On Eating Elephants, and Ketos

A while ago, I quoted Karen Miller’s wonderful Book Swede Quote of the Week about the eating of elephants – her way of describing the process of how to write vast, panoramic, multi-character novels, by eating the elephant a bite at a time. 

I love these wise words; and I’ve had reason to recall them while working on my own vast, panoramic, multi-character epic Ketos.  The process of writing it has been fantastic, I’ve had wonderful responses to early drafts I’ve sent out to friends, but I’m way behind schedule.

Munch, munch.

This means, unfortunately, that Ketos  is not going to ready for a 2008 slot as originally planned.  But I’m glad to have more time to work on it and let it grow.  And I reassure myself by reading the acknowledgements pages of other big books which were delivered late.  Richard Morgan admits that the writing of Black Man took him past several deadlines; Neil Gaiman admits the same about American Gods.  So I’m in good company.

I’m also aware of the terrific importance of editors in this whole writing process.  I’ve worked with great editors and producers in television (Zanna Beswick and Archie Tait to name but two) and at Orbit, I’m lucky enough to have, in Tim Holman, an editor of great wisdom and rigour and, dash it all, he’s very nice too.  He loved Debatable Space and I always admired the fact that he never tried to tame it or make it more ‘ordinary’. And he’s been highly supportive of the various not-there-yet drafts of Ketos he’s had to plough through (if you’ve never read a writer’s rough draft, trust me, it can be a painful experience!)  What’s more, his notes have been insightful and superb.  But I did take the hint when, in giving his notes on the last draft, he very kindly said, ‘I’m confident this will be absolutely wonderful, Philip, when it’s, um, finished.’


So it’s more work from Palmer on this one!  In order to get it to the point where it looks as if it was written with no effort whatsoever.  And, at Tim’s savvy suggestion, I’m now multi-tasking, having started work on the book that was originally meant to come after Ketos. It’s called Red Claw, it’s a thriller, and an exploration of what it is to be a scientist, and I’m having the most wonderful time writing it. 

The reason for doing two books at once is that, to be honest, it keeps both novels fresh.  There usually comes a point in writing a novel or script when you get jaded, and have to put it aside for a week or two, or even a month or two, then go back to it when your brain is clear again and it all looks new and shiny, and the flaws are easy to spot. So this way, I can balance the downtimes of the two projects nicely; it’s like being on a spaceship with two rockets.

Interesting, Lilith Saintcrow also uses this approach; her novels are published one at a time, but she admits that she wrote her first Dante Valentine stories almost simultaneously.

So next year, expect Red Claw and Ketos to start jostling for position in the bookshops. 

Ideally, I’d love Red Claw to come out first, giving me a bit more time to bite chunks of elephantine Ketos. 

And although, quite deliberately, I haven’t attempted to write a trilogy, I do hope that together the three books will add up to more than the sum of their parts.  They show different visions of the Cheo’s universe, they span a range of styles from tragedy to comedy, and for all the similarities and shared content that will exist between them, they represent three different ways of writing a science fiction novel.

As readers of this blog will know, I love variety in writing – and I hope all three books will give readers a similar buzz, but will also stimulate with their quality of difference. 

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