Monthly Archives: July 2014

Sentenced to death.

SentenceFirst up, an apology to my wife, whose patience with this first book is wearing thinner than a used sheet of one-ply bog-roll.
Secondly, an apology to the rest of my friends and family who have shown such enthusiasm for its publication. Your frustration at its delay is appreciated, even welcomed, as it spurs me on. The bottleneck in the whole process is quite simply, me. Going through the editor’s comments and suggestions has taken longer than I anticipated. Turns out I may just be the literary tortoise. But then you knew that. In my defence, just about all of my prior creative writing has centered around short essays; 1500 or 3000 words max. For me, in works of this brevity, the sentence is the supreme being. Each word is carefully selected, analysed through an electron microscope, delicately clasped with tweezers, turned, turned again, trimmed with a scalpel if necessary, before being lowered into the sentence at the exquisitely correct angle and given a final spit polish. Worked great for essays. Pretty shit for novels. Even the short ones. The more book-pages I write, the more I learn, that, while the Sentence may be king, the Scene is the true Overlord: a book-reader will ignore a clumsy sentence long before a weak scene. This anomaly cuts me deep but it is the undeniable truth. The other end of the spectrum can be even more perilous. A sentence that is too pretty can have a far more detrimental effect than a clumsy one, in that the reader pauses, withdraws from the experience of the scene, to admire the sentence’s craftsmanship. For the writer, that’s the death knell right there if it happens too often. But I’ve yet to come across a scene in any work I’ve read that was too pretty. In fact I welcome it. But that’s a topic for another day.
Rather, having come this distance on my journey, I thought it might be interesting, possibly even useful to any ‘comers-after’, if I share my experiences thus far with writing this book.

So, how should one go about writing a book? There’re probably fewer ways to skin a cat but, for what it’s worth, given the vacuum I found myself in at the start of this project, I seized the first asteroid that came past and clung to it like a refugee to a floating wine barrel. The asteroid in question was the Snowflake Method. Google it. Developed by Randy Ingermanson, the Snowflake Method at its core is simple. It’s based on the concept that a snowflake, while remarkably intricate in its entirety, is effectively just a repetition of a simple pattern. Randy uses a triangle fractal for his analogy. You start with a single triangle and add smaller triangles at strategic points and repeat until you reach your desired complexity. In practical writing terms, what does this mean? It means you start with a single sentence, 15 words or less. Ask yourself: what is your story about? What is the story’s essence?
For example, you could say my story is about,
“A thirsty refugee monk clinging to a wine barrel in the South China Seas.”
Okay. Now what? Now you expand that sentence into 5 sentences: one for the intro, one for disasters (i), (ii) and (iii), and one for the conclusion. Why three disasters? I guess it effectively takes you to 5 acts. Shakespeare was a staunch fan of 5 acts and he did ok. But the main point is, you expand your single sentence into 5 sentences, one for each act.
So, back to our floating monk:
“Phuntsok, a Tibetan monk on a secret diplomatic mission, gets captured en route to China via Kyrgyzstan by inept hijackers who mistake him for Arnold Vosloo and sell him to even more ignorant Somali pirates, who keep him hostage on board a floating shebeen, while they wait for Seacom to sort out the undersea cable so they can email a shrillion dollar ransom note to his father in Despatch. The Somali pirates, tired of waiting for Seacom, get drunk, argue with Phuntsok over his refusal to act out The Mummy, and shoot the shebeen full of holes, sinking the vessel and leaving a thirsty Phuntsok clinging to a wine barrel that soon drifts weirdly into the South China Seas. Phuntsok, ravaged by thirst and decidedly unamused at this point, abandons his monkish beliefs and rips the cork out the barrel with his teeth, only to discover the barrel is full of liquid nitrogen. In despair, Phuntsok hurls the barrel at a passing Anthrax laden Cargo Ship that ignored his wineless plight, instantly freezing the ships steering mechanism and setting it on a collision course for Hangzhou, the clandestine headquarters of the center left wing of Chinese government he had been sent to negotiate with in the first place. Fortunately for Phuntsok, he kept the cork and uses this to stay afloat until, religious beliefs intact, he drifts into Melbourne harbor and washes up the beach in front of Captain Baxter’s pub, where…” You decide the rest.

It won’t win any awards but your single sentence has been transformed into a paragraph. Now expand each sentence into a paragraph of its own. Then expand each paragraph into a page. Do this for each character and, voila, you have a fairly detailed overview of the story. I’m simplifying here but that’s the gist of it. What now? Now you have to decide how you’re going to show your story to the reader. Note that I said show, not tell. This is the first commandment of writing. The best stories out there are visual to the reader. And this is where your scenes come in. Decide how many scenes you need to show each act (less is more) and create a spreadsheet of one sentence scenes. Play around until you have the best order to maximize suspense. You’ll probably end up with an excel spreadsheet of something like 50 to 100 scenes. Now, and only now do you put skin to plastic and type each scene.
To be honest, it’s a great technique. Especially if you have project manager leanings. My wife loves it! It has structure, timeframes, deadlines. It’s neat, tidy and instantly measurable. You can’t hide. Anywhere!!
You can, however, get lost.
Lost in the planning. Analysis paralysis and all that. A big risk if you’re too detail focused. And so it was with me. Give me a penknife and tell me to cross a jungle on foot. Don’t ask me to plot the optimum route from Dulwich to Ponders End using all available London Transport resources. There’s always a better way, dude!
This was true for me even when I studied. Especially when I studied. My study timetables were things of elegance and beauty. Precision incarnate. The little blocks all squared away using my protractor, and 0.5mm clutch pencil with the lead snapped until it was sharper than a hypodermic needle; days and times stenciled in; lunch, rest and toilet breaks colour coordinated. I spent hours, days and nights constructing those bloody timetables then agonized over how to attach them to the wall. Prestick, Sellotape or 100mm Rawl bolt? Shit,I don’t have a masonry drill-bit, better go to Wardkiss. If I could have that time again I’d flush those timetables and put my textbooks next to the crapper. They would have seen more light there and so would I.
I’m not criticizing Randy’s method here. It’s a great method! It makes perfect sense and I wish I had the makeup to take full advantage of it. But I don’t.
Writing, I’m finding, is a bit like mountain biking. Knowing there’s a monster hill ahead plays havoc with your inner Zen. Your shoulders slump, you notice every ‘funny’ clank and grind coming from your gears, you frown at your ‘flat’ tires, your butt feels sore, something’s wrong…seat must’ve slipped…better get off and check….
By contrast, skidding round a bend and finding the equivalent of Paarl Rock in front of you is a whole different ballgame: you sit up, take in the terrain, the best line through the roots and boulders, get a bead on your heart-rate, your breathing. It’s not about the bike, it’s about you. Can you peddle up the sumbitch using every piece of trail-lore you own?
Chances are you’ll bomb out at the same point with both approaches, but I know which one makes me feel more alive. And, feeling alive, I’ll giggle at my failings and drag my bike up that hill by the derailleur if I have to….
Now you could argue that forewarning allows you to plan your time, manage your energy and hydration reserves, prepare for battle. Phoooieee to that, I say! Rather let me be prepared for battle with whatever I have at the time!!
Now, if you’re like me, I’m not saying you should just dive into a novel and swim through the breakers until you reach Paradise Island. Some preparation is required and I will still use parts of the Snow Flake method on my next book. But if you’re like me you don’t need to build the Archille frikkin Lauro before you launch! You’ll never get that thing off the beach. Before you know it, you’ll be digging a trench to try and bring the water to her bows. Nope, you need a kid’s lilo, 2 liters of iced tea and a handful of snickers bars, enough to survive, say a week. No more. Don’t worry about sea-sick tabs: you’ll just puke ’em up anyway. Now, in truth, you may not survive. But at least you’ll be bobbing on the ocean while that other you on the beach is shaking his head and painting the poetic name on his ocean liner, one three-story letter at a time.

But don’t take my word as novelling gospel. I haven’t reached land yet, but I’m close. The best I can do is tell you where I’ve been, where I’m at and when I’m aiming to hit the island’s beach.
In a nutshell, my editor has returned my manuscript with suggestions. I’ve reworked sections and sent it back. She’s going through my reworkings now. The book cover is still bugging me and I’m tackling that now. But it’s also time to nail down the physical attributes of the book so that I can order a print run. In order to quote me, the printers need to know things like: how many pages, what size book (ie. dimensions), how many colours present in the cover, text colour, paper type etc.
However, in order for me to arrive at that info I need to format the returned manuscript into PDF, deciding on Drop Caps, Chapter headings, fonts, page numbers, paragraph breaks. Et al. Basically, once the layout is done, the page-count will be known and we can determine the book size. Only then can the printers give me a price and guidelines for spine dimensions (so that I can design the book spine and back cover). Then, once those are done, we go to town. I’m aiming to have all that done by my birthday, 8th August. The printers reckon the lead time on a 100 book print run is about two weeks. So, God willing and the creek don’t rise, this should mean I have physical copies in hand by 25 August. At which point it will be time to have a book launch. When the manuscript goes to the printers I will be able to ink in a book launch date, but it should be fairly early in September.
Formatting the manuscript for Kindle is, I believe not too bad, although I still need to learn how to do this, and I want to coincide this with the physical launch.
Let me stop there before I build this mountain up any bigger!
Have a good weekend!

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Worts and all

Krausen explosionI like beer! Hell, I luurrvve beer!! So much that I now brew my own, if not quite with the arcane artistry of the brewing adept then certainly with all the craftiness of the alehouse enthusiast.

After bottling my last batch of American Pale Ale, it struck me how alike the craft of brewing is to the craft of writing. They may even be cousins. Although, like cousins, they should probably be encouraged not to flirt with one another. Unless one is Blogging, of course, in which case its perfectly acceptable, arguably essential, to invite keg and keyboard to cuddle up next to each other at your table and let them footsie footsie.

But the point I’m making is not so much that they mix well – generally they don’t – but how similar they are in their composition. Indulge me awhile:

The fundamental element of all good books lies in Character. And so it is with an honest brew. Now, you can make beer with jungle oats and cane sugar if you wish, it shouldn’t kill you. It will undoubtedly get you talking Cantonese, if that’s your objective. Just as your typical airport fodder action-packed paperback will dull your senses and induce a time-draining stupor while you cling to life in the departure lounge like a big panda up a small tree. However, a good book hangs its success on good Characters. Likewise a good brew hangs its success on the characters of the grains, hops, sugars and yeast used. From the sinister richness of chocolate malts like Carafa 1; the aromatic caramel of Caramunich 2 and the lingering smoke of Beechwood Smoked malt to the spice and citrus flavours imparted by seductive hops such as Styrian Goldings, Amarillo, Crystal, Green bullet, Falconer’s Flight, the list is infinite… the combinations infinitely more.

The second element of a good book is Plot. To the brewer concocting his magic potion, this is akin to the recipe. Without a plot, your characters ramble and roam wild, crash into one another, hiss, spit and  scratch. There is no harmony, no chorus, no crescendo. Without a recipe, your homebrew, even with the best ingredients, can quickly degenerate into pigswill.

A point to note at this stage, a perfect plot melded with memorable characters is still no guarantee of an acceptable union. Sometimes, for reasons inexplicable, the whole concoction blunders and behaves poorly. If this happens to you while writing a novel, where your artistically created adversarial characters refuse to stick to the meticulously researched plot, preferring instead to get shit-faced together in the local pub, there is a recourse. Simple yet effective.
In the immortal words of Chris Baty, ‘Just add Ninjas!’ That’s right. Ninjas! Never fails! Send a squad of ninja’s into that pub and watch your protagonist and antagonist stop buddying up and start kicking the crap outta each other.
On brew day, hops are your Ninjas! Whole flower or pellet form. Who cares. When all else fails, hop that brew till it begs for mercy and forgiveness, then grit your teeth and hop it some more!

Now, armed with your characters and your plot, before you venture any further, just like a novel, your homebrew needs a hero: a protagonist…Enter the yeast! King of the ring! Yup, without these yeastie beasties your sugars will not magically morph into alcohol and your beer will be little more than glorified tea. Like heroes, yeasts also have their own character. Some are aggressive, some quiet, some need a slap upside the head to get them moving, but all are essential.

So then, our protagonist sorted, who, then, is our villain? The equivalent of our literary antagonist?

None other than…wait for it…. Infection! That’s okay. Easy now. it’s okay to be scared. Terrified even. The heinous evil of infection is well documented in brewing circles and has most of us sweating over our fermenters. But fear not. Your yeast, carefully trained, is more than a match for the most insidious of infections, and his repugnant army of offensive odours and foul flavours. And what’s more, he’s hungry for the fight.

To the third common element, then. The Crucible. What is this thing, I hear you ask. In scientific terms a crucible is a vessel capable of withstanding extreme heat, think iron smelting. In literary parlance the crucible is that which prevents the characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, from escaping each other’s influence as events heat up. It can be a place or a desire or a relationship (the lifeboat in Life of Pi; the courtroom in A Few Good Men; the ring in Lord of the Rings;  the blossoming love in Romeo and Juliet). In brewing terms the crucible is firstly the brew kettle where the malts and hops combine, followed by the fermenting vessel where yeast battles infection for ultimate supremacy over the wort (the liquid tapestry that arises from the skilful blending of your lesser characters: the malt, hops and water.)

So then, eventually after numerous trials and tribulations the war is won. Your brew has survived. Good (yeast) has triumphed over evil (infection) and all manner of pitfalls in-between…ranging from extreme temperature fluctuations to Krausen explosions and over-zealous domestic workers trying to reclaim the nappy bucket before fermentation has run its course. Now what? Time to get it into consumable form. I’m alluding to publishing here. Bottling being the brewing equivalent. But you can’t bottle until your bottles are sterilised. Enter the editor. And this is crucial. Your beautiful golden brew can still sour in a bottle that hasn’t been disinfected properly. So be diligent, be cautious, be precise. Let the disinfectant (the editor) do their job.

Bottling complete, the next step is marketing – giving your creation a name, designing and producing the label, and an enticing blurb on the back (if your ale is a 10% skullsplitter then a PG rating is also advised).

And finally then to the ultimate prize: cracking the crown on your perfectly chilled homebrew; hearing the satisfying shwickk it makes before the bottle-top dances a jig on the counter; pouring it slowly, watching diamonds condense on the tilted glass, admiring the bubbles of cream that frolic to the surface and settle in a plush bed of luxurious froth; handing the glass to friend and living the first shlurp with them….ahhh…

Right people, it’s Friday, I’m officially thirsty, I’m off.

Have a good one!


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