Elephants!

A Room Full of Elephants

As you might have noticed, my website has sprouted a new book. A Room Full of Elephants is now available for preorder on Kindle and in the iBooks Store, and will be released on March 16th. The paperback version will appear on or around the same date: possibly earlier, should it please the gods.

You can follow links here, there and everywhere to read the blurb and, I hope, to order a copy. In this post I want to describe some of the background to the book, and the writing process. There won’t be any spoilers.

I’ve noodled with the core concepts in the book for a few years. Not long after The Pink and the Grey was released I started scribbling with no more than an opening scene in mind, planning to follow the plot wherever it might lead. It led to a brick wall in that case, about 15K words in, but the process spewed a number of ideas that I squirrelled away. After Disunited and The Pauline Conversion, looking through my notes for inspiration, I decided this was the story I wanted to tell next.

I deliberately didn’t reread the abandoned draft. I didn’t want to be lured into copy-pasting words and scenes and finding myself stuck in the same mire as before. I took the concepts, wrote page after page of bullet points including random ideas, quotes and character notes, roughed out something not fit to shine an outline’s steel toecaps, and started writing again from a blank sheet of pixels.

Now, I’m not a pantser, as those who write without an outline are sometimes called. I prefer a fractal approach: start with broad swathes of plot, a rough coastline, and add progressively more detail until I can see the fiddly bits of Slartibartfast’s fjords. But this time I wanted to try a little light pantsing to see how it went: much as with the original version of the story, but with a different focus.

Yeah, I shouldn’t do that.

I can’t remember who said it (Stephen King?) but it’s at least partially true: writer’s block is nature’s way of telling you your plot’s taken a wrong turning and the satnav is currently directing it to a dead end. And when that happens all you can do is tell your muse (Siri) to shut his gob, then wrench the gearstick into reverse and try not to run over the sheep.

The good news with these new-fangled computers is that nothing ever gets deleted: it just gets moved to a folder marked OLD, to be cherry-picked for the bits that haven’t turned to mush.

arfoe-old-oldAnd when it happens again, you rename OLD to OLD OLD and make a new OLD.

I wouldn’t like to guess how many words I actually wrote for ARFOE to produce the 100K of the final book.

By comparison, with The Pauline Conversion I had a detailed outline and wrote the first draft from zero to 120K words in under 100 days. A Room Full of Elephants took at least twice as long, for fewer words. That includes two blocks of time when I wasn’t writing: I stepped away to rethink aspects of the story and to give Siri and his slapdash directions a stern talking to. I also went to the Lake District for a week, which helped put some distance between brain and draft. Once a new route was plotted (or a new plot routed), avoiding low bridges and deep fords, I pushed on. This time the drystone walls survived my meanderings, and I reached my destination relatively intact.

I completed the first draft on my parents’ 51st wedding anniversary. (The book’s dedicated to them.)

A month of incubation a Christmas, and several drafts later, here we are. A Room Full of Elephants is done, and despite all the frustration I love it.

Writing is a slog, and a chore, and a delight. The hours can rush past, and time can stop. You can struggle to find one word, any word, to fit, and you can bash out a thousand without blinking. And nothing, nothing at all, beats the surprises. The revelations your subconscious hides from you until just the right moment: and you think yes, but now I’ve got to revise everything I’ve already written, and you look back, and you don’t have to change a word.

I know, I know, it sounds unlikely. Twee nonsense, the ravings of a poor, ruddy-cheeked auteur perspiring into his aubergine ruff. It happens, though, I promise you. (Although my ruff is turquoise.)

And now the cycle begins again. A pile of books to read, a large number of coffee shop windows to stare out of, and a notebook to fill with nonsense. Right now I have no idea what the next book will be.

All I know is I’ll be writing an outline first.

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ARFOE versus a DeLorean

I’m in a reflective mood. Perhaps it’s down to Back to the Future day, which I’ve spent marvelling at the thousands of hoverboards nobody has. More likely it’s because I finally finished the first draft of ARFOE not so long ago. Finishing a first draft is like riding a non-hovering skateboard into a kerb: it stops, and you keep going. I’m typing, I’m typing, I’m typing, and then I’m not, I’m just being carried along by momentum with my typing fingers flapping at the air. And soon (in three weeks?) the hard work begins, of battering that draft into shape. So I’ve been wandering, and doodling.

I’m writing this in the bar of my old college, Downing. A curious experience, not least because I rarely crossed its threshold when I was an undergraduate at the turn of the 1990s. The bar itself now opens to the public as a Costa franchise during the day, because money. And of course everyone looks twelve apart from the rugby players, who could pass for fourteen.

Someone mugging for what I am apparently obliged to call a selfie made me think about how photography has changed since my non-bald days. Today’s undergraduates can likely trace themselves visually almost daily from birth through college — and barring a collapse of civilisation, until death. Today’s technology will only improve and become more widespread, with an ever-shrinking ability to opt out. Anonymity, privacy and secrecy will retreat to ever-smaller niches available only to those with ever-deeper pockets.

And some of today’s undergraduates will one day want to become politicians. Society — by which I mean the newspapers — will have to grow up a little to allow that. (Confidential to self: maybe a St Paul’s College student?)

In contrast, barely any visual record of my time at college exists, to my knowledge. The more distant those days become the more I regret this. I have my matriculation photo: I’m a small blob in a suit and gown amongst other small blobs in suits and gowns. There’s one of me at my college May Ball, again in a suit, a few days before I graduated. I have a few graduation photos. I’m squinting in the sun, and I’m still in a suit.

Somewhere there’s a photo of a small group of us taken in my student room a few hours after our final exam. We’re cheersing the camera with something fizzy. I’m wearing a chunky-knit white jumper. I don’t know why: it was June. I wore it for the three hours of the exam. I wore it for the rest of the day. I never wore it again.

Would I want a photo of me on stage at the Cambridge Union, in late 1988, having been pulled out of the audience by a hypnotist? Perhaps. I was given some plastic specs and told they let me see everyone naked. They didn’t, but I went along with it.

Would I want a photo of me playing korfball for the university? Absolutely. I scored a terrific goal at an away game at UEA in Norwich twenty-five years ago next week, NOT THAT I’M COUNTING. (I believe that was the trip during which (a) I managed to lose some authentic non-cheap Cambridge University branded tracksuit bottoms and (b) someone noticed me staring at an underdressed attractive gentleman in the changing room and I brazened it out and for the avoidance of doubt these two facts are not linked.)

You know, just a few more photos of me as an undergrad in college, and not in a suit or a jumper I’d never wear again, would be nice.

I worry that without a photographic record, I’ll forget these things. Time scuffs and rubs at each day’s mental pencil jottings, leaving only the deep emotional scratches of utter clarity. The final seconds of melancholy sitting on my desk in my third-year room, newly graduated, about to leave for the last time. The ludicrous, irrational bitterness at not being selected for the Varsity korfball match. Watching TV as the first Gulf war kicked off, unable to work from the adrenaline shakes. Learning Margaret Thatcher had resigned and wanting to run and tell everyone, and instead queuing mutely to pay my poll tax. Plucking a porter’s note from my pigeonhole asking me to phone home, and knowing it meant my grandmother had died. The first minutes alone in my first-year room, trying not to panic.

Maybe I shouldn’t visit college again for a while. Or maybe I should.

Review: Impulse

jumper-reflex-impulse

I’m not sure where I first read about the Jumper books by Steven Gould. Possibly on Boing Boing. Impulse is the third in the series, following Jumper and Reflex. (There was an awful 2008 film called Jumper, loosely based on the first book, starring Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell and Wooden Star Wars’ Hayden Christensen. The books are much better.)

In the first Jumper novel we met Davey, a teenage boy, who discovered he could teleport — he called it jumping — under certain circumstances, and to certain places. This was a Pretty Neat Trick, and unsurprisingly one that authorities of various kinds wanted to exploit. Jumper and Reflex explored Davey’s adventures. He got older and fell in love, discovering he wasn’t the only jumper along the way, and learned jumping has physical limits. In essence he reverse-engineered the physics of jumping, and it wasn’t the get-out-of-jail-free card it might have seemed.

In Impulse, with the Jumper universe well established, we return to Davey and his other half Millie a couple of decades on (Jumper was published in 1992, so we’re still present-day). The pair have lived in hiding all that time, jumping discreetly and in disguise, and they now have a daughter, Cent, in her mid-teens but lacking any social existence. She’s been home-schooled all her life, and she and her parents have come to realise that’s more of a non-life. So they work out a way for her to attend a real school.

Naturally being highly educated, paranoid and the new girl, Cent attracts attention. It’s no real spoiler to reveal she discovers she too can jump. And as she masters the technique she figures out how to do more – all logical within the established universe. Jinks both high and low ensue.

Meanwhile her parents carry on with their humanitarian activities (being able to bring fresh water into disaster areas without the usual hassles, for example, is a tremendously useful skill). Although the focus is mostly on Cent – first-person, strong teenage female protagonist alert! – we also follow Davey and Millie (in third-person).

In truth those diversions from Cent’s story feel a little half-hearted. They move the Jumper universe forward a little but you sense the author’s treading water, moving pieces on the chessboard to prepare for another book. (Exo, the fourth book in the series, was published in 2014: no idea what it’s about. I’ll read it at some point.)

The adventures of Cent herself are small-scale: school shenanigans and teenage angst. Bullies, boys, and her growing independence from her parents. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s difficult for me to say whether it’s a realistic depiction of life for an unsocialised teenage girl in an American high school – as an ancient Briton my exposure to the freshman/sophomore/junior/senior lingo is limited (Buffy, 80s teen movies…). It feels convincing enough, which is all that matters. I’m sure almost all of us, whatever our backgrounds, can relate to bullying at school. (I’d have loved Cent’s powers on more than one occasion.)

In the three Jumper books I’ve read so far Gould has wisely resisted the temptation to give more and more characters the ability to jump. In Alfred Bester’s classic The Stars My Destination anyone can learn how to do it (Bester calls it “jaunting”, the same word used in the cardboard’n’flares 1970s TV show The Tomorrow People). Although the imagery of thousands of people bamffing into existence to gawp at a current event is beguiling, it’d soon lose its impact in the Jumper books. When everyone can jump, jumping is boring.

Impulse is, I’d say, less of a YA thriller than its predecessors – it’s more of a coming-of-age story with an SF twist – but just as compelling. The female teenage protagonist is great to see, even if my hunch is it may deter the stereotypical teenage boy from picking up the book. A shame if so – there’s plenty to enjoy.

Like Jumper and Reflex, Impulse is very much one of those books you read with an inner sigh, wishing you had the same power. Fancy a day skiing? Some authentic Chinese food? Easy. Right now, I’d jump to somewhere I can get my feet warm. Rio seems nice.

*thinks hard*

Nope, still here.

Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember

I do love a good popular science book. I spent many a teenage year devouring books about the bizarro world of quantum physics and the magical future of nanotechnology, always fifteen years away with its promises of wondrous microscopic self-replicating devices and a planet eaten by grey goo. Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt, and Remember reminds me very much of those books.

The premise is simple: what should we learn from past mass extinctions to help prepare us for the next? What do we need to know, as a species, to ensure the descendants of humans are still around (in some sense) in a million years?

To editorialise for a moment, it seems to me the status quo won’t get us further than another century or two. For as long as economics trumps all — growth at all cost, drill, dig, mine, chop — the planet suffers, grey goo or not. And as someone said, there is no planet B. We need to change our ways, sooner or later, or we’ll perish as a species and leave our world to whichever organism is adaptable enough to fill the niche. Life finds a way, as someone else said mumbled while gesticulating.

Traditionally cockroaches are next in line, but I’d put my money on birds making a bid for a return to the good old days — crows are a lot more intelligent than they look. Perhaps birds and cats will settle their differences and divide the planet between them, waging war on the fish. The insects will adopt a neutral position, like a segmented Switzerland making decisions through emergent behaviour/referenda. The plants will just sit there and tut, as ever, and the bacteria will still be the ones actually in charge.

Anyway.

If you’re unfamiliar with the many hilariously close calls Earth has had with sterility since the solar system was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, Newitz’s book will be an eye-opener. She gives us a great potted history, starting with the oxygen apocalypse early life brought upon the planet. About 2.5 billion years ago, mats of algae — cyanobacteria, the first life to photosynthesise — farted out oxygen in such quantities they converted the planet to an oxygen-rich atmosphere, killing off all life that couldn’t adapt quickly enough. (They remind me of someone.) Moving on through snowball earth and other ice ages, meteorite impacts, megavolcanoes, and of course the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs — if it was an asteroid — you get a real and unnerving sense that we’re incredibly lucky to have made it this far, and the luck is certainly going to run out. We just don’t know when.

Then Newitz comes closer to home: migrations out of Africa by our recent ancestors. Seemingly successful, since there are now over seven billion of us. But these billions descend from a group of a few tens of thousands. Our “effective population size”, as geneticists call it, is tiny, and hints at a bottleneck we don’t yet fully understand. From there it’s a dash through Neanderthals to the medieval Black Death and modern disasters such as the Potato Famine in Ireland and the Spanish Flu outbreak at the end of World War One. Plus present-day humanity’s amazing ability to stomp on itself, every living thing it encounters, and the climate — the book talks about whether or not we’re currently undergoing a mass extinction, one caused by ourselves.

The rest of the book — over half — shows us what we can learn from those near-death experiences and how we can apply that knowledge. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot about scattering, adapting and remembering, and as in the first sections much history is mixed in with the science. For example, the chapter Using Math to Stop a Pandemic touches on how John Snow (not that one, or that one) found the source of an epidemic of cholera in 1850s London, and also talks about modern vaccination programmes. This section also discusses how we might defend ourselves from extreme radiation events such as gamma ray bursts — rare but catastrophic — one of which might have caused an ancient extinction.

The final part looks forward — a long way forward. For example, at some point we will have to get off this planet. Our luck will run out eventually. And what might we be like after another million years of evolution, combined with the inevitable technological advances?

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember has made me want to read more about many of the areas it covers — such as human migration out of Africa — which is undoubtedly a good thing. It’s engaging and readable even with the not usually cheerful subject of mass extinction, and ultimately, like human survival against all the odds, it’s a hopeful, optimistic book.

Review: Rivers of London

I’m scandalously late to the Peter Grant series from Ben Aaronovitch. As I write there are five books, and after making short work of book one – Rivers of London – I plan to read them all.

When Rivers came out I remember spotting it on the shelves and thinking, like everyone else: it’s Harry Potter in the Metropolitan Police (“The sorting helmet has assigned you to the Vice Squad, Peter”, “Buy your truncheon from Inspector Wallander’s on Letsby Avenue”, etc). I suppose I labelled it as interesting but likely derivative-bordering-on-knock-off, and lengthy calculations indicated it didn’t then merit a place in my teetering stack of unreads.

Since then, something has changed. Perhaps it was the end of the Potter hype cycle, perhaps the sight of multiple sequels to River. Most likely a sneaky read of the first few pages in the back of Waterstones: it’s effortless, funny first-person writing, with the protagonist Peter Grant – a newly qualified police constable – finding himself deep into the plot within a page or two, interviewing a ghost after a gruesome murder in Covent Garden.

I plonked it onto my Christmas list, top of the pile for 2015. And here we are.

There’s no denying it: from 10,000 feet it is Constable Potter – just as from the same height, Poirot is Sherlock. There’s plenty of room for both. Aaronovitch’s world of magic is vastly different than Rowling’s. It’s more grounded in reality, if that doesn’t sound perverse for a book where the Goddess of the River Thames is real and Nigerian. As in Potter, magic isn’t common knowledge in Rivers – but those at the top of the Met certainly know it exists, even if they don’t like it. It’s a handy source of extra tension, though I couldn’t help thinking the secret would never be kept with so many people in on it.

Essentially Rivers of London is a police procedural with wizards. The usual pie – violent crime, bunny suits, grizzled old coppers driving classic Jags the wrong way up one-way streets – with a creamy topping of spells and haunting. The plot’s engaging and coherent, and I suspect much shoe leather died in the service of its research. In brief: Peter Grant must come to terms with this new reality, start on the path of wizardry with the help of his mentor Nightingale, and solve a murder or two – while keeping on good terms with London’s bickering waterways.

London is a strong supporting artiste in the book. Aaronovitch clearly loves the place. If you’re a fan of geography in books, Rivers is for you. Descriptions are true-to-life and vivid, albeit marginally too generous for my tastes on occasion – though never approaching get-on-with-it levels.

Our hero Peter is nicely drawn and feels real: a decent but inexperienced copper with a brain and a ready wit. And, great to see, he’s mixed race. In my head he’s Samuel Anderson (The History Boys, Doctor Who) or Daniel Anthony (The Sarah Jane Adventures, Casualty). (On that topic, Rivers adapted for TV could be damn good. The internet tells me it was optioned for TV a few years ago: hopefully it’ll turn up on screen at some point.)

In summary, I’m a fan. Book two will drop onto my unread stack in a couple of months (I don’t want to binge-read all five).

PS One day I’ll review books published recently. I fear this day will not come soon.

PPS The next book I’m reading is non-fiction: Scatter, Adapt and Remember, by Annalee Newitz. If you want to giggle at what else is on my shelves, here I am on Goodreads.