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.

Starting a newsletter

As my great-grandmother used to say, “You can never have enough social media outlets and/or means of distribution. And don’t wipe your fingers on the antimacassar.” Two moral positions I live by, even though it’s becoming much harder these days to find an antimacassar to not wipe my fingers on. Social media outlets are ten a penny, though, and I wipe my fingers on those on a semi-regular basis.

The one medium I’ve paid little attention to is the great-grandmother of them all, email. I’ve decided it’s time that changed. I’m going to start a newsletter. [FX: cheers]

It won’t be like those newsletters that magically appear close to election time, in which politicians pose in photo after photo with glum local residents pointing at wonky telephone poles. Well, in one respect it will: it’ll appear rarely. If I put out even one a month I’ll be shocked into a stupor.

I’ll use the newsletter to promote special deals and reveal exclusive snippets of news, such as information about new books. Covers, release dates, perhaps even extra content. Absolutely no spam, not even about antimacassars.

Yes, I could post all that everywhere else too, and for a lot of it I probably will — but it’ll appear in the newsletter before anywhere else. Subscribers find out first.

Sounds like a good deal to me. Click the button below to sign up.

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(All you need to provide is your email address. It’ll take ten seconds.)

The Guardian Legend Self-Published Rights Grab of the Month

UK newspaper The Guardian in conjunction with Legend Times has announced a new monthly literary prize for self-published authors.

On the face of it this is great news. Finally some recognition of quality writing outside the world of traditional publishing. It could be a great way to throw off that invisibility cloak.

But as always, check the fine print. I’m not a lawyer but it seems to me they’re embracing the new world of publishing with an old-world rights grab.

Terms and conditions, clause 8a:

[You give the Promoters] Permission for your entry or an extract of your entry to be published on GNM websites including but not limited to guardian.com (“GNM Websites”), and you grant GNM a non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide licence to use and publish your Competition entry in electronic format (including on GNM Websites and on any social media account controlled by GNM) and in hard copy format (including in GNM publications) for purposes connected with the Competition, and to adapt the entry to enable such publication (including to crop or otherwise edit it for such purposes), and you hereby irrevocably waive, for the benefit of GNM, all moral rights in the entry to which you are entitled;

In other words: they can publish any work submitted (not just the winners), in electronic and print form, edited without your agreement, and you receive no royalties, and you waive all moral rights.

“For purposes connected with the Competition”, yes, I know. My rule of thumb is to assume the other party to any T&Cs is going to try to screw you over as much as possible. Therefore “purposes connected with the Competition” might well be interpreted as “something with the competition name on it”.

So if you submit your book to this competition, they can make money from it, none of it comes to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I don’t think I’ll be entering.

UPDATE (8 April, 8.30pm)

The Guardian has changed clause 8a, presumably after feedback like mine. It now says:

[You give the Promoters] Permission for an extract of your entry to be published on GNM websites including but not limited to guardian.com (“GNM Websites”), and you grant GNM a non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide licence to use and publish your Competition entry in electronic format (including on GNM Websites and on any social media account controlled by GNM) and in hard copy format (including in GNM publications) for purposes connected with the Competition, and to adapt the entry to enable such publication (including to crop or otherwise edit it for such purposes). For the avoidance of doubt, GNM may only publish part of your entry for purposes connected with the Competition. In order to use entries submitted by entrants as intended and advised in these Terms and Conditions, (i) GNM may need to edit submissions, but shall endeavour to maintain the integrity of the work as originally created; and (ii) GNM shall use its best endeavours to provide an author credit for all submissions published by GNM in connection with the Competition

This is much better.

The perils of writing in public

Cambridge Union Society coffee shopAt the moment, when I’m not working on a freelance job, I’m outlining and/or writing and/or procrastinating in a variety of locations across Cambridge. I try to keep my destinations random, not turning up at the same places on the same days each week. It’s harder than it seems: habits are easy to form, sneaking up on you when you’re not paying attention. The main advantage for me of a busy coffee shop or café over my desk at home is a feeling, however inaccurate, of sociability. The same four walls day in and day out, the same Doctor Who calendar travelling through time beside me — and no office chatter to break up the day — can sap the soul. Coffee shops at least provide an illusion of a social experience — sufficient to trick the relevant neurons.

These locations can also act as fertile marshlands of inspiration through their unpredictability. Someone walking past the window triggers an idea for a character trait. A snatch of music brings to mind a useful metaphor. Those habits our brains crave not only keep us in physical routines, they also lead us down well-worn mental paths, our thoughts cascading along the shortest route and blocking originality. And all it takes is a stray overheard word to send us stumbling somewhere new and exciting — like Dagenham, only new and exciting.

That’s the ideal: a state of mental flow, fingers rattling the keyboard or thumping the gorilla glass while the white noise of bustling conversation injects turbulence into the process. And it works well, until you find yourself in a near-empty room.

Silence isn’t so bad. What I can do without is a single, clear, unavoidable soundtrack. Something like a piece of music I know well — or worse, much worse, someone else’s interesting conversation. These bring all productivity to a steaming halt as I shudder out of the flow state into reality and the details of someone’s neighbours or bunions or drunken escapades, or an unlikely attempt by a young gentleman to woo a tattooed maiden by showing her his BCG scar (true story). Or I find I’m humming along to something cheery by Radiohead.

It’s not that I try to listen. I don’t. It’s that I can’t not listen. I simply cannot blot it out. (I can’t listen to music and write, so earphones are no use unless I play white noise through them — and I prefer human to artificial randomness.)

When someone booms every detail of a hospital stay across an otherwise mumbling café it is humanly impossible to fade them down and hike back to the zone. You hear everything, from diagnosis to discharge via discharge. With any luck it sparks an idea, but this is rare. My tactic is to endure it until the place becomes busy again, or the voices cutting through the general babble reduce volume a notch, or I outstay my welcome and move on.

You certainly hear plenty of secrets. People can be saucer-rattlingly indiscreet in a public place, as if their Americanos come with a free cone of silence. In Cambridge during term you hear a great deal of student angst and college politics: dating, committee gossip, excitement at the big two-oh, and the often coincident “I’m going to fail my exams” and “I have no idea what I want to do after graduation”. Sometimes people bounce between multiple languages, and my brain picks out tantalising half-sentences in English. Then there’s the ones in burgundy chinos humble-bragging about their family’s new villa in Umbria and how they’re going to spend the summer by the pool with a variety of local meats. With those I enjoy watching the others in the group carving out the social graph by the power of a glance.

Often in a coffee shop you find almost everyone else is doing the same as you. They’re all nursing pots of tea or quintuple espressos and glaring at the person closest to the power outlet, their faces lit by the devil-glow of Word or Excel or Facebook. You begin to recognise them. The Santiago Cabrera lookalike. The one with the nose. The one who only ever plays Solitaire on his PC, who’s on first-name terms with the staff despite their best efforts. We’re like a secret society: so secret none of us knows who else is a member, and we sit judging each other in mute fury. So terribly, terribly British. Then you look at your screen and the world fades away, and before you know it everyone around you has regenerated and it’s dark outside.

Or, as happened to me last year at the Cambridge Union Society coffee shop, everyone leaves — including the staff — and you’re locked in. This, I can confirm, is a tremendously productive period. But it’s not so great when your brain puts zero and zero together and you finally realise what’s happened.

And then you can’t raise any of the society staff by any of the published phone numbers.

And then you call the non-emergency 101 police phone number, explain your predicament to the poor man charged with answering the phones within thirty seconds for statistical purposes, and listen to him laugh as he forwards you to another number that just rings and rings since nobody is measuring those statistics. In my case, as I listened to the ringing and contemplated a cheeky freebie pint, I spotted someone through a window leaving a different part of the building. He saw me too — and alarm bells rang. Last out, so he thought, he’d armed the system. There was a deer-in-the-headlights moment, then he scurried back inside to press the buttons in reverse order.

He had to call one of the staff out from home to free me. This had never, apparently, happened before.

Locked in a coffee shop: that’s seriously in the zone.

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.

Man Booker Prize

The longlist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize was announced today. It contains no self-published books.

Why not? Because they are, by design, ineligible for the prize. The organisers have gone to some lengths to make sure no self-published books slip through the net. Here’s the rule:

3 d) Self published books are not eligible where the author is the publisher or where a company has been specifically set up to publish that book.

In other words: the Man Booker Prize is not an award for best book, it’s an award for best book published by the members of a private club.

Barring self-published books from a book award makes as much sense today as barring books with blue covers would. It’s as if, a century ago, a prize for best vehicle could only be awarded to a horse-drawn carriage.

I’m under no illusions: I know my books wouldn’t be in with a chance, even if they were eligible. But it’s tremendously short-sighted to baldly assert there are no self-published books worthy of this award.

What do you think? And how many years do you think will it be before this rule is scribbled out while nobody’s watching, and the Man Booker Prize finally embraces the automobile?