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.

The Perils of Pauline

The Pauline Conversion

No plan survives contact with the enemy. As I wrote in my last blog about researching The Pauline Conversion, as you dig around in the archives you have to be prepared to unearth something that stops your neat idea in its tracks. If you’re unlucky it sends you reversing back to the start line. If you’re lucky it diverts you onto a shinier, more interesting path. The Pauline Conversion is very much an example of the latter.

The journey to The Pauline Conversion started over a year ago after Russia passed an anti-gay law just months before hosting the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. You might remember the fuss, which resulted ultimately in mass hand-wringing and general inaction. This law angered me, naturally. It was a hugely retrograde step for the country, and the global community fluffed its response.

It set me thinking. Could I write a book satirising this situation in some way? It felt a natural fit for St Paul’s College in an earlier, less equal time than the contemporary Britain of The Pink and the Grey. I’d also been itching to write a story about a younger version of Dennis. One calculation later, I settled on 1972 as a first approximation. In those days the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. Munich, in the summer, suffered from terrorism: not a great backdrop for a St Paul’s story. Sapporo’s winter games were a better fit, mirroring Sochi in 2014.

That took me back to February 1972, when the Sapporo games took place. I noodled with the idea of St Paul’s or the university staging its own games, but nothing grabbed me – and it wouldn’t be Dennis’s thing at all, unless there was a gold medal in tea preparation. In search of inspiration I looked into that time in more detail: what was going on, globally and locally?

A lot of change. A lot of unrest.

Change is constant, of course, and someone’s always up in arms about something. But Cambridge was experiencing a greater turbulence than usual. Miners were on strike across the country, and the energy shortage was about to bring power cuts and disruption. Students took part in a sit-in at a university building, arguing for a greater say in university affairs and changes to exams. Not far from St Paul’s a large rectangle of old Cambridge was being demolished and redeveloped: a multi-storey car park, a modern shopping centre.

All this on the back of the great social changes of the 1960s. For gay men the decade brought, eventually, decriminalisation – though there’s a difference between legal and socially acceptable. Even five years after decriminalisation, attitudes towards LGBT people (not that this term was in use) had barely shifted from much darker, more violent times, even in a semi-enlightened Cambridge that would have tolerated St Paul’s for a couple of centuries. And discrimination was rife not just against gay people. Women were poorly treated (they still are, of course), and beginning to fight back: stereotypically, burning bras in the cause of women’s liberation.

In Dennis I saw a man who would be uneasy and suspicious of too much change too rapidly. But he would also be a moderniser, understanding the worst way to manage change is to build a dam and hide beneath it. He would also be a man of multifarious routines, as we all are, with that nagging middle-aged sense of a life slipping away unfulfilled.

Change, then: a rich seam to mine, at many levels. Environmental, social, personal, with Dennis at the core pushing and coping and not coping and blundering.

An idea bloomed and I started to write, but the story lacked fizz. I persevered for a while hoping a light bulb would blaze above my head, but I felt I was writing words to throw away. Changing tack, instead I hugged cups of tea and stared through plate glass at winter crowds, letting my mind wander, waiting for something, something…

Inspiration hit me, eventually, in the shower. (Without tea, plate glass, or winter crowds.) It was the character of Red. Red, I knew, would set the sparks flying.

A complete scene-by-scene outline followed at its own dozy pace, and then when I could procrastinate no more, with research in hand, I started on my second first draft: ninety-four glorious, frustrating days of writing. And after several further months and a few more drafts, with feedback from trusted compadres and the attention of my bluest editing pencil, I decided it was ready. (You can edit a manuscript forever. It’s never finished, it’s just time to stop fiddling and let go.)

There are things I’d like to have covered in the book. I barely touched on racial discrimination. A bolder author would have included a black character and the terrible racism common at the time. But that might have appeared tick-box tokenism and diluted other aspects of the story. You can’t do everything. You’re painting a picture not taking a photograph, and readers aren’t daft.

So it’s done, and it’s out, and I think the paperback looks tremendous. The plan now is to promote the book, and in particular attract reviewers – from “normal” readers and from pro or semi-pro reviewers. On Amazon, reviews are king. Reviews drive sales, and sales drive reviews. That’s the plan, anyway. And as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy…

From concept to publication

The path from hazy idea to page is long and rocky and filled with cliché. Ideas can tumble into my brain anywhere and at any time, but they usually sidle up and cough quietly while I’m doing something else, like showering or sitting in a coffee shop staring through the crowds at the Superdrug opposite.

Sometimes the idea is a plot point, or a snippet of dialogue. Occasionally it’s a full-on story idea, a neat concept, an ending, or a what if? question.

Till Undeath Do Us Part sprang from the title: a scribbled line in my notebook, written in my favourite bar. From that I sketched a bare-bones opening paragraph — not too far from the final text. Here’s what I originally wrote:

“I love you.” And he was gone, lost behind me in the pack, and I ran, I ran, not looking back, tears, grief, fear, please be dead.

I had no idea who either character was, or how they got there, or what happened next. I just loved the idea and knew I had to write the story.

With The Pink and the Grey (coming very soon!) the catalyst was the concept of St Paul’s College. Combined with two characters I’d been playing with in other settings, Spencer and Conor, everything began, slowly, to slot together.

I’m not one of those writers who can start with a concept and a blank page and then batter the keyboard until done. I’ve tried it. It never feels right. I can write an opening scene and some character ideas, maybe even a couple of thousand words of scene setting and unsupervised playtime, but then I ask myself: “what’s the plot?”

I’m an outliner. I like to write knowing how the story ends, where the plot points are, and the broad ins and outs of each scene. What’s the scene for? Why does it exist?

Once I have an outline — which means I have a bunch of characters and their backgrounds — then I can write. (That’s often when the procrastination strikes. Damn the internet and all the things!)

But eventually the engine roars and it’s A to B to C to Z, and we’re done.

Except that never happens. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, whom neither of us has heard of, said it best: paraphrased, no plan survives contact with the enemy. An outline gives you a rough scramble through an unfamiliar mountain pass. Bringing in the hard hats and bulldozers and trying to lay down the tarmac uncovers ancient Indian burial grounds, rich seams of gold, and a sewage outflow. There are always surprises and difficulties, and new, more interesting choices are revealed.

The arty-farty explanation is “my characters refuse to do what I tell them”. If it helps, read that out loud while fanning yourself on a chaise longue and listening to whale song.

The truth is, sometimes as you’re writing a better idea pops up — because you’re not mechanically transforming an outline into grammatical sentences, you’re a person with an imagination that loves to creep up behind you and dig you in the kidneys. And suddenly the character who was going to die an exciting and violent death in one scene… doesn’t (true story!).

The fun is then rippling that change through the outline: replanning what’s left of the book (and sometimes tweaking what you’ve already written). I say fun… I call these plot crises, and they tend to happen on Mondays. Such is my brain.

If I have a strong ending in mind, it can be tricky wrenching the new plan to fit. But hey, you can kill off that character there instead and you’re back on the rails (true story!). Or maybe this leads to an even better ending. (The original ending outlined for Till Undeath was subtly different, and the published ending is stronger, I believe.)

The key is to keep your mind open. Your plot is not set in stone: not before you write it, not during, and not afterwards either. Accept new ideas. Recognise when something needs to change.

One downside of this flexibility is the impossibility of an objective definition of “done”. Like software, there’s always another bug to fix. You can fill your remaining days finessing that description, roughening up that dialogue, sharpening that plot point, and never, ever finishing.

I keep Steve Jobs’ phrase in mind: Real artists ship. At some point you just have to say OK: I’m done.

There’s no such thing as perfect: only not started, work-in-progress, and published.

Talking of which: <click>