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Those Final Tweeks

23 Nov

epub-logoI recently received The Ferret Files back from my lovely packaging pals in XML format, so we’re nearly there now. The only thing I’m not 100% happy with is the rendering of the artwork. When it comes to physical print, which I fully intend to follow through on, the 8 x vignettes will be in with the text. For e-book, this isn’t possible if I want reflowing text enabled (the text has to sit top/bottom of the illustrations). I don’t really see this as an issue. Or didn’t…

The pics as submitted were trimmed to size, for wraparound text. As soon as they’re used in the e-book at this size, various readers try to adjust the pics for best fit. The result is best described as ‘a hall of mirrors’, with an end result that being a stickler for detail, I can’t live with. We’re currently working through getting this right. In the process of checking that the e-book is typeset correctly, I discovered a handful of errors with the text.

*Shock*

*Horror!*

superhero-dry-cleanersNot that I’m obsessive, but I’m going to have to read the damn thing again now, from cover to cover, to make sure there’s nothing else I’ve missed.  Unless I trust in my one proven superpower.  When it comes to testing IT, I have this ability to zero in on any problem straightaway. I discovered it one lunchtime back in the day, when a pal of mine, who’d just been intensively testing an identikit program for the previous few weeks gave it to me to play with.  Within 10 seconds I’d broken it. If I recall, there were 8 x face shapes, 8 x noses, 8 x ears, 8 x eyes, 8 x mouths and 8 x hairstyles to choose from. That’s 262,000 combinations. Only one combination didn’t work and I found it with 6 button presses.

Here’s the question: do I trust in my superpower to have found the only 3 errors in the manuscript, or do I read Ferret again? What would you do?

(Seriously, who’d be an indie author…)

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Get Back in the Box

15 Nov

cat1Creating characters is not something I’ve ever had a problem with. If anything, it’s the opposite – I’ve got far too many good characters screaming to be let loose who simply don’t fit in with the story I’m writing. If you try and cram them all in, then proceedings becomes overloaded. The only logical thing to do is park them in the box marked ‘spare characters’ and slam the lid tight to muffle their screams.  I’ll give you an example relating to The Ferret Files. Bob Bobson has been with me for a very long time. In a way, he’s Ferret’s surrogate dad, or at least his older brother. Either way, he was always there for Ferret when the boy was growing up. I’ve written pages of their adventures together. Bob is a good, solid character who I know like the back of my hand. As The Ferret Files progressed and I came to know the rest of the cast, they jostled for position, demanding more screen time and poor old Bob, who’s hard done to and takes things in his stride was steadily pushed out to the periphery. I’d intended to write four chapters from Bob’s POV, but once the pace of the story picked up, whenever Bob made an appearance, it slowed things back down again. One of the other characters would whisper in my ear that they belonged in such-and-such a scene, not Bob. I’d listen, give it try, and lo and behold, the pacing was back on the mark. Bob ended up as a minor character who we meet at the beginning of the book and is mentioned in passing a couple of times. His best scenes are all on the cutting room floor. He will make an appearance in book three, as he has an input into the plot. At the moment I’ve told him he’ll have his own Ferret short story (Curses) and being Bob, he’s happy with that.

My writing style is best described as ‘organic’, in that I framework the entire story before I begin, but once the gloves are off, I’m open to cosmetic changes. The major scenes remain the same but how the characters arrive at their destinations can alter. Really, it’s the difference between arriving at a posh club by cab, wearing a suit or arriving dressed as a clown, riding a unicycle. Cyrano, the elegant Frenchman would never arrive in anything but a cab, whereas Ferret might start out in a cab and end up arriving late on a unicycle…

clownTo begin with, I couldn’t tell the difference between a character leading me off down a rabbit hole for their own gratification, and a change of direction by a character that made the story better. In the unicycle example, Ferret might meet a really interesting street entertainer called Prince Regent. Now I’ve done it. The street entertainer, who was an extra with no lines now has a name. You don’t get called Prince Regent unless you have an engaging back story. So now Prince Regent has a speaking part. Before long he’ll be demanding I promote him to minor character, then if I don’t watch it he’ll want a show of his own. This is a distraction. Prince Regent – it’s off to the box with you, to keep Bob company.

After all the jostling and maneuvering, we end up with a big scene where all the main characters arrive on time, exactly as they should. It’s then that I realise that someone is missing. Bob was supposed to be there as Ferret’s foil and there’s now a gap. Bob pokes his head out of the box and shuffles along, ready to play his part. Except I’d need to bring him back in earlier scenes, otherwise the continuity is shot. And there’s no room for him in the other scenes, because the characters with the massive egos have stolen the show. Prince Regent says he’ll do it. On his unicycle, eating french fries. No, no, no! Both of you, get back in the box! Ferret will have to use a random, incidental character as his foil. It won’t be as funny as Bob being there, but it requires less of a rewrite. One of the waiters steps up. He has a name, you know. Alberto. Except he’s not Italian, he’s from Romania. He speaks English like an Italian because an Italian taught him English. And there you go. Suddenly, Alberto has a speaking part and an interesting back story. It won’t be long before he too wants to be a minor character, and after that he’ll want his own restaurant and TV show. Sorry Alberto, it’s off to the box for you too…

Interestingly, the major villain of Ferret book two is a character who’s been in the box for twenty years. I wrote a couple of unpublished short stories featuring him that long ago. He always wanted more. And now he’s getting it. His gang has changed, as in one of them didn’t make the cut. So it’s back in the box for him. The box has an infinite capacity and a life as long as yours. It doesn’t have to be emptied immediately or topped up forever. It’s your box, to do with as you please.

cartoon-waiter-009NOTE: If you’re stuck for characters and you have a story that requires a unicycle riding clown called Prince Regent who juggles French fries, or a Romanian waiter called Alberto who speaks English with an Italian accent, feel free to give them a good home. Prince Regent may well turn out to be a killer on the run. Alberto is more likely to be threatened by the mob for refusing to pay protection $$$. Bob stays in the box. He’s not for sale or rent. Unless he gets written out of book three, in which case he’s up for grabs. IN the meantime, if the Irish band he sings in makes it big, he’s off on tour to have a few adventures of his own…

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Pre-publishing Purgatory

7 Nov

PurgatorySometime back in April I thought I was ready to publish The Ferret Files. That is, until I submitted the manuscript for a copy edit. This was supposed to be the final step in the rewrite/edit/rewrite wash cycle, but what came back had very little red ink on the page. Most people would think “Hey, great – I’ve done a fantastic job.” But not me. Having run a documentation team, I know what a thorough copy edit looks like, and when there’s not enough red ink it makes me think that the editor has performed a half-a$$ed job. So I took the liberty of seeking a second opinion. As it turns out, I was right to do so. The first editor had done a half-a$$ed job. There was so much he missed, I could easily write a novel on how not to perform a copy edit. Rather than dig up the drains, I chose to move on and finish what I started.

In a previous article, I reckoned I’d be finished by v13. I was wrong by 2 versions. There were some minor changes needed before I sent the finished manuscript off for proof reading, and a whole bunch more once it came back.

off-to-the-racesI’m now out of Edit Hell and in Pre-publishing Purgatory. This is when the novel plus artwork is turned into an e-book or hard copy. After that, it comes back for sign-off and then we’re off to the races. Being of sound mind but somewhat compulsive when it comes to formatting, it’ll take me a couple of days to check everything off. Once that’s done, Ferret will be out there and I can go lie down in a darkened room with a vodka drip feed and say ‘wibble’ a lot.

Who’d be an author, eh? There must be more efficient ways of torturing oneself (he says, whilst plotting the 2nd and 3rd novels in the Ferret trilogy).

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War Drugs

25 Sep

This is an article about the use of drugs in war, not the war on drugs. For the latter, please refer to the US State Dept.

panzer-ivA few years ago I watched a documentary about the use of drugs in war. The premise of the show was that Hitler hadn’t actually intended to invade the Low Countries & France the way he did. First a bit of history: the German offensive against the Allies began on the 9th May 1940 with the invasion of Luxembourg and within a couple of days both Luxembourg and Belgium had fallen. Unlike most sensible tourists, the Panzer divisions didn’t bother to stop in Brussels for beer, they just kept on rolling. By the 19th May, the Germans had reached the English Channel. After a short delay, which allowed for the evacuation at Dunkirk on the 26th May, the advance resumed and shortly thereafter France fell.  Allegedly, the lightning advance to the Channel took place because the Wehrmacht were ramped up on amphetamines (pervitine, which is actually crystal meth) and couldn’t be reasoned with. After ten days, all the meth they’d imbibed took its toll and the army collapsed into a deep slumber, thus giving the Brits a narrow window in which to organise their escape.

pervitinI found this to be a fascinating explanation as to why the Germans just stopped when they had the Allies on the ropes. Had they continued their advance the Second World War would have played out very differently to the way it did. It’s a good story, but is it true? It’s certainly true that the Germans had a secret drug programme (Projekt D- run out of Kiel) and it’s certainly true that they built up a massive reserve of pervitine prior to invading Europe. It’s also true that pervitine addiction and withdrawal was a real problem in the ranks. German officers knew from their experiences in France that prolonged use of pervitine caused sleep disorders and irrational behaviour. It was still used though, for the duration of the war. In order to negate the German advantage post-D-day, the American army issued speed capsules to their men. To counter this, the Nazis issued massive quantities of drugs to their Fuhrer, in the belief that it would turn him into a superhuman.  As with nearly all people who take large amounts of experimental drugs, this did not end well.

German scientists were aware of the shortcomings of pervitine and continued to experiment in secret. Eventually, in 1944 they produced drug D-IX, which was a combination of cocaine and crystal meth for alertness, with added heroin to counteract the meth downer that troops complained about.  It was too little, too late. At the end of the war, while the Americans were busy collecting the rocket scientists (later called NASA) and the construction moles (75% of all German construction after 1941 was underground), the Brits sent the SAS to Kiel, to collect the Nazi drug programme. Without giving any more away, this forms the basis of the plot for The Ferret Files.

fly-agaricA bit more research into the history of drug use in warfare, and you’ll find that every army has been up to it since records began. The Incas – off their heads on cocaine. The Zulus fought on a mixture of tobacco, marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms; they believed that the fungus made them bulletproof. Again, this did not end well.

Research into war drugs has never stopped – it still persists to the present day. Those in charge will do anything they can to give their men the edge over the enemy.  I’m no expert on modern war drugs and we’re verging into hearsay here, but I’ve read that some of the pills and potions the US Army trialed in Iraq made their soldiers paranoid and trigger happy. Those drugs, along with the weapons surplus from that war were then sold to various US Police forces. As I said, it’s hearsay, although it does resonate given the escalating situation that’s currently playing out across America.

My drug of choice is alcohol. I have a fairly large cache of the stuff. Should WWIII break out, that’s the drug that I’m going to take. It might not turn me into a psychotic killing machine capable of staying awake for weeks at a time, but it will ensure I have a damn good time and no horrible withdrawal symptoms… at least until I run out!

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Version 1.0

14 Sep

Here’s a question for yoversion-1u: how many versions of a document / manuscript does it take to create a Version 1.0?

To clarify, V1.0 is something that you the author are happy to publish and distribute to the world. On the cover, after the title, in large, friendly letters, it says:

 

Document Name

Author: YOU

You will be judged on the content, the grammar, the spelling and the layout. If it’s a work of fiction, add the plot and characters too.

halberdPart of my day job is authoring design documents, which are subject to internal review prior to being published. Hence I’m used to criticism. The most complex design doc is the High Level Design, or HLD. I reckon on 4-5 iterations by the time v0.1 goes out for comment. I then expect to go through another 2-3 versions before final publication. I’m really happy if v0.3 is the final version before v1.0, which gives 8 versions in total. If a document reaches v0.5, I start minor increments (v0.51). Once we get to 15 versions (v0.56) , I’m chomping at the bit to get the damn thing out the door. At this point, between me and success there’s always a pedant who won’t be moved because he/she doesn’t like a particular paragraph or requirement definition. All the time I’m boiling away inside, feeling personally slighted and wishing for a medieval weapon.

For The Ferret Files, I tried to follow my tried and tested methodology. It took six revisions to create v0.1. I figured v0.3 should be it. I was wrong. We’re finishing up on v0.53. Where I went astray was my estimation for how long it would take. I thought perhaps weeks. Try two people full time for four months. The final version of Ferret is revision 13. I was not happy with this figure to begin with. Recently, I saw Jeffrey Archer being interviewed on TV. He said that on average it takes him 17 revisions to get a manuscript right, all hand written then typed up. He neglected to mention that he has a secretary to do the dirty work. So by his estimation it takes two people full time for nearly a year to produce a best seller.  Suddenly, I’m feeling much happier.

My copy editor asked me why I was on v0.53 and not v0.8. Well, it all harks back to my first serious job, working for Commodore computers, who made the C64 and Amiga. One day, I met Frankie, a big shot engineer over from California, who was auditing the UK’s manufacturing processes. We got on rather well – he was a solid, no crap kinda guy at work, a hoot down the pub., which is where he told me about a recent chip manufacturing saga.

chip-03“Have you ever looked at what’s stamped on the top of a chip?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the chip catalogue number.”

“And after the serial number?”

I’d never paid much attention to the last set of figures, which on most chips was ‘-01’ or ‘-02’. Occasionally, there was a ‘-03’. Frankie explained that in order to blow a chip, the engineer must first create a mask. The final set of figures was the mask number. Given that each mask cost $100,000 (in 1982), the engineering department obviously preferred a ‘-01’. Frankie then pointed me to a chip that had ‘-05’ on it, which, I remarked, had  presumably cost a cool half a million dollars to get right. Frankie laughed. The engineer who been tasked with making the mask didn’t know his ass from his elbow. By the time he’d reached ‘-07’, this was obvious to all and sundry. Except nobody stopped him, so on he went creating new masks and muffing it up. Each time, his boss figured he’ll get it right soon… if I just give him one more chance… And so on. Eventually a working chip appeared with the suffix ‘-33’.  It had cost months of messing about and $3.3m to make.  To avoid public humiliation, the suffix was immediately changed to ‘-05’. This was followed by an enquiry, during which the engineer responsible was reassigned and told never to work on chip masks again, and his boss was fired. Presumably into orbit.

The moral of the story for me is quite simple: keep your version numbers low, preferably below 0.5. If you get to 0.5, panic and start the cover up. Management can’t tell the difference between 0.5 and 0.54. They can. however, tell the difference between 0.5 and 0.9. If you’re covering up, don’t leave it until 0.7, as this grabs too much attention. Finally, if it takes 33 revisions to get something out the door, perhaps you’re in the wrong job…

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Libel or Bust

31 Aug

I’m still stuck in Edit Hell – the 7th circle to be exact, which is populated with pedants and grammar Nazis. Trust me, you do NOT want to run into the comma Brownshirts – they’re the worst!

While working through the comments I’ve received from beta readers, I was asked to consider whether the following paragraph is libelous:

Led-Zeppelin According to Emerald Room hearsay, the hippy had begun selling weed back in the day, when it was still exotic and difficult to obtain.  Legend had it he’d bumbled his way into a sound check one day and with a combination of charm, cheek and a bag of very good marijuana, secured himself a job working for Led Zeppelin as their new dealer, their old one having been busted with a K of Morocco’s finest down his pants the night before.

That was Woody’s story and he was sticking to it.

 

Tell me what you think in the comments below. Does it constitute libel in your country? If you want to know what I think regarding the UK laws, keep on reading…

In an earlier draft of the novel two incidents were picked up during copy edit as potentially libelous. In the first incident, Ferret says some horrible things about David Icke, then repeats a bunch of facts about Icke’s life, which when checked, were not entirely true. In the second incident, Ronnie Wood pockets a wrap of cocaine. Being of sound and belligerent mind, I had to go check things out. I found the following article to be a very good summary of the UK libel laws, it’s definitely worth a read: http://www.urban75.org/info/libel.html

In the case of Icke, the horrible things that were said are fine. Calling him a ‘shell suit wearing conspiracy nut’ is permitted, as it’s simply an opinion. Relating facts about his life that are untrue – that’s libel and depending on the damage to his reputation, may result in compensation. In the case of Ronnie, a quick search of the internet reveals he was a bit of a party boy back in the day, so it’s definitely something he might have done. However, he’s recently cleaned up his act and become a dad again.  As The Ferret Files is a contemporary novel, Ronnie’s act of pocketing drugs might well have happened yesterday.  One of the reasons I included him as an incidental character is because I once met him at an exhibition of his paintings and he was a thoroughly nice chap. However, I don’t wish to damage his reputation (or mine), so out went the pocketing of marching powder.

Now, onto the Led Zep paragraph. Woody is talking about the early 70s. A quick search of the internet reveals that the Zep were out of control in those days, and a few spliffs was nothing compared to the rest of the well-documented things they were up to.  In context, Woody saying that he became Zep’s dealer, without specifically saying what he dealt, or to whom, at a time when the band were allegedly out of hand on a combination of drugs and alcohol,  whilst entertaining groupies of a questionable age is hardly going to damage their collective reputations. Plus, it’s a story told by a character who, once we get to know him, is not entirely reliable.  Hence, in my opinion, the paragraph stays as it does not constitute libel.

Now, back to Edit Hell. If only I’d brought a ball of string with me and unraveled it on my way in…

 

Edit Hell

29 Jul

They say that a piece of Art is never finished, as in the artist will always find something he/she isn’t happy with, which requires a bit of a tweak. I am that kind of fiddler, and it doesn’t help reading through yesterday’s output before starting today’s.  I like working this way, the only thing is, it slows down the whole process of finishing a story. But, we’re well past that point now, down the final furlong.  I’m not changing any more bits. No more rework. Honest.

And then the suggestion comes from my copy editor – ‘this scene here, it’s good, but if you do it like this it’ll have more impact…’  And damn, she’s right. Three spots, three bits of rework, three scenes that now whiz rather than just motor.Troll

Welcome to Edit Hell.

As each section is redone, it has to be re-read and re-checked. The Comma Fairy thought she was headed for the beach, but she’s been pulled out of retirement and redeployed with her bag of tricks. Lurking in the background is the Split-Infinitive Troll – sentences pass over his bridge, and he slams his hammer down, causing words to jiggle about (damn, he even got me on that last sentence). The Definition Gremlin is my worst enemy by far. You know – when you misspell a word, but it’s still a word, just not the right one – so the Speelchucking Goblin lets it through the gate.  Auger was the last word said Goblin gave a free pass to. It was meant to be Augur, as in someone who tells the future. Instead, I ended up with a tool for boring through wood. Dur!  Another one that made me laugh was ‘chicken coup’. The Goblin let that one through without so much as a light frisking. I’m sure a coup by chickens would be interesting to watch – it sounds like a scene straight out of Animal Farm, but what I actually wanted was an enclosure for chickens, which is a coop. Bad Goblin!

So down the final straight we go. Just got to re-read the whole novel end-to-end for the umpteenth time, making sure that the Continuity Homunculus hasn’t messed the running order up (there goes the damn Troll again) and we’re done.

Sleepless nights? Not me.

Since I started taking a hammer to bed, that pesky two am in the morning Brilliant Ideas Gopher doesn’t stand a chance…

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