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.


One hundred days

As an experiment, for the last 100 days I’ve written every day. No matter how full the hours, I’ve found some time. I’ve been trying to discover if the “write every day” mantra works: whether the writing flows more easily, whether it instills a new discipline.

In those 100 days I’ve written a fraction over 70,000 words — 700 words a day. Each day’s output is recorded in a spreadsheet, and I’ve been pretty good at remembering to update it. I’m a little disappointed in that average — when I’m on a roll/deathmarch, and with no other distractions but toilet and food breaks, I can write 3000 words in a day. There are more demands on my time now, though. As a result the daily word counts range from 250 to 2000 — quite a spread.

Does this mean a new book is about to pop out? If only. And here we come to what I’ve experienced as the negative side to committing to write something every day: the imperative to write, write something, has sometimes meant I haven’t paid proper attention to what I’ve been writing. I haven’t been outlining nearly as much as I usually do, because it eats into writing time. That’s not to say the words are wasted: they’re perfectly serviceable, for the most part. I suppose in a sense I’m learning to write without the crutch of an outline — to trust that a plot and ending will emerge from the mist.

The trouble is I’m not there yet. I reach about 10,000 words into a story and a buzzer goes off in my head: “yes, but how does it end?” And I don’t know, and I get nervous, and decide it’s not going anywhere, at least not yet, and one of the other ideas in my head coughs politely and offers an opening line, and I jump at it because opening lines are easy and full of promise and this time, this time, I’ll figure out an ending.

The good news is, one of the stories I’ve started does now seem to have an approximation to an ending, or at least a hint of an approximation. If I squint it also has a framework that gets me from here to there, almost, just about, which might well stop my brain from bleating long enough to fool it into writing a bit more. The details will evolve — they always do — but I have a working title and I’ve just breached the 20,000 word wall and I’d quite like to finish this one, please.

It won’t be as part of NaNoWriMo. I’m not writing enough words each day and too many Things are happening this month. But I’ll try to keep up the pace. Christmas is a more realistic deadline, albeit one receding with every word I type into, say, my blog. (It’s all your fault, basically.) Finishing by Christmas would allow me a restful holiday season while slave-driving my beta readers to ignore their families and get me some feedback ASAP, and January would be a mess of revisions and panicking so I could get the book out before I inevitably become obsessed with the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

I seem to have just planned the release of a story I’ve only written 20,000 words of.

Oh dear.

Maybe I should just shelve it and start another.