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>

Pride and visibility

Last Saturday I marched through central London as part of World Pride 2012. I was with friends as part of the Families Together London group, helping boost their numbers and generally pointing my camera around the place. (I’m not directly associated with FTL but they do good work.)

For me Pride is about visibility above all. Visibility for the marchers and their causes, of course, and also visibility for the faces in the crowd. And it’s an amazing crowd, all the way from Baker Street to Whitehall: smiles, cheers, clapping, cameras. Families of all kinds and ages. Tourists and locals. Straight people and GLBT.

Visibility for straight people in the crowd at a pride march might seem an odd concept. But it’s a kind of solidarity. Sure, you’ll get a small fraction of homophobes waving their prejudices, and a chunk expecting some kind of freak show. They’re not worth getting too worked up about as long as they’re not causing any trouble — it’s a free country, for small values of free. The vast majority of the straight people in the crowd are supportive, and happy to be seen to be supportive. That form of visibility is unquestionably a good thing, equally as good and important as the visibility of GLBT marchers.

But what struck me while marching, as it did at my last Pride two years ago (I was unwell in 2011), was the number of gay couples in the crowd. They were lined along almost the entire route: holding hands, or with arms around each other in every configuration, or just being together. No worried glances around, concerned about the reactions of others. Simply couples and families in the crowd, alongside and no different to other couples, other families. Being visible.

Prejudice evaporates by pressure of numbers, because bigots are bullies, and bullies are cowards, and cowards shrink and fold and crumble when outnumbered.

And prejudice evaporates by familiarity, because people fear the unfamiliar, the different. Visibility shows that GLBT people are not that unfamiliar, and not that different.

And this is one of the reasons why (cue the inevitable plug) my own stories include strong gay characters: for visibility. That doesn’t mean my stories are written exclusively for a gay audience, although some aspects of a story might resonate more with gay readers.

Sometimes, as in Till Undeath Do Us Part, the sexuality of the characters is almost entirely irrelevant to the story.  In my next book, The Pink and the Grey, the sexuality of the characters is more to the fore — though not in an X-rated way. Events centre mostly around a fictional Cambridge college, St Paul’s, slap bang in the middle of the city and very much the gay college — just as the real Newnham College is a women’s college. But the core of the plot isn’t about sexuality. It’s just the backdrop upon which the action takes place.

Which is a bit like Pride, I suppose. And like Pride, St Paul’s is a bit short of cash…

Coming soonish

Hello! I’ve been far too quiet here and on Twitter, so here’s an update.

It’s been a few months since the release of Till Undeath Do Us Part and I’m extremely pleased with the critical reaction. The book has some very complimentary reader reviews on Amazon and I’m proud that So So Gay magazine gave the story a five-star rating. Great incentives for me to tell more stories.

As for sales — well, for any new name, especially a self-published one, miracles are unlikely. Slow but steady is the best spin I can put on it. We can’t all be Fifty Shades of any colour. Self-publishing is a long game, and the book never goes out of print. I am nothing if not patient.

And nor am I inactive. Since the beginning of the year I’ve completed the first draft of a new story which is not far short of three times the length of Till Undeath. That’s heading into novel territory in all senses. The story’s called The Pink and the Grey, and it’s about revenge and truth. I can promise a lighter tone, some interesting new characters like Conor and Spencer and Dennis and Amanda, and precisely zero zombies.

To answer the most common questions: Yes, it’s set in Cambridge, and yes, it has gays in it.

To answer the least common questions: No, there’s no reference to Thora Hird, and yes, currently H&M, Zara and similar shops.

I’ve just started the second draft, so it won’t be appearing on Kindles and iPads for a time yet. After the second draft is complete I’ll cajole a friend or two into giving me some feedback, and that’ll probably lead to a third draft that — depending on the feedback — might or might not need further revision. In summary, then, don’t hold your breath.

And what have I been doing between drafts? There’s a tale. Several tales. Several unfinished tales.

It’s been a frustrating time. I’ve developed some promising ideas and characters but then, for one reason or another, stalled. Sometimes the concept doesn’t feel right: too familiar, or lacking a spark. Sometimes the concept’s great but the plot elusive, a head and a tail whipping around and refusing to join up.

None of it is wasted. The characters are still there, the ideas still fizzing away. And I do have a solid outline — well, pretty solid — well, an outline — for a third story. In fact, most likely a third and a fourth. But I won’t jinx it by saying any more.

I’ll try to post updates pretty regularly, and if you have any questions feel free to tweet me @anthonycamber or comment here and I’ll attempt to answer them. I also plan to revisit some of the locations from Till Undeath Do Us Part, and post a few photos.

That’s if the glorious English summer permits — out of my window right now it’s grey and damp and blowing a gale. There’s a draft/draught gag there, but I’m not going to make it.