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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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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…

Nearly There

20 Jul

DucksWhen I decided to write a novel, I had no idea it would take so damn long to get all those pesky ducks quacking from the same hymn sheet.  I started in earnest in November 2012 and now we’re in July 2016.  The Ferret Files is due for release as an e-book the first week of August 2016.

So what have I learned over this time?

  1. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  Many moons ago, I had a meeting with Micheal Jacob, who was head of the BBC’s commissioning arm for new shows ( I was trying to get a sitcom off the ground, with a bunch of pals) and he asked me in the very first pitching workshop we did what it was I really wanted to get made? Well, I thought about it, and thought about it some more. He looked at me knowingly, and said: “It’s not this show, is it?” And he was right. His advice was to find an idea that I truly believed in, then refuse to take ‘no’ for an answer. Whatever it took, believe in it, live it and make it happen.  Ferret is it. When I decided to set-to writing, I spent some time going through all my old notes dating back 15 years and rediscovered the fabulous furry Ferret.  There were a dozen one-off stories and to begin with, I tried to weave them all into one book.  Clue: it didn’t work.  So I took the best story I had and made it into the first novel.
  2. I can’t write and do a full time job.  Tried it, it doesn’t work.  The only way for me to write anything other than magazine articles, reports and short stories is to go at it full-tilt, full time.  3 years and 8 months sounds like a long time, but that’s elapsed time rather than time actually spent on the project. Broken down, Ferret has taken 42 weeks to get from idea to finished item, which I think is pretty good for a first novel. Of course, I’ve also broken the cardinal rule of being a first time author – don’t give up the day job…
  3. Get a support network.  Early on, it was Twitter and WordPress.  Then, when the manuscript had progressed sufficiently, friends and family, not forgetting the artist of the piece, Richard Argent. There was a point when I was hiding behind the illustrations, as in asking everyone what they thought of pictures rather than the text. Every writer goes through periods of self-loathing and hating the novel, it’s part of the creative process. Miraculously, whenever I was having a down period, a picture would appear, either in draft or completed form.  Knowing that someone else gets the characters was really important.  I can’t thank Richard enough for those lifts, especially as he didn’t even know I needed them.
  4. Do it for the love of Art, not the $$$. Enjoy what you do and make your finished work an expression of you. If I’d wanted to bring Ferret in cheap, I could have lost the artwork. But, I wanted to do something unique. Personally, I think the finished novel is better with the pictures – feedback will tell.  One change I made in the final draft, after talking it over a lot, was to remove the names of celebrities and replace them with text such as: ‘a well known English footballer and the ex-popstar missus’.  It’s a detective novel, go work it out. If you’re still stumped, go look at the illustrations. Russell Brand is brilliant.
  5. Find a good coffee shop. Not the Amsterdam type of coffee shop, somewhere where you can take your laptop, have a decent cup of coffee and experience life.  Remove those headphones, and watch and listen. Writing is a solitary occupation, and when you get blocked-up no amount of internal dialogue will unblock you.  It has to come from outside. Most of the situations and characters I create as an author are based on real life scenarios, either things I’ve experienced or stories people have told me. Occasionally, I borrow stories I overhear. Sometimes I borrow people. A coffee shop is a good place to start. If anyone asks you what you’re doing, tell them. At some point, you’re going to have Ferret2to talk about your work and practice makes perfect. So bat some ideas about, see what kind of feedback you get. Strangers are often far more honest than those who are close to you.

That’s it for today.  Now, where did I put my pint of Fursty Ferret?

 

What’s in the Box?

18 Jun

The Ferret Files

Thanks to Richard Argent over at ArgentArt, we now have a cover.  I’m very pleased with the result, which took a lot of work to get right.  It’s not what I originally had in mind, but that simply didn’t work in the real world – and besides, this is much more fun.  Richard took inspiration from Will Eisner’s work on ‘The Spirit’ comic.  The composition is spot-on, and there’s a lot going on, hidden in plain sight which relates to the novel.  You’ll have a great time decoding it all, I’m sure.

For now though, the big question is what’s in the box?

You’ll have to read The Ferret Files to find out.  Not long now, honest.  I know I’ve said that a few times over the last six months, but this time it’s true.  I had a misfire with a copy editor who didn’t perform as expected, so had to draft in a replacement, who did a much better job.  However, it’s cost me two months in wasted time to find another editor and work through all the comments.

Fingers crossed – I’m aiming to be ready for the first week of July.

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Crazy Vignettes

11 Mar

Well, I finally finished editing Ferret to my satisfaction and during the read through noticed that the illustrations are not as well spaced as they might be.  Cue a mad panic and a half dozen vignettes, which I must say have turned out to be rather splendid.  So much so, I thought I’d post a couple for your delectation.

Cyrano in flight - cropped

One of those ‘oh, oh’ moments…

 

Centurion - cropped

Tristan goes bonkers…

Artwork Complete

5 Feb

This is the fourth and final illustration for the Ferret Files, as drawn by my good pal Richard Argent, over at Argent Art.

It’s been a long old slog, I thought it might take 9 months to write the novel – we’re now at 3.5 years!  Admittedly, the actual time I’ve been on the project full time is 8 months – about to take 3 weeks off and finally nail the sucker.  Then comes the scary bit…

Balloon Flight

It’s a Wrap

8 Jul
Ferret in London

Ferret in London

Thirty months ago I set out to write a novel, not really having a clear idea of where to begin.  Being the sort of chap who learns best by doing, I threw myself headfirst into the task of producing a framework with major plot points.  It took six weeks to create the novel’s back story and the character arcs.  The writing commenced shortly afterwards and I proceeded at pace, adhering assiduously to the plan.  Two months in, I published some excerpts to this blog and after considering the feedback, realised that what I’d proposed was: a) far too long for a first book; and b) was not going to fly in its current form.

Rather than soldier on, I changed track, rethought the plot and cut the size down, turning one book into two.  In the process, I was forced to edit out two of my favourite scenes.  That really hurt.

The first draft took nine months nearly full time.  I spent roughly 4 days a week, 8 hours a day writing, and 2 days a week reading advice columns, character hints and other writer’s blogs.  All very useful stuff and I urge anyone who’s struggling with a first draft to do the same.  The ending was all a bit rushed, I needed to get it finished so I could go back to work.  So much was missing, so many loose ends untied.  That was June 2013.

Steady, cowboy

Steady, cowboy

Two years later and the second draft proper is finished, with the ending now complete.  One of the advice columns I read – I can’t remember who said it, or I’d post a link – but paraphrased it goes like this: think of yourself not as an author but a pilot.  The audience has climbed aboard your plane, participated in the take off, flown the flight.  If you’ve done the catering right, they’re all still aboard (apart from the ones who freaked and parachuted out early on).  Now, they’re trusting you the pilot to land the effing plane, so you better not disappoint.  In the case of Ferret, the plane has an outbreak of snakes, there’s a pair of armed terrorists aboard, food poisoning has incapacitated the flight crew, the landing gear is jammed and there’s a storm directly ahead.  Oh, lordy…

Truth be told, it’s the most fun I’ve had in years.  Well, since IBM declared me persona non grata for producing a series of films, with the participation of their top brass, which supposed the firm was run like the mafia.  They terminated my contract and tried to impound and incinerate every one of the DVDs.  Fortunately, they failed.  Anyone who know me knows that every once in a while I have to create some noise and cause trouble.  It’s a genetic trait – I blame my father for instilling in his children a healthy disrespect for the establishment and their organs of justice.  Company newsletters were my thing for a while.  Three times I went too far for the liking of management, collecting one written and one verbal warning.  Fidelity Investments took great exception to a piece about tattooing barcodes on the back of their employee’s necks and checking them in and out with a barcode reader, for security purposes.  Shortly after that I moved on to short stories published in various magazines, regarding working practices in IT, with names changed to protect the guilty.  The guilty may not have spotted themselves, but their co-workers did, which forced me to switch to a series of pen names.

All in the Edit

All in the Edit

Ferret ups the ante considerably.

Whilst it is a work of fiction, it takes many real life experiences garnered from hanging about with consultants, working in high finance and on confidential government projects.  I’ve not set out to spill any secrets, merely write a tale of how these organisations behave under the covers.  Believe me, this is a full-on cage rattler – lord knows, I’ve taken enough time to get there.

I’m now commencing the final edit, which I’m really looking forward to.  I know from making movies, that the editing studio is where those six hours of footage become 5 minutes of freaky fun.  Hard work looms, but I can’t wait to see what comes out the other end.

 

Ferret goes to Highgate Cemetery

17 Jun

Here’s a sneak peek at the second illustration for the Ferret Files, courtesy of my good pal Richard Argent over at www.argentart.co.uk.

Cemetery scene

We were working on this scene, busily rewatching old Hammer Horror films when the sad news of Sir Christopher Lee’s death was announced.  I suspect that Ferret & Emily may well be making their way into the world of merchandising…

 

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