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.

The Pauline Conversion: coming soon

Subscribers to my newsletter learned all about my new book, The Pauline Conversion, last weekend. It’s time I passed the news on to the laggards…

After a detour to the world of football with Disunited, The Pauline Conversion brings me back home to Cambridge — the Cambridge of The Pink and the Grey, and St Paul’s College.

I love this universe. In my head St Paul’s lives and breathes: the university terms ever-cycling, like the undergraduates. And I think modern society — more open and accepting than ever — presents new challenges for the college. Is it relevant today? What is it for? Somewhere in college, over a dry sherry and a wet biscuit, those in charge are struggling to ensure it evolves to maintain its unique place in the university and the city.

This isn’t new. The challenges of modernity are constant: only the details twiddle at the edges. Dip a time-travelling toe anywhere into the two centuries of college and you’ll find its leadership wrestling with society’s shifting moral sands. How did James Drybutter found the college? How did it cope in the late Victorian period, with Oscar Wilde on trial? What happened during and between the world wars? (Two, at time of writing.)

I have some ideas about those — for other books, perhaps.

The Pauline Conversion is set in a more modern era: the early 1970s, at the dawning of the twin ages of aquarius and colour television. This was a period of unrest across Britain, with strikes and power cuts and “women’s lib” and student sit-ins and hippies. (In those days you had to ask the state-run General Post Office politely if they might consent to install a telephone in your house – and then wait several weeks until they wired, directly into your wall, something you didn’t own and couldn’t unplug.)

A different Britain, and yet not so different. In the news: the economy, immigration, war, terrorism, equality, rights, democracy.

The story takes place in February 1972. The miners are on strike for more pay. Chunks of the centre of Cambridge are being bulldozed and redeveloped. Students around the city have found their voices. Change is in the air.

And in the midst of all this is Dennis Sauvage. Readers of The Pink and the Grey will remember Dennis as a man of calculatedly indeterminate vintage with an impish sense of humour and a tendency to repeat himself, repeat himself. In The Pauline Conversion we see him in his pomp, already a quarter-century under his St Paul’s belt — and with a nagging frustration his career has stalled.

The book opens in mid-air as Dennis tumbles from his bike. He’s helped up by a homeless boy called Red who deserves better, and soon the academic has a cause to champion that might — might — earn him the chapter in college history he craves. (It’s either that or a dismal footnote and a retirement lobbying former students for guest appearances in their autobiographies.) But Red has secrets, and even Dennis has enemies. His cause becomes a fight for his future — and the future of college itself.

Dennis isn’t the only character from The Pink and the Grey to appear in youthful form — also present is Arthur, the porter. And many new characters, who you can discover for yourselves.

In case you’re wondering, The Pauline Conversion isn’t a prequel to The Pink and the Grey in any real sense, despite the overlaps. You can read the books in either order.

When will it be out?

Currently I’m mulling over the feedback from my beta readers before embarking on what should be the final draft. My goal is to publish the book at the end of October. That’s only a few weeks away, which is exciting for all of us and terrifying for me, as it leaves me barely any time to procrastinate.

Meanwhile, here’s an exclusive preview of the cover design:

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The other covers are being changed or tweaked too, because this month clearly isn’t busy enough already. Look for a blog post soon about that exercise.

I know it’s been a long time since Disunited came out. The Pauline Conversion has been in gestation a while — I wrote the first words over a year ago. I hope you’ll find the wait worth it. It’s been so much fun colouring in some of the history of St Paul’s, and even more so spending time with Dennis, a character I love.

To receive this a week ago, why not subscribe to my newsletter today? I know a man with a time machine. Well, I will.

What I’m up to

I’m working on a new book. In fact I’m working on two. Before you get too excited I’m not entirely sure what these books are yet, and I’m still very much in the procrastination stages — which involve a great deal of staring into the middle distance with tea, and occasionally writing blog posts about, for example, how I’m working on a new book. All I do know about the stories is that they’re very different from one another, and they might never appear.

One of the two stories has been fermenting for about three months. I have a mix of characters with fleshed-out back stories, and an overall timeline. I’ve started writing it… and I’ve stopped. Although I “like” (don’t viscerally hate) what I’ve written so far, I’ve decided I’m committing the cardinal sin of starting the book too early in the timeline, before the storyline has kicked off. It’s a great way for me to write my way into the characters — but it’s not so great for readers, who these days tend to frown upon half a tree’s worth on the sociology and tobacco rituals of hobbits. I like to start plots on page one and hopefully grip readers straight away.

So while I think about the plot of that story a little more, and let the characters prove, I’m writing something else — in a world I already know and love.

I want to tell more stories about St Paul’s College, as seen in The Pink and the Grey. I want to know more about characters like Dennis, Amanda and the Archivist, and what happened after the events of that book, and also what happened before. I want to look at life in college from different perspectives.

I’ve written a couple of thousand words, I guess: explorations, ideas, vignettes — not necessarily for publication. I’m letting the characters guide me to a plot, or plots. I might end up with a bunch of short stories, or a couple of novellas, or another novel, or nothing at all. I don’t know yet. I’m not forcing it.

Thinking so much about St Paul’s probably explains why I saw the Archivist walking along a Cambridge street yesterday. It was definitely him: in mufti, lurking behind sunglasses and a dazzling all-red suit, with his grey gonk hair streaming back. He was hiding in plain sight, exactly as he would.

I wonder where he was going? Why? Does it have anything to do with Amanda? I might ask him. I want to know more about that red suit, too.

So that’s what I’m up to. Tell me in the comments what you’d like to know about St Paul’s —  you might earn a line of thanks in the end result, whatever that turns out to be. Please help make my tea-based procrastination blogging worth it.

Out now: Disunited

DisunitedGood news, everyone! You can now buy Disunited for Kindle in the usual places, such as Amazon UK and Amazon US. It’s also available for Kobo, and via Lulu for other ePub-capable ereaders.

In the next few days, fingers crossed, the book will also be available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch on the Apple iBookstore. And within a week or so it should appear on Amazon in paperback form.

UPDATE Feb 1st: It’s also now available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and on Amazon in paperback.

As usual the cover has been designed by Blogshank. I love it.

The story’s just over 97,000 words in total and the paperback runs to 326 pages. Fans of Thora Hird, and I know there are many, will be delighted to learn that she does indeed make her traditional ceremonial appearance.

As always I’m grateful for any and all feedback, positive or negative. Feel free to leave reviews on Amazon or wherever you park your cursor. Tell your friends! Buy it for your family! Convince me I should narrate the audiobook!

But first, I’m going for a lie down.

2012-2013

Happy New Year! I thought I’d take a few minutes to write a short review of my 2012 and how I see 2013 unfolding.

My plan for 2012 was to write and publish as many stories as I sensibly could – a mix of mostly shorts with some longer form stories of about 40K words, at the hotly disputed novella/novel border. I didn’t set a concrete target for how many, but I imagined a pipeline of sorts: in parallel I’d be writing one book, revising a second, and publishing/pimping a third. I wanted to end the year with a pleasing body of work for sale and an increasing trickle of revenue.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

In 2012 I wrote many words: over 200,000 for sure. The bulk of Till Undeath Do Us Part was written in 2011 but it increased in length in 2012; and I wrote all of The Pink and the Grey and the first draft of my next novel. The balance of the word count went on stories I decided, for one reason or another, to shelve uncompleted. They remain in suspended animation: I hope to resurrect at least one eventually, even if only the core concept and the title remain.

I can’t truly say I met my goal for the year. But to publish a novella and a novel in one calendar year across a whole bunch of formats ain’t so bad, and I’m aiming to rattle through the remaining stages of the next novel as quickly as I can. Two novels and a novella in roughly twelve months sounds very good to me.

As to sales: well, I still suffer from invisibility, and that’s something I need to address in 2013. I’m grateful to So So Gay magazine for reviewing both books — and even nominating Till Undeath Do Us Part for Best Book of 2012 — but so far that remains the only publication to take a punt on either book. These reviews — unbiased by rose-tinted friendship — give me the confidence to keep writing, keep publishing, even when the gremlins of self-doubt mutter dark words in my ear.

That’s not to say I don’t value the support and kind words of my family and friends, especially those who’ve bought one or both books and evangelised on my behalf. It means a great deal to me.

What’s my plan for 2013? I wish I could say same as 2012 and carry on as before, but that’s not possible. I’ll write as many stories as I can, yes: but I can’t live on dust and air and junk mail. So I suspect I’ll be writing less for myself, and more for others. I have plenty of ideas that I’d love to flesh out into stories, if I can. I want to revisit St Paul’s College from The Pink and the Grey, and see if I can resurrect one of the suspended stories. We’ll see.

The first goal, though, is to publish the new book as soon as I can. And since a deadline doesn’t exist unless you tell someone, here it is: it’ll be out by the end of this month.