Shades of Grey
writing ideas

A colourman from Colour Control Paints a letter box

One of the unused postcards designs I did for the launch of Shades of Grey in 2009, and seen here for the first time. From a Photoshop perspective, an easy way to make a striking image with probably the least work ever. The Victorian letterbox is still in use and a one minute walk from the Rhydspence pub, right on the English-Welsh border on the Hereford to Brecon road. It's a great pub - drop in if you are ever close by.

Shades of Grey:
How I wot done wrote that book.

This was a section I wrote when I launched Shades of Grey , a book that has, as yet, no sequel. There. I thought I'd say it first.

A Starting Point

The initial spark of the whole Shades idea was born in 1990, when I was just starting to write, and was penning numerous short stories that covered a vast range of wholly improbably scenarios. In my early, pre-novel days, that's all I pretty much did. I invented bizarre ideas, and then tried to make them seem possible, plausible or almost inevitable, a theme that I carried on into my full-length stories. The 'Nextian Universe' behind The Eyre Affair is an attempt to make the kidnapping of Jane Eyre not only possible, but probable, and The Big Over Easy is a very long-winded way of creating a world where a big egg could be murdered, and bears really might live quasi-human existences in the middle of forests.

The short story in question was called On Call with Robin Ochre, and outlined a morning with an operative from Colour Control (the precursor for National Colour) who goes around mending the colour feed-pipes that brighten the nation, and ends up dealing with a domestic colour distribution box that had been wired up to make the flowers go the wrong colour in an expensive bespoke colour-garden. He ends up musing about the Monochrome fundamentalists who oppose full colourisation, (and blames the French, very much an ongoing joke) and quite what it was that made the colour vanish from the world in the first place.

Ripple dissolve to 2007 and the publication of First Among Sequels, and the agreement of Hodder and Penguin that I should attempt something entirely new, and although not a million miles from my style of writing, a leap away from using established characters and events already firm in the reader's minds. I outlined the idea for Colour Control as I called it then, and got to work in the winter of 2007 for publication in the summer of 2008. It didn't quite work out that way as writing an original novel was a lot harder than I had expected, and I didn't actually finish the book until May 2009.

I always start a new day's work with a new file, so I have a folder entitled 'archeology' which contains every single day's work I ever did on a book. Most of the time they take between 70 days (The Big Over Easy) and 148 days (Lost in a Good Book) with a typical time of around 100 days. This is logical, really, as I generally have from October to March to complete the entire book. Shades of Grey, however, took a whopping 434 days which would include writing 40,000 words with Eddie already established at National Colour, only to realise that I wanted to cover the events surrounding his meeting with Jane, the trip to High Saffron, and his marriage. So I considered that to be half of book two, opened a new file and started again.

With the book taking over four times longer, it should be four times better, which even my mother would be hard pressed to agree with. Even though it is almost half as long again as any of my other books (it comes in at 140,000 words against the more usual 100,000) that can't explain the extra time it took. I like to think I was simply footling and trimming, but that's probably only half the truth. It took that long because that was the time I had, and looking back on it now, it would probably have been easier for everyone if I had simply written it faster. But it is a different book with a certain languid pace that none of my other books posses. Perhaps it takes long to write a slower book. I don't know. But that's what Shades is all about, and why I am so indebted to Hodder and Penguin to give me the freedom to experiment.

And experimentation is what Shades is all about - a new idea, an unconventional storyline, a genre that defies easy categorisation. It was a risk, sure, but then writing without risk is not really writing at all, and even if Shades is less well received than my other books, at least I will have learned valuable lessons that will, I hope, make my future work shine with a slightly greater lustre. Or at least, that's the theory.

I needed to write something different, and to do that, I needed to find some challenges that whilst not out of my oeuvre, were well out of my comfort zone.

A change of pace

My books generally have a lot going on - a huge heap of sub-plots all vying for attention. I used to joke that my books were like a station with a lot of trains. Arrive on the 3:52 Romance genre on platform six, then leave on the 5:02 Thriller express on platform eight. A slower pace meant concentrating more on characters, and gradually building up a picture of a society apparently peaceful, but with a large skeleton in the closet. The world had to be interesting, but vague - after all, no-one in the book, except perhaps Eddie, have even the slightest interest in knowing anything past mealtimes or the results of their colour-test. A compliant society is an incurious one kept in a state of fear by nebulous or imaginary worries, while being kept distracted by that which is bright and shiny.

A society based on visual colour

The early plan was to have everyone simply adhering to one colour or another, but this offered too much control for the citizens. The inhabitants of Chromatacia are powerless in their own political system. 'Choice', the buzzword in the UK during the first decade of the twentieth-first century would be anathema in the first decade of the twenty-somethingth. Although the regime was to be utterly flawed to our early 21st century eyes, I wanted the thinking behind it to be based on sound judgement that failed due to a certain drifting of first ideals.

The social division I have envisaged is no different to the many other sorts of division with which the human race abound, but the subtler politics of marriage and reproduction, while also familiar, do add a certain dimension as it is possible to use a little home eugenics to ensure the perception of your offspring. In actual fact, this is pretty much the only control and sense of power that the Citizens possess, which is why marriage tends to dominate the story, and give bolder relevance to the notion of a purchased parentage. All a bit icky, but logical within the bounds of the novel, and the strictures of the citizen's world.

So then it was a case of adding a love of colour, the want to see colour, to own it, to enjoy it, and also the possibility of actually becoming healed by colour - as though simply looking at a complex shade could unlock a section of the mind that could attack and self-repair any damage. Once these rough ideas were set in position, it was simply a case of running with the logic and seeing where it all led. The Green Room for dealing with the Mildew was a fairly obvious idea, as was having Lime that you could get drunk on, and Lincoln that would render you utterly stoned.

A lot of it becomes self-writing as the needs of humans dictates how things are to come about. Thus a red and yellow parent would bring forth an orange offspring which politically would be bit pointless, and a blue and red might produce a purple, which actually might be a positive move for the upwardly mobile. The possibility of one's offspring becoming Prefect would promote the desirability of breeding within your own colour-group, and Greys would have to be very lucky indeed to be able to rise out of their own low social status.

In fact, it's chillingly easy to create ways of dividing humans, and surprisingly easy. No matter where you start, it always ends up looking suspiciously familiar. Maybe that's the point; I'm not really sure. Anyhow, the system suddenly became all about marriage markets, and how by marrying below one's station it would be possible to dilute the line, and to be reduced to Grey, where you might stay for a generation or two before rising again. Conversely, only pure Yellow, Red and Blue would be on the Council which would annoy the Greens and Oranges, and only a Purple could be Head Prefect. Since Purple is a combination of Blue and Red, no Yellow could ever have the top job - something that might go some way to explaining just how unpleasant they could be, and why they were given the task of policing the collective.

As a model for social division I decided upon the British class system of the Edwardian period; that is to say, the first decade of the twentieth century, with the Purples of my story being the ruling class and the Greys as the unrepresented workers, who accepted their lot with a certain tired dignity, but were not averse to getting their own back if and when it suited them. It was at least a brand of division that I could understand, but is not a lot different to many similar systems around the planet, which are based on a lot more intangible things than the colours one can see - ideas, for instance, which aren't actually tangible at all.

So after some though I placed the Purples at the top and the reds at the bottom. I decided to make Eddie a Red, so he is at least relatively pleasant, being near the bottom of the pile, if not there completely.

Complacency and incuriosity

Chromatacia has been around, it seems, for 496 years, as witnessed by the date : 00496. For reasons that become apparent later on, anyone who might have caused any trouble to the order have been shuffled out early by the merit system, so Eddie is actually a good deal more unique than he imagines. In fact, I don't think that he knows it at all, and it takes someone like Jane to recognise what he has as being useful.

The trouble is, from a narrative point of view, telling a story about people who are really not interested in anything at all and living in a world of defacted information and a succession of great Leap Backwards that have effectively stripped the world of technology, Eddie would not bother to explain anything to anyone, and there is a lot in the story that remains unexplained, as Eddie would simply have no desire to explain to anyone. I decided to use the notion of an arrival to explain what was going on, and there is nothing like a bit of social interaction with strangers to set the tone of the world.

This gave me an opportunity to at least demonstrate how the world functioned, and that which I don't explain could certainly be inferred. This would seem to be a good opportunity to jot down some notes on the characters themselves.

Alfred North Whitehead

This is an exceptional quote, and one which sums up much that I was trying to make sense of.

There is no light or colour as a fact in external nature. There is merely motion of material. When the light falls on your retina, there is motion of material. Then your nerves are affected and your brain is affected, and again this is motion of material. The mind, in apprehending, experiences sensations which, properly speaking, are qualities of the mind alone.

In short, colour has no colour. There is actually no colour in the real world - it is an abstract construction that belongs only in the mind. It is a sensation, like the brush of a pine cone or the smell of bacon. I like this concept a lot. A glorious deep red has no meaning outside our perception of it. Taking this idea in hand, there is little in the real world that we can sense that is ever actually what we think it is - it is our strict interpretation of our external world.

I've read a lot (okay, a bit) in attempting to figure out what the sensation of yellow is, and no-one has a good answer, nor the expectation of finding one. Colour is, in a word, remarkable - especially when you consider that it doesn't exist. Perhaps we take it for granted. We'd really miss it if it were gone. And if you could see only a dim blue, how much would you pay to see a synthetic orange?

Colour Vision

The ability to see colours is dependent on cone receptors in the retina which are sensitive to varying wavelengths of light. Light will hit the receptors, and send impulses to the visual cortex which translates these colours into specific sensations interpreted by us as 'colour'.

Obviously, it's horrendously more complicated than that, and has a lot of groovy side effects and factoids, in that in low light we are actually all monochromatically colour blind, and during dusk, all the colours are shifted off towards the blue end of the spectrum, which gives reds and yellows their muted appearance. Further, there is a small area in the retina which is right in the middle which carries no blue cones at all, and if we were to look very carefully at something blue in the distance (the size of an apple across the room) it shouldn't have any blue in it at all. The fact that it does is due to the constant saccading of the eye, whose function is to constantly scan and refresh the information going to the visual cortex. There! I told you vision had all sorts of groovy factoids about it.

We're not the best colour-viewers in the natural world, either, even if we can differentiate the ridiculously high ten million shades. Some fish and birds see better colour than us as they have four cones in their eye, not three. Mind you, there are also colours that we can name and can't see: Ultraviolet and Infrared, both of which are invisible to us. Well, that's not strictly true. Your skin can 'see' Infrared as heat, although not very well. If you want to know what 'vision' was like in the early days of evolution, your infrared sense is probably how it worked You could tell the direction of the sun, but no real idea of what it looked like.

Colour Vision Deficiencies

Dyschromatopsia or what is termed 'Colour blindness' is nothing like the sight peculiarities outlined in this book. Dyschromatopsia is a condition that affects approximately 8% of the world's population of males, and about 0.5% of females - about one hundred and fifty million people worldwide. To put this into context, having 'red' hair is (globally speaking) ten times more unusual than colour Dyschromatopsia. Unlike the condition referred to in this book, Dyschromatopsia is an inability to differentiate between colours rather than being able to see only one colour which is, physically speaking, impossible. The vast majority of people with this condition - fully 95% - have trouble distinguishing Red/Green, with the next numerous being a difficulty in differentiating Blue/Yellow. Unlike the quasi-utopian collective that is Chromatacia, Total monochromatic vision or Achrommatopsia is stonkingly rare - with less than 500 people out of the six billion on our planet - coincidentally, about the same as there are dollar billionaires.

So next time you're thinking of setting up your powerpoint presentation using red text on a green background to an audience of 200 people of equal gender mix, eight of the males and one female may not be able to see what you're doing. Mind you, from what I've seen of powerpoint presentations, 40% will be asleep or staring at the ceiling anyway. But you get my point.

So what then is the problem with the residents of Chromatacia? Well, since the appreciation of full colour is there, their eyes must be functioning perfectly, even without the ability to see low light. The issue is perhaps not about how we receive the outside world, but how we perceive it. In reality, the eyes don't 'see' at all - the brain does. And if there is something screwy going on here, it's within the visual cortex - the area of the brain that processes images and makes sense of the bouncing photons that give us our view of the world. Blindness, in fact, can be unrelated to the eyes - it is possible for the eyes to be fully functioning yet the brain unable to process the information - what is known as 'cortical blindness'. If you want me to coin a phrase here, the Residents of East Carmine could be described as suffering from 'Selective Cortical Chromatic Response Syndrome'.

As far as I know, no-one has ever been diagnosed as 'being able to see only one colour'. I'm in fiction-land here.

But if this still doesn't make much sense, then start to consider that Eddie and his kind are not like us at all. More on this subject in a later book, but the unique ability of Homo Coloribus to self repair using colour as the key may give one a clue, as might the herald that appeared to Eddie and Jane when viewing the Gordini. More on this later.

The Rules

I liked the idea of basing Chromatacia's rule system on that of an English public school, but taken to a murderous extent. 'Eton run by the Kmer Rouge' was what I had in mind. But there is a more serious note to this as well, quite part from the fact that world politics has a dismaying similarity to playground politics. The Rules are immovable and rigorously adhered to with a zeal that is a bit chilly. Anything that doesn't quite work is ignored lest it raises the possibility of fallibility, but it also seems that changes can be made either through the 'Loophole' method of circumvention. Interestingly, the rules listed in the chapter headings are sometimes not half as daft as the ones we have on the statute-books, and whilst some of the rules are wholly unnecessary, some are actually quite sensible. Most importantly, it is as if social behaviour and the entire moral conduct of the collective has been written down lest it change over time. Someone invented this regime to last.

Written December 2009; more can be found over at the Shades of Grey Special Features subsite.

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