Three Elephants – An editor’s reflections on the Circ novel

We at Pigeon Park Press are very excited about the upcoming novel, Circ, written by ten different authors as part of the Ten To One project. You can get your own tickets for the launch (and claim a free e-book on the night!) by going to http://www.birmingham-box.co.uk/event/circ-can-ten-people-write-one-novel/Between now and the launch on 28th November, we will be blogging interviews with all the authors plus some additional guest blogs and bonus material from the novel.

Today, Iain Grant reflects on the experience of being editor for the Ten To One project…

The circus elephant

Circ is a story set in a tacky seaside resort on the generally flat, cold and bleak east coast of England. It is also a story about circuses or, more accurately, it is partly about circus folk who have lost their circus. It just so happens that the first circus I ever went to was on the generally flat, cold and bleak east coast of England.
It would have been at some time in the early 1980s. I don’t recall the name of the circus company or many of the acts. What I do recall is how disappointed I was, specifically by how much the performance – See the woman with her performing poodle (singular)! See the world’s most indifferent clowns! – failed to live up to the bright, bold and dynamic promise of the circus poster. I could swear blind that there was an elephant on that poster. There was no elephant in that circus. Poodles (sorry, poodle, singular) do not equal elephants in any child’s imaginations.
But what did it matter? The poster had served its purpose. It convinced my dad to part with his cash and we were suckered in, sat on hard benches beneath a not very big top in some damp fenland field. Posters, book covers and advertisements do that. They exist to draw us inside and, frequently, we don’t get what we expected and, sometimes, we feel cheated.
Circ came out of a writing project called Ten To One, which I started in late 2012. The basic concept was of a novel written by ten authors who would, in the style of X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing or Insert-reality-TV-show-here, be voted out of the novel one by one as the story progressed. I pitched the project to the global writing community as a fight to the death with pens instead of guns and knives, as a cutthroat competition in which those who could not stand the heat would be rapidly expelled from the kitchen. The project was even going to be called Write Or Die (until I realised that name had already been taken by a very successful website).
In my imagination, this literary equivalent of The Hunger Games or Battle Royale would produce a story that was… well, like The Hunger Games or Battle Royale, a story of violence and cruelty and a rapidly diminishing roll-call of characters. In fact, my personal secret touchstone for the story was going to be Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a story that could easily have been written by such a project.
That was my pitch. That was my advertisement. That was my enticement.
And once I had my ten intrepid volunteer writers selected from the list of applicants, once they were brought inside and the project began in earnest, was that what happened?
No, of course not.
The Ten To One authors devised much, if not all, of the novel through collaborative discussion. Given that none of them had met each other before the project began, that seven of them were based in the UK, two in the US and one in Brazil, we should be grateful that we live in an age of instant communication and cloud-based document sharing or else their discussions would have taken years rather than months.
Their discussions and internal democracy determined the setting of the novel and the original plot (albeit one that was for a long time no more complex than “There is an old man and he has a secret”). Characters were formed, character relationships were discovered and, more importantly, the writers forged relationships with one another and they went from being competitors to being teammates, collaborators.
And so, once the project got underway and authors began writing chapters for votes of a social media audience and the approval of five literary judges, we saw something that was certainly not a literary fight to the death, was nothing like Battle Royale or The Hunger Games. There was a degree of competition but it was competition to be the best team. The authors assisted one another, shared plot development suggestions rather than hoarded them, drew from one another the best possible story. Even once the voting started and the writers and their characters were evicted from the story one by one, to my surprise they stayed on the ‘team’, as story advisors and editors.
Ten To One became a project unlike the one original envisaged or advertised. Once the ten authors were inside the circus tent, it was they who changed it into something else.

The blind men and the elephant

There is the old Indian story about a group of blind men who come across an elephant in the forest. Once seizes its rough and gnarly leg and declares he has found a tree. Another takes hold of the elephant’s tail and pronounces it to be a length of rope. The trunk is a snake, the tusk a pipe, the elephant’s side a wall. Each of the men discovers a piece of the picture, a nugget of truth, but none of them has apprehended the entire elephant.
The Ten To One project was a surprising inversion of this fable. The ten authors started out with a vision of their story – they already knew they were dealing with an elephant – but, through the eyes of their ten characters, they had to approach the story from different points and perspectives. In terms of the metaphor, one of them had to start out with the feet, another with the tail, another with the trunk.
Picture it as a drawing exercise. Get a piece of paper and some pencils. Get some friends. Draw an elephant. A single elephant. All of you. Simultaneously.
You’ll end up with something like an elephant but not the elephant any of you intended. Does your elephant have four legs? Or two or six? Is it more of a hippopotamus than an elephant? Has it transformed into some strange and fantastical beast? I’m sure it’s beautiful, whatever it is.
Circ, as a novel, is not the elephant anyone imagined it would be. Looking back on the piece with distance and an objective eye, I would say its major themes are circuses, fires and lost childhoods. None of that was in the original agreed brief or the early planning documents. These were parts of the whole story that neither the writers or I expected to find as we explored this fantastical beast of a novel.

The elephant statue

According to an apocryphal quote attributed to any number of sculptors, when asked how he was able to carve a perfect statue of an elephant, the sculptor replied that you started with a block of marble and chipped away anything that didn’t look like an elephant. Once Circ was finished, it was certainly not the elephant we had intended to make and, though that isn’t a problem per se, it wasn’t really the elephant we needed either. That’s not the fault of the authors. Every novel needs
The Ten To One launch event is on 28th November 2014 (7pm – 8:30pm) at the Library of Birmingham. Tickets are available from their website: http://www.birmingham-box.co.uk/event/circ-can-ten-people-write-one-novel/?tab=6#unit-production-dates. Keep up to date with Ten To One by liking the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TenToOneNovel

Posted in How-to's, Reflections Tagged with: , , ,