle Unlimited for a while, though, means being Amazon-only for that time. If you want to support me directly and not Amazon, you can get in touch (comment below, use the email on my About page, or any of the social media sites listed to the right) and I can sell you a physical copy of the first edition – I still have a box full! But if you buy from Amazon, including if you pre-order now, your purchase lifts the book up in the site’s rankings and helps to introduce it to other readers. 

Worlds of Women: review of A Door Into Ocean

A Door Into Ocean is a 1986 sci-fi novel by Quaker author Joan Slonczewski. It’s interested in nonviolence and the creation of a culture focussing on sharing and equality. One of the ways it explores these themes is through the invention of a society in which there are only women. I picked this up because it was recommended in a Quaker context, but as I was reading I soon realised that it’s relevant to another discussion I’ve been reading recently – the extensive discussions about gender plague/gendercide stories. I mostly read these conversations on Twitter, but I recommend Ana Mardoll’s blog if you need to catch up on the latest round. On Twitter, and I’m sorry I can’t find this again, someone said something to the effect that perhaps authors look for ways to kill off all the men in these stories because they want to create a matriarchy but they don’t know how to do that without murder.

I think that might be true about this book. And if it is, that would be deeply ironic for a story so concerned with nonviolence and the avoidance of death-hastening. Before I get into the details, I should say that this isn’t a discussion of the mechanic presented in the book for the creation of an all-women society or how it works: the sci-fi explanation offered is that in the distant past, the life-shapers in this ocean-dwelling society discovered how to create pregnancies by fusing ova, and the group evolved to no longer have men. (Exactly how this squares with their vague belief in a creating deity who set the entire ecosystem up in balance isn’t explored.) But it has an extremely similar vibe to Nicola Griffith’s book Ammonite, in which a virus kills all men who land on a particular planet, and it’s still very much the case that the author made these decisions. 

Both books also have a kind of situational lesbianism, in which it feels like the author wanted to create lesbian relationships (which is great!) but didn’t believe women would really be attracted to other women if they had the choice of men. In particular, in A Door Into Ocean, although women in the all-women society take women as lovers, a man who goes to live in the all-women society easily finds a lover there, and the woman who crosses from another world into the all-women society retains her attachment to the men in her previous society. It imagines women loving women but always being attracted to men as well. In a somewhat similar way, A Door Into Ocean is aware of trans possibilities in a way I don’t recall in Ammonite, but it shies away from exploring them – there is just one scene in which a woman from the all-women society suggests to her lover, the man from the other world, that he could simply go to the local medic and be reshaped into what she regards as a normal female body. He immediately and emphatically rejects the idea and it is never mentioned again.

Joan Slonczewski has good reasons for wanting to create a society very different to her own. In fact, she creates two societies: one, associated with stone and metal, which seems to reflect real-world situations, with men mostly in charge (and some women in military roles), a strong military, lots of invasions, communities controlled by violence and fear, hunger and homelessness, etc. The other, represented by the world of water where everything is fluid and growing (a metaphor made literal which Slonczewski uses extremely well), is all women, nonviolent, governed by gatherings of people at which all adults can speak and a consensus is sought… in fact, funnily enough, the women of the ocean world make decisions in a very similar way to the characters in my novel Between Boat and Shore. This other Quaker author and I might be drawing on, err, Quaker discernment processes? All this is good in some ways. But what is the message given by the conclusion she apparently reached before writing, namely that such a society could not have, or would be much better off without, men?

I think it normalises the assumption that masculinity and violence go together. If it was a one-off, there wouldn’t necessarily be any harm in this creation in a sci-fi; but this book is part of a much larger pattern, in which it’s clear that the opposite – a society of all men, which is completely peaceful and loving and nonviolent – is not being imagined. (And if you are about to tell me that they couldn’t reproduce, remember that in these stories we’re talking about speculative fiction in which a wide range of currently impossible surgeries are made possible, and mpreg is already a genre, and also some trans men carry pregnancies…) It also tends to ignore trans experience, as already mentioned. And, to return to the idea from the first paragraph, it is interesting that authors trying to create societies where women lead need to do so through the nonexistence of men. 

Whether men are killed by a virus or other plague, or die off when they become unnecessary, this creation of matriarchies through death undermines the nonviolent results Slonczewski wants it to have. It can imply a bio-essentialism, because it suggests that violence is inextricably entangled with the male body rather than being a social problem. Those results are so at odds with the other values expressed in A Door Into Ocean (such as the belief that every person can learn and grow, and the possibility of social change through nonviolent pressure) that it seems unlikely to Slonczewski intended them. Now they’ve been pointed out, hopefully future authors with similar social agendas (myself included) can avoid them.

Story and situation

As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I can control in a reader’s experience. Word choice, sentence length, paragraph structure, chapters… and writers and publishers together, or writers who self-publish, can control layout, paper quality, cover art. These are all important. They are also only part of a reader’s experience. When this is discussed, there’s often a focus on things about the reader – some within the reader’s control, and some not. Does the reader have personal experience of things described in the book? Does the reader’s mood accord with the mood of the book? Does the reader have time and space to read attentively, or are they skimming or distracted? Writers try to guess things about readers (like which words they know and what kind of story they want to read) and readers try to use clues like covers and blurbs and reviews to pick writers who relate appropriately to their expectations – sometimes wanting comfort and sometimes wanting challenge.

But another things readers or media consumers do is to put different texts in dialogue. Sometimes this is very considered – for example, last year I went on holiday to Whitstable, and I went in Harbour Books and asked for novels set locally, and read two very different stories, both set in the same town, in relatively quick succession. Sometimes it’s even controlled by an editorial hand, as when poems are collected in an anthology or essays in an edited collection, or suggested by an publisher, as when books are placed in a series. Sometimes it’s an accident. This can happen with fiction, and it can happen when some of the texts are factual, too. 

Does the news count as a text for this purpose? On the one hand, it obviously isn’t like reading a novel or watching a film, and rolling 24-hour news coverage is different even from a journalistic nonfiction book. On the other hand, sometimes it arrives in similar ways. Last night, instead of putting the news on, we watched The King’s Man – but we watched it on the same TV, and whatever its other pros and cons as a film the way I thought about it was undoubtedly affected by the world context. Sometimes creators see this sort of thing coming and make changes, more or less successfully, to account for it. A Spiderman film had the twin towers removed after September 11th; one theory about the weird plot of Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was that it had a storyline about a pandemic removed. The parallels between The King’s Man and the situation in Ukraine probably aren’t strong enough to justify such a reaction, even if it hadn’t been released before the recent events – and much of what it uses and plays with is real history anyway – but sitting on my sofa last night, it was impossible to avoid making the comparisons.

This seems inevitable. I don’t think this specific effect did The King’s Man, a movie which swings wildly between the tragic, the comic, and an uncertain tragi-comedy, any favours, but as often as it causes problems it can be a positive and enlightening experience. In January I read Darryl Cunningham’s Supercrash, a graphic novel which investigates politics and financial structures. I had that freshly in my mind as stories about inflation and the rising cost of living were getting traction on news agendas, and it helped me to think more widely about the implications of what was being reported and ask questions (usually ones I can’t answer) about why things are the way they are.

That being so, I have no moral to draw out of these musings except to keep on reflecting on how particular combinations might be affecting my responses to any given piece of media. Would I have like The King’s Man better in a different time? Possibly. Would I have appreciated Supercrash less if it hadn’t seemed relevant? Probably. Will I try and create stories which respond to the world around me? Probably. Will I be able to write something which speaks to the moment in which it is published? Probably not!

Have you had the experience of media/situation pairings which worked especially well or especially badly?

Prehistory and present landscapes

One of the things I find most intriguing about the prehistory of the place I live is understanding how humans have shaped and changed the landscape – perhaps since our first arrival here. When I was writing about the Neolithic, I was very aware of the suggestion once made that all novels written today, whether they express it explicitly or not, are about climate change at some level. The introduction of farming, characteristic of the Neolithic period, involves the introduction of new species – in Orkney at the time when Between Boat and Shore is set, the community keeps sheep and cows, but does not yet have pigs or horses. The Orkney landscape of that time was very different to the open one we see today, because it’s still thickly wooded except in the areas where grazing or deliberate clearance has made space for fields.

I had assumed that the forested landscape of the Neolithic was the natural state of affairs – but recently I’ve been reading about the Mesolithic period, and of course it’s more complex than that. The Mesolithic is usually taken to begin in Britain at the point when the glaciers finally leave. (There were also people in Britain during parts of the Ice Age, a period known as the Paleolithic.) But the landscape at that point was very open – scoured clean by ice, basically. It took a long time for freshwater fish to reappear in the rivers, and at the beginning of the Mesolithic wild horses lived on grass plains. Over time, trees grew, horses left for more open areas and deer, elk, and aurochs were more comfortable with the increased cover. The forests of the Neolithic began growing in this period. But trees didn’t grow everywhere and it’s been suggested that as well as cutting trees down, people deliberately burned moorland to keep it open. New shoots after the burning would attract deer, making them easier to hunt – but the practice also encourages the formation of peat and prevents forest trees from growing to full size. (This article gives a summary of key theories.)

Closer investigation always seems to lead to the breakdown of binaries. There isn’t a clear line here between ‘hunter-gatherers’ who passively occupy a landscape and ‘farmers’ who take control of it – the hunter-gatherer-burner-deer-follower/tempters act to change things in the landscape when it suits them, and farmers have to work around the natural givens of the place. Nor is there a pure ‘natural’ state untouched by human hands followed by a ‘created’ state which is either spoiled or improved depending on your perspective. Human beings are part of nature and have an influence on the ecosystem whenever and wherever they live – like all other species, whether it’s the predator which can affect the whole system, or the introduced grazing animal which, in sufficient numbers, changes the soil and everything else. Or animals whose ways of life accidentally create habitats for others.

In an era of discussions about rewilding, this puts some of the pressing questions into perspective. Unless we can bring back the glaciers (and if you can do that, broader issues about climate breakdown might not be so urgent!), there is probably no ‘untouched’ ‘wild’ British landscape to return to. Even land left entirely alone will be affected by the things previously done by humans – by the plants we have introduced and the animals we have made extinct, as well as by climate change itself. Instead, we have to accept that humans have always had and will always have an influence, and ask how we should best use that influence. I don’t have any answers, but I find that exploring the distant past sometimes helps me ask these questions better.

Telling the Truth about God sells 1000 copies

The publisher emailed to let me know that Telling the Truth about God, my book about Quakers and religious language, has sold more than a thousand copies. It’s good to see it reaching more and more readers.

The front cover of my book, Telling the Truth about God, on a dark background. It has the words '1000 copies sold' above and fireworks and balloons around.
Image description: the front cover of my book, Telling the Truth about God, on a dark background. It has the words ‘1000 copies sold’ above and fireworks and balloons around.

In other book news, Stephen Cox recently posted Ten easy ways to help an author – his new book, Our Child of Two Worlds, will be out this March. The tips apply to just about any book you’d like to support.

NaNoWriMo and Me

NaNoWriMo, (Inter)National Novel Writing Month in full, or NaNo for short, is a writing challenge in which people aim to write a short novel – 50,000 words – in a month, specifically the month of November. It’s a Marmite sort of thing – some writers love it, some hate it. Some will explain to you at length what is wrong about it or why it’s the best thing ever. I’m sympathetic to some of those arguments, on both sides. It’s true that 50,000 words isn’t a full novel in most contexts, but it’s a nice round number which is simultaneously big enough to be a real challenge and low enough to be manageable in a month for many people. It’s about 1667 words a day, or 12,500 words each weekend. Other writing challenges or suggested disciplines give similar results: three morning pages at 500 words a page, for example. Of course, morning pages are about getting words down, not completing a novel… but for me and probably many others, so is NaNo. 

Anyway, NaNo is not the only way to write a novel, and I write at least 400 or 500 words a day all year as far as possible, often more. (These days I use 4TheWords, because I like the gamification, and because it has a good system for missing a day or a few without feeling bad about it.) But I enjoy NaNo because it pushes me to work on a single project in a single rush. For me personally, it creates the need to do the research in advance or fix it later. It encourages me to get on with the bit of writing which I enjoy the most, and it gives me the opportunity to share some of that experience with a community. It says: if you don’t know what happens next, add a dragon. Which is always fun.

Knowing that if everything goes wrong, I might add a random dragon anyway, I have chosen to start with a fantasy universe in which a time-travel spell is a key feature… I’m not going to say too much about the project yet, partly because I know these things change when I get going, and also because at the moment my plan is simply to have fun. If it becomes the core of a manuscript which I develop and add to and eventually find is publishable, good – but last year I wrote 60,000 words, the first half of a sci-fi novel, and stopped dead mid-story because my original plot plan was not going to work and I still haven’t come up with a better option. 

I’m not going to post word counts as I go, but will try and summarise the day’s progress with a gif or similar on Twitter

Which of your books should I buy?

With the publication of my third Quaker Quicks book, Hearing the Light, I now have six published books and a few people have asked questions about what distinguishes them. It seems like a good time to share some observations about all my published books so far – especially who might want to read each of them.

The two academic books, British Quakers and Religious Language and Theology from Listening, were both published by Brill. These are mainly for people who want all the references and the details. Practically, the price restricts readership to those with deep pockets and those with access to university libraries. The first one was based on the Quaker part of my PhD thesis and looks at how British Quakers use the list format as an inclusive way of naming God. The second one details my research on the core of liberal Quaker theology, based on a wide range of books of discipline and an analysis of some key popular and academic publications.

My first novel, Between Boat and Shore, was published by Manifold. It’s a lesbian love story set in Neolithic Orkney. Unfortunately, Manifold have now closed and the ebook is now unavailable, but you can still buy paperbacks from a few places, including the Quaker Centre bookshop and direct from me.

And that brings me to my Quaker Quicks books. 

The first one, Telling the Truth about God, is about how British Quakers speak about the divine, some of the challenges involved, and how we use lists and other inclusive structures to both name and contain the diversity of theological views in the community. It’s based on my PhD research and my experience running workshops on the topic. It has two introductions, one for Quakers and one for everyone else, and might be of interest to anyone who has struggled with discussing the ineffable. For Christmas or other present-giving occasions, buy it for: Quakers who have questions about words, non-Quakers who have questions about Quaker nontheism, people who sit in worship services wondering what we could say instead of ‘Lord and Father’, anyone who reads ahead on the carol sheet and changes the words.

The second one, Quakers Do What! Why?, tries to give short and accessible answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about liberal Quakers. It’s based on a lifetime’s experience of being asked questions about Quakers, from the ordinary to the strange, and trying to answer them quickly and clearly. It’s aimed at people who don’t yet know much about Quakers but want to know more, but it might also be useful for people who know some things already. If you’ve found this blog post by searching the internet for ‘Quakers’, and haven’t yet read much else, you could start with this book. If you’re thinking of buying for someone else, this book might be good for: that friend who doesn’t come to Quaker meeting but always asks questions about it, someone who’s come to meeting a few times and looks puzzled during the notices, people who seem like they would get ‘Quaker’ if they took an internet quiz about what religion to be.

The third and most recent one, Hearing the Light, is an attempt to describe the core of liberal Quaker theology. It argues that liberal Quakers do have a theology – one which is embodied in our practice of unprogrammed worship – and that enough of it is shared that it can be said to have a core. (Spoiler: the core is the process of watching for the Spirit moving.) It talks about how Quakers make decisions and why. It talks about how we know things, how we record and share what we know (especially through books of discipline/faith and practice), and how readers can experiment for themselves with Quaker ways of doing things. The main audience for this book is Quakers who want to explore our tradition further, but it will also be of interest to people who ask questions about why Quakers feel they can trust what they discern in meeting for worship for business. You might want to buy this book if: you have questions about the Quaker tradition and how worship and decision-making relate, you want to explore our worship process further, or you want to know more about liberal Quakers beyond your Yearly Meeting. It might make a good gift for someone getting further into the Quaker way, or someone with questions about Quaker discernment.

Of course, you can recommend all of them to your library! All three Quaker Quicks books would probably be a good fit for a local meeting library, and many other libraries will consider buying them if you ask. Similarly, asking for them at your local bookshop helps to raise the profile of the whole series and supports your local bookshop, so that’s good all round. You can also find them all on the usual online bookshops, including Amazon and Hive.

If you have other questions about these books or any of my other writing projects, please drop a comment below or come over to my Goodreads profile where you can ask questions for everyone to see.

Fiction: From Long Barrow to Museum

(In a new departure for this blog, I thought I’d share this short story which explores time, change, wishes, and the uses of West Kennet Long Barrow. Content notes: death, burial, human remains.)

I was expecting to be visited. When my daughter moved my bones into this little side-chamber, after I’d been staring at the sky for a month while the red kites and the ravens took the flesh from my body, I was expecting that she, and her boyfriend, and my son and his wife and their children and hopefully one day their children’s children, would visit me in the way I visited my parents. I remember my father bringing the long bones of his family out from the tomb every year. His people are gathered together in a pile, in this same side-chamber with me, and because he brought them out to spend time with them every year their thigh bones and skulls are jumbled up with their arms bones and all their smaller bones have been lost to the cracks in the stone floor. 

They are still here, too, of course. They don’t talk much. My father used to talk about his mother and father by name, but further back than that he just called them ‘ancestors’, so now I’m here with them I don’t know what to call them. My father is here and sometimes I tell him that I expected my son and daughter to visit. “I didn’t expect you to arrive so soon,” he says to me, every time. I hoped I wouldn’t arrive so soon, either, but to be honest I worried about it from the moment I realised I was pregnant again. A woman with an almost adult son who carries another pregnancy… it’s always risky, you always get close to death when you give birth, in fact I thought I was going to go both times before, and this time I was right. 

My children did visit for a while. The ones who lived, that is. The baby is almost here. I never met her in life but I feel her next to me sometimes, or maybe she crawls around. I hear her crying. My father says, “Hello, baby,” when that happens. I’d like to comfort her but what can I do? The worst actually did happen. I can’t feed her, we don’t sleep. I’m not sure we’re really awake, either, though. To begin with the daylight would come down the passage on my right and my bones would be touched by it, not much but a little indirect light, and I’d remember that days and nights come and go. That was when my daughter would visit. But they stopped bringing everyone’s bones out, and my bones stayed mine, instead of mixing in with the other ancestors.

“You’ll join us soon,” my father says, but I won’t if my daughter doesn’t come and look after all her ancestors. 

The daylight doesn’t come in any more. I think they blocked up the entrance – there’s darkness, and no air movement, and no visitors. My bones are just resting here. My baby’s bones are next to me, but they’re almost gone, and my father’s bones and his ancestors’ bones are in the pile to my left. There are other chambers in the tomb, other families, but we have to shout to speak to them and there’s nothing to say. 

At first we heard ceremonies outside. The visiting stopped but the singing, the dancing, the fires, went on. I wasn’t the last in, either – they brought someone into one of the side chambers on the other side of the entrance – but it’s been a long time since then. I hoped it meant that nobody had died, that everyone was healthy and happy. But I think it means they buried them somewhere else. It’s been too long. 

It’s been much too long, actually. With no days and no movement, no sleep and no meals, time slips away from me unmarked, but I know it has passed. Soil has settled into all the gaps around the stone which blocks the entrance. Water seeps through when there’s a heavy rain, and sometimes the root of a plant or a little earthworm comes and goes, somewhere in between the huge stones of the roof. Nobody visits. I assume the sun rises and sets. I wonder if the stars still turn above us. Recently I started to hear humming – sometimes almost a buzzing or a whine, something a distant drone. Maybe it’s an insect, or some sort of music, far away.

Well, this makes for a change. I do get visitors now. I’m not sure where I am anymore, but most of my bones are still here and my baby’s bones beside me, and people come to see me. The lights seem very bright and the air is dry. I was in a stone-walled room, in the tomb, and the air was damp with the rain from above and the water in the chalk underneath. Here I’m in… I think it’s a large room, I can’t see it all, and there’s something strong and clear around me. Visitors who lean towards me can’t touch me. I haven’t been put in with the bones of my ancestors, although I sometimes hear them nearby. I hear my father asking where we are. 

At first I thought we were in another tomb. Maybe we are, but people have changed their ideas about death since our day. They have lights on around us, almost every day, and they’ve put a lot of our cooking pots and things in another box with a clear front where I can see them. That seems weird. They aren’t usually supposed to be in tombs. And there are things I don’t recognise – pots with odd designs. 

The people who come to visit carry odd things. They have shoes in interesting colours and clothes that rustle like no fabric I’ve ever known – more like the leaves in the trees in autumn. They have little boxes which glow on one side. I don’t understand what they say. I recognise the children, of course. Exploring, poking in the corners, staring at my bones wide-eyed. That’s normal. That’s how my eldest was, always wanting to go a few steps further than I’d like. She fell in the stream once. I thought of that the other day when a little one carrying a carved animal – teeth like a wolf but the skin had been painted greeny-brown, more like an adder – anyway, this little one with his strange toy wanted to touch everything. He couldn’t touch the pots, and he couldn’t touch my bones, and he couldn’t touch the stone knife they’ve displayed on the other side of me, and he wept bitterly over every one of those things. I thought of my daughter wanting to touch the water and falling in. I thought of her wanting to touch my bones, but the big old tomb being shut up, and my bones left separate with the family pile just over there.

I can’t touch them from here, either. My father and my ancestors are gathered within sight, but these clear boxes in this new tomb separate us.

A woman who came to visit was very sad to see me here. She didn’t want to look at my bones at first. She turned her back, looking at the pots again and again, but eventually she looked at my skull. When she did, she looked and looked. She looked at the little squiggles on the side of the clear box, where they all look to start with, and then she looked at my bones for a long time. I wondered if she wanted to touch them.

She used the glowing box she held to show a friend who was with her a picture. She held the picture over my box and I could see it – and I recognised it. The trees have changed but the outline of the hill and the tomb are much the same. It was the place I was buried. I could see the big stones at the entrance, the new ones which closed the tomb, and the curve of the soil which covers the tomb. You see it against the sky from some places, and that’s the picture this woman was showing to her friend.

They looked from the picture to me, mouths downturned. I realised what they thought. They don’t want to touch my bones. They want me to go back to the old tomb. They think I should stay where I was put.

They did look at the pile of bones of my ancestors, but I’m not sure they understood. The picture disappeared and didn’t come back. They spoke, but the language has changed so much and I don’t understand them. I wish my daughter could visit me. I wish someone would bring out my bones every year, the way my father did, and put them back in a jumble with the other ancestors. I don’t mind this new tomb – at least there are visitors – and I’m glad my baby is with me, but I miss the whispers of the rest of my family.

The Voice of the Book?

On the Book of Discipline Revision Committee, we have sometimes been talking about the voice of the book – what do we want it to sound like? What tone should the book take, and how is that created? Sometimes we talk about a singular voice, and at other times we recognise that many voices will be present in the final result – the committee and the yearly meeting, and the individual or corporate authors of sources we use for extracts (and not just written ones, but the creators of images and music and videos we use as well). In order to explore the question of voice in books of discipline, I went looking for some examples, and in this blog post I want to offer close readings of three passages, all from Quaker books – all passages from sections on Yearly Meetings – but which have markedly different voices. Close reading is as much of an art as writing, and you may not agree with my conclusions if you hear different resonances in the passages I discuss. I have chosen three passages from sources which are available online so you can go and read more for yourself and come to your own conclusions. Please share them!

The first passage is from the 1806 “Rules of Discipline of the Yearly Meeting of Friends, Held in Philadelphia”. Like most books of discipline of the period, it is divided into chapters which are then arranged alphabetically. The chapter on Yearly Meeting is short, with only a few extracts from previous minutes laying out different aspects of the process. The first paragraph reads:

It appears by the records, that our first yearly meeting was held at Burlington in New Jersey the thirty-first day of the Sixth Month, 1681, O.S. for the provinces of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; that in 1685, it was agreed to be held alternately at Burlington and Philadelphia; that in 1755 the time of holding it was changed to the Ninth Month; that in 1760 it was concluded to be held at the same time at Philadelphia only; and that in 1798, the time of holding it was altered to the third Second-day in the Fourth Month, as it now is; the yearly meeting of ministers and elders to be on the seventh day of the week preceding; and both to begin at the tenth hour.

Some of the features which first stand out to a modern reader are the fashions of the time – for example, the use of semi-colons to make sections, almost a list, where modern writers would be more likely to use full stops and create more but shorter sentences, is an obvious aspect of the writing here but may have as much to do with the expectations of the time as a deliberate choice creating the voice of the book. However, the decision to use Quaker-style dates (“Sixth Month” rather than July, and so on – to avoid using pagan names) is a very deliberate one and would have been knowingly at odds with surrounding society. 

The voice of the book is also created by the decisions about content. What did the creators of this book think their readers wanted to know? About history, obviously. About dates and changing practices, about which it’s necessary to give some level of detail. About what’s done now – after this passage, the reader of 1806 knows to expect Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to begin at 10 o’clock on the the third Second-day in the Fourth Month (that is, the third Monday in April). Readers who do not know what Yearly Meeting is or what it does, however, would be very little better off after reading this passage than they were before – it’s a meeting which happens yearly, and has for a long time, but what do people do at this meeting and why? The book assumes readers already know this. The voice of this book is of an insider speaking to an insider – “our first yearly meeting”. It is pedantic, recording details most people would be unlikely to remember, and perhaps designed to remind rather than to teach. It does not rhapsodies or relate personal experience at all, but sets down facts without comment, even though that leaves many questions unanswered about the whys as well as the hows.

Here, by way of a contrast, is the beginning of the chapter on Yearly Meeting from Australia Yearly Meeting’s “Handbook of Quaker Practice and Procedure in Australia” (seventh edition, 2020)

In the previous chapter, consideration was given to the first meaning of Yearly Meeting, the organisation of the whole body of Quakers in Australia, denoted by AYM. Now this chapter is about the other meaning, the annual gathering of Australian Quakers, denoted by YM. One purpose of Yearly Meeting is the reaching of decisions on AYM policy and conduct. Other reasons for Yearly Meeting are the enriching of fellowship between Friends, mutual support in spiritual growth and the discussion of current issues. 

Yearly Meeting is usually held for seven to eight days in January, and is hosted by each Regional Meeting in rotation. A Summer School (6.3.4) is held in association with Yearly Meeting.

There’s no shortage of technical language here but it is handled differently, with a specific effort made to explain most of the terms used (‘regional meeting’ was also covered elsewhere). The voice of this book is more didactic, explaining the purpose of this chapter (“about the other meaning”) as well as the purposes of the Yearly Meeting itself. Unlike the voice of this blog post, which uses words like ‘didactic’ even though I had to use Google to check my spelling, the voice of this book seems to be trying to use plain language even when talking about more emotionally laden elements – “enriching of fellowship between Friends” is a flowery as it gets. However, that turn of phrase is noticeable for its use of a standard play on words; in a book which usually refers to the group as ‘Quakers’ (in this passage, for example, it’s a “gathering of Australian Quakers”), the switch back to the older ‘Friends’ implies the ordinary sense of ‘friends’ as well. “Fellowship between friends” is almost a tautology – if you don’t have fellowship with your friends, are they really your friends? – but the capital letter opens the dual meeting “fellowship between Quakers/fellowship between friends” and makes it worth saying. Note that the use of the phrase ‘Australian Quakers’ also means there are no pronouns here – the group are named rather than being designated as ‘us’ or ‘them’. The resulting impression is more removed than the discussion of ‘our yearly meeting’ in the previous example, but perhaps easier to follow for readers who do not consider themselves part of the group. (Including me: I am a Quaker, but not a member of Australia or Philadelphia Yearly Meetings.)

Finally, here’s the first paragraph from the chapter on Yearly Meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting’s 1994 Quaker faith & practice. This is the start of a lengthy section which brings in both history and commentary.

Our yearly meeting grew out of a series of conferences of ministering Friends, some regional, some national. We may think of that at Swannington in 1654 or Balby in 1656 (the postscript to whose lengthy letter of counsel is so much better known than the letter itself) or Skipton the same year, or the general meeting for the whole nation held at Beckerings Park, the Bedfordshire home of John Crook, for three days in May 1658, and attended by several thousand Friends. This in some ways might be considered the first Yearly Meeting were it not for the fact that the 1660s, through persecution and pestilence, saw breaks in annual continuity. The meeting in May 1668 was followed by one at Christmastime, which lasted into 1669, since when the series has been unbroken. It is 1668, therefore, that we have traditionally chosen as the date of establishment of London Yearly Meeting. But many (though not all) of the meetings up to 1677 were select, that is, confined to ‘publick’ (or ministering) Friends: from 1678 they were representative rather than select in character. Minutes are preserved from 1672.

There is a good deal of detail here, but rather than simply reporting facts the voice of the book is working to persuade us. It gives several examples (assuming that these are known to us already – “we may think” – and of course readers already know about the letter from Balby… if you don’t, here’s a brief introduction) before arguing that in fact none of these was the first Yearly Meeting. Both the issues of continuity and representativeness are raised as characteristics of a Yearly Meeting which will count as such – while the reader drowns in dates much as in the 1806 Philadelphia example, and is assumed to be an insider, a lot more information is given (like details about locations and attendees), and it is possible to infer some things about the purpose of the meetings from the way in which some examples are judged to be ‘in’ the series and others not. The people are called ‘Friends’ throughout and the arguing voice, the reader, and previous generations of Friends are all included in the decision to be made: “we have traditionally chosen”. The method of presenting facts in support of multiple possible interpretations, especially done so quickly in a single passage, is reminiscent of an academic project such as an essay. The vocabulary is extensive, background knowledge is assumed (‘pestilence’ presumably refers to the outbreak of the Black Death in 1665, for example), and only some technical terms are explained (‘publick’ is glossed with the more familiar, although still technical, term ‘ministering’).

I’m not sure that I want the voice of our future book to copy any of these. I hope, though, that a careful reading of three examples shows something of the range of what is possible – even without adding a diagram or a video – and how the details of choices add up to create an overall impression. There are the issues of vocabulary – ‘we’ and ‘our’, ‘Quakers’ and ‘Friends’, ‘ministers and elders’. There is the question of sentence length and style – how many subclauses is the reader expected to be able to follow, for example? And these issues cannot be separated from the issues of content and audience. In order to decide what the voice of the book should be like, we as a Revision Committee will be thinking about questions like: who is reading this book and what do they want to find out? Are they knowledgeable Quakers who want to double-check a date? Australian Quakers or strange people on the internet who want to analyse language use by Australian Quakers? People who have been to yearly meeting before, or people who are considering whether it’s worth giving up a week’s holiday to go for the first time?

Writing: sometimes erratic and boring

From time to time, I resolve to share more about my writing process, to let people know what I’m working on. It should, in theory, help me build an audience of people who want to read the books I’m writing, and create a community of writers who are going through similar things.

Every time I make that resolution, though, I come up against twin problems. One is that some stages of my writing process are delicate. I don’t want to share the details too early, in case they change. Last year, for example, I mentioned on Twitter a Quakers-in-space sci-fi novel I was working on, or maybe at some level am still working on… but it got halfway into the first draft and stalled, so it may be some time. (But the one before that which stalled is now the one I’m working on, so I do sometimes come back to them in due course.)

The other is that quite a lot of stages of the writing and publishing process are boring. I work intensely on something for a while – months or years – and then there are long periods of waiting. Sometimes this is a good wait, the kind with a definite end: people who like my Quaker Quicks work can look forward to the publication of Hearing the Light in September 2021. (For those who are following the larger projects, this is the accessible version of the material I researched for Theology from Listening, Brill, 2020 – if you want the footnotes, that’s the one you need.) Sometimes this is a wait which, the longer it lasts, the worse the news is likely to be. In late 2019 I wrote a novel set in North Wales just after the Romans left; it has romance and adventure and religion and horses, and for almost exactly a year now I’ve been submitting it to one agent or publisher after another with no success. Not the good kind of waiting! 

It also doesn’t help that I am often working on more than one project at once. For example, sometimes someone asks me how my current project is coming, and I have to pause to remember whether they are a Fiction person or an Academic person before I answer, because the (possibly misguided) way I am apparently dealing with lockdown stress is by working on two books at once. My current theory – see above re. changes to details – is that one of them is a novel, set in Iron Age England, picking up hints from the Classical authors about multiple marriages in that society, and the other is an academic book, building on my previous work on multiple religious belonging and using Wittgensteinian approaches to create an entirely new way of thinking about what it is to participate in a religious tradition. But only the other day I threw out my entire previous chapter plan and started again with a new structure, so who knows what will happen between here and a finished manuscript, let alone whether it will ever see the light of day.

An elderly friend in one of my previous Quaker meetings used to ask whenever he saw me: are you still writing? He died some time ago but I remember his encouragement and, even if the day by day work of it isn’t exciting or easy to share, I can definitely say: yes I am.