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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Cross

Colony: the story behind the book... Part 1

Updated: Nov 22, 2020

Those of you that follow me on Facebook or Twitter will know that there's been a development with Colony recently. It's been picked up by a trade publisher, who will undertake a new round of edits, re-typeset the text and re-design the cover. They will also market the book both online and on the high street. It's a strange and unexpected development with this book that I've been nurturing for nearly a decade now.

For perspective, when I started writing Colony I was still in my 20s. I was in the early stages of my career in heritage, unmarried, childless, with few grey hairs and weighing in at under twelve stone. Fast forward to today. I'm 40 next year. I'm an Associate Director and expert witness on heritage matters at Public Inquiries, 7 years married, two kids (6 and 4), a home-owner with easily as many grey hairs as brown, and pushing 14 stone. It's fair to say times have changed.

Mentally, a first novel is always going to be an uphill struggle because you have no idea whether i) you'll be able to finish it, ii) it'll be any good, or iii) how it'll be received by others. Basically, you spend the entire process wondering whether at best you're wasting your time or at worst you're completely deluded. It's what they describe in the industry as 'writing into a blackhole'. It's massively uncomfortable, and it's one reason why finishing a book is so hard to do.

Like many aspiring writers with a day job, I wrote much of Colony late at night after work, as well as on weekends. My 'office' was split 50/50 between the couch and coffee shops. It took me four years to write, an almost obsessive preoccupation with putting words on page and a ferocious contempt for the blackhole.

There were times when I wrote non-stop, only breaking to eat and sleep and pretty much side-lining all other aspects of my life. Then there were times when I wrote nothing for months, either because other life events had taken over or I'd simply succumbed to the uncertainty and other pressures and just given up for a time.

More rarely, there were times when I did manage to strike a balance, or at least make peace with the lack of balance and settle into a comfortable arrhythmia.

Of course, all writers write differently. But there are perhaps three key choices that face us all from the outset:

To plot or not to plot?

Whether to plot everything - storyline, structure, characters etc. - in detail before starting on the prose, or to start with a broader concept in mind and let the story unfold on the page.

I started off trying to plot the novel. But for me this seemed to sap all of the joy out of the writing itself. Don't get me wrong, I'm not somebody who sees writing as a pure form of art, self-expressive at the expense of all else. The process is a creative one. But, as with most things, there are also rules and realities that guide it for the better and that need to be balanced against the art.

One thing I do strongly believe, however, is that you can tell when a writer is enjoying themselves, or if they are on commercial autopilot. And I know which of those I prefer to read. So, when I eventually got cracking with Colony, I was one of those who starts with a broad outline in mind; I knew how it would begin, who the characters would be, what major events would take place, and how it would end. But the rest was very much TBC.

To edit or not to edit (until drafted)?

Whether to perfect each section before moving on to the next, or to draft the entire novel through in a continuous fashion before editing back through from the start.

Being a perfectionist (a.k.a. anal), I found the idea of leaving a trail of drafted chapters in my wake, with a view to editing them all at some future point unknown, a pretty horrifying prospect. Interestingly, I did take that route with novel #2 and I'm now much more sold on it. But with Colony, I edited each chapter to within an inch of its life before moving on to the next. This is part of the reason why it took so long for me to finish.... that, and having kids.

To reveal or conceal?

Whether to allow others to review and comment on the story as it emerges, or to keep the whole thing under strict lock and key until fully complete.

From my experience, this is a crucial choice. I made the decision early on that either I would die, finish the book or it would never see the light of day. I didn't let anybody - not even my wife - read a single word of Colony before it was finished. It was difficult for sure. But it was a smart move.

There is a world of difference between a work in progress (WIP) and the final product itself. Presentation aside, a lot of this is down to psychology. When you finalise something, e.g. a report at work, you've taken the decision that it's as good as it can be, given the time and resources available. So you draw a line under it and open it up to critique. When the comments roll in, both they and you as recipient are informed; whoever has edited your report has seen the introduction, discussion and conclusions. The whole shebang. You've invited their critique at a time when you can use it to produce a final product.

By contrast, when a writer invites somebody to comment on the introduction only, or on an unfinished passage from the middle of their story, they are inviting comment on something that is both half-baked and lacking in context. It may be years before the rest of the book is drafted, by which time the passage in question may have been altered or cut entirely, or the critique otherwise rendered useless. Arguably worse, the critique may shape the novel in a way that was never intended.

For various reasons, I invited comment on the first 30k words of my current WIP (novel #3), and it was a mistake. One of the comments was on the structure, which I duly re-configured in response. It ruined the story. Why? Because neither the well-meaning critic nor myself fully understood where the novel was heading. And when it finally reached its destination, three things were clear: the suggested re-structure was wrong, the critic would never have made it and I would never have accepted it had the novel been complete at point of critique. But that's for another blog.

Returning to Colony, with the manuscript finally drafted I was next faced with the choice that confronts all new authors: what to do next. And realistically, this boils down to two choices. Whether to cut out the middle man and go direct to publishers, or to try and land that most illusive of all things: a literary agent. For me personally it was a no-brainer, and I'll tell you why in Part 2.

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