Monthly Archives: December 2013

Ghosts from the Past

As I wrapped up the final chapter of Psychic Awakening, I was so involved with the characters in the book that I thought it would naturally segue into a serial, picking up exactly where Psychic Awakening left off.

So here I find myself in the strange position of having to announce that I’m halfway through my second fiction book, and it has nothing to do with Megan, Peter, Beth, or any of the other Psychic Awakening regulars.

Maybe I should explain.

Many years ago I came up with an idea for a novel with a simple premise. An American exchange student goes missing in Japan and one of his university professors is sent to take care of the bureaucratic complications, which means making sure that the disappearance doesn’t affect the exchange agreement between the two universities involved.

The reluctant troubleshooter flies to Japan and discovers that the disappearance is more complicated than it seems. Something of a mystery, in fact. Intrigued by this mystery, the professor (male) begins to do a little amateur sleuthing and gets beaten up for his trouble, a warning to stay well away.

The beating — especially a severe blow to the head — results in the prof beginning to experience some very odd mental phenomena. Psychic talents, to be precise.

The technical difficulties of writing an English-language novel set in Japan dissuaded me from taking the story any further, though I did imagine it going in one of two directions, one involving drug-smuggling mobsters and the other a religious sect run by a crime syndicate.

I have no idea why, a few weeks ago, I suddenly decided to revive this incomplete story and make it my second venture into the world of fiction. Probably the completion of my first book gave me enough confidence to tackle the above-mentioned technical problems.

For reasons unknown to myself, the exchange agreement morphed into one between a UK and a Japanese university. Both the missing student (male) and the troubleshooting prof (female) are now British.

The first half of the new book was relatively easy to write, as the story was already half-formed. I’ve now moved into unfamiliar territory, into the part of the story that was never developed. I’ve decided to let the story write itself, a technique that worked successfully with Psychic Awakening.

I’m toying with the idea of rushing into digital print, which means putting it on sale before it’s finished. This is one of the characteristics of the Leanpub philosophy: publish early and often. The idea, as I understand it, is to get feedback from committed readers and make mid-course adjustments.

It takes a lot of courage to do this, even though the spectacularly poor sales of Psychic Awakening indicate I’ll be lucky to get any feedback on the new book. We’ll see.

The provisional title is Psychic Dawn. It should be ready for the light of day (dreadful metaphor) in a week or two.

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Empty Rooms

The way in which Psychic Awakening was written mirrors the way Megan perceives her surroundings.

We follow her as she explores unfamiliar places, internal and external. What she sees is registered and recorded; what she doesn’t see is ignored and left to the imagination.

As the author, I’m uncomfortably aware that the layout of some locations is rough, incomplete, and downright sloppy. I didn’t sketch room or house layouts before or during the writing. I believe that there are no major inconsistencies, but one or two empty rooms still bother me.

Peter’s apartment in Prague is described very broadly. We know there are two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a study, a spacious living room, and a wide hallway. What we don’t know is the relative position of these rooms. In the first draft of the book, Megan’s two tours of the apartment (one with Peter, one alone) left a few clues to juxtaposition, but both tours ended up trimmed to a bare minimum. I didn’t think the layout made much difference.

On the other hand, the description of Peter’s country villa still haunts me. Although it’s not spelled out in the book, in my mind’s eye (Megan’s eye), the wooden staircase is to the left of the main door. The spacious living room takes up most of the ground floor, but between the staircase and the bathroom I glimpsed the doors to two small rooms. I never ventured into these rooms and neither did Megan.

In the first and longest draft, Peter tells Megan about the weatherproofed, insulated structure of the villa and how a housekeeper and her husband lived there all year round, keeping it ready for the owner’s sudden visits. The moment I wrote this dialogue I found my conscious mind struggling to imagine where the housekeeper and her husband would have lived, and which rooms they would have used. This rationalisation interrupted the otherwise smooth flow of images so, like Megan during a reading, I backed off and left the two rooms well alone.

In a way, they form a pocket of hazy unreality in the solid structure of the villa.

I’m guilty of the same sloppiness in my descriptions of physical characteristics and clothing. I’ll touch on some examples in future posts.

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Nathaniel Jones

[Consider skipping this post if you haven’t read Psychic Awakening.]

Nathaniel Jones almost ended up in the waste-paper basket. The story of Peter’s alter ego, whilst adding colour and depth, doesn’t provide any significant impetus to the main story. It could have been cut entirely and I could have met my goal of slimming the bloated first edition down to 150,000 words.

Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to eliminate Nathaniel entirely. What I did eliminate was how he made his entrance.

[Spoiler begins]

When Peter and Megan are making their midnight escape from Prague, driving down dark country roads in Peter’s Skoda, Peter makes several evasive manoeuvres to shake off a possible tail. Megan’s surprised and asks him why he knows so much about tradecraft. He admits that he did some background research on the subject for his fiction books. It’s at this point that he reveals he has two sides: a brilliant academic and a best-selling author. Once they get to the villa, Megan asks him more  about his two careers, and the story melds with the existing discovery of Nathaniel Jones books in Peter’s library.

Maybe I felt bad about cutting the build-up to this particular story thread and compensated by adding a little information about Peter’s literary agent and his Stateside publicity.

[Spoiler ends]

Compared with most novels in this genre, there’s very little tell. The story is energised by dialogue and action. This made the work of editing that much harder. Cutting a few lines of dialogue resulted in the loss of hints and pointers to some of the inner workings of the characters’ minds.

It’s a personal thing. I don’t enjoy reading long omniscient narrator descriptions of personalities and the events that shaped them. I like stories that move along, even if it’s at the expense of detail.

In a future post I’d like to discuss some of the detail I left out of the novel, and if any readers feel short-changed by my inner or outer descriptions of characters, do let me know. I love getting feedback.

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The Sauna that Never Was

The small sauna behind Peter’s country villa was the major victim of the massive editing that reduced the original story from 210K words to around 160K.

In the first version of the book, Megan asks Peter if the sauna still works. He says he’s never attempted to use it but will investigate if Megan’s interested. She is, so Peter spends most of one afternoon cleaning out the flues and vents, removing cobwebs and old birds’ nests, and checking the electrical wiring. The only thing that doesn’t work is the thermometer on the wall.

Megan and Peter enjoy a cleansing steambath and return to the villa for a shower when they begin to feel the onset of heatstroke.

But that’s not the end of the story. Later on, when Peter and Megan are discussing the possibility of their pursuers finding the villa, they decide that the sauna is the only place that would serve as a refuge. They consider placing a rusty lock on the front door and crawling in through a small ventilation window at the back—a window almost completely hidden by overgrown bushes and stacks of firewood.

They plan to lay in a stock of food, water, blankets, and even a small chemical toilet but it all proves unnecessary when the pursuers turn their attention elsewhere.

A side-story that I enjoyed writing but which had little or no influence on the main plot. Hence the decision to bid it farewell.

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Prague or Praha?

From the moment Peter tells Megan that he works in Prague, the scene for the middle section of the novel was set in stone. The only problem was having to craft euphonious sentences around ‘The Czech Republic’.

It was a relief to learn that folks in the Czech Republic are thinking of changing the official name of their country to Czechia. It’s by no means certain that the change of name will make it into law, but I went ahead and replaced The Czech Republic with Czechia throughout the book.

The problem is where to stop. I used Prague instead of Praha because I couldn’t imagine two Britons using the latter. Yet I stuck with Kraków instead of Cracow—don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because I’ve visited Kraków and got used to calling it that, whilst I’ve never visited Prague/Praha.

Peking has become Beijing, Bombay has become Mumbai, and the trend seems to be to favour the local spelling and pronunciation of place names. I’m not sure when English speakers will switch from Cologne to Köln or Munich to München. Or from Moscow to Moskva, for that matter.

As an author, I don’t want to irritate or offend readers by using unfamiliar or incorrect names, but neither do I want to date the events of the book by associating them with obsolete place names.

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