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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Why Watford?

I have no idea. I suspect that the characters and locations in Psychic Awakening were already there, deep in my subconscious, when I sat down and began writing the novel. It was like drawing back a curtain, looking through the window, and recording the events outside.

I didn’t stop to ask how or why, afraid of disrupting the stream of creative consciousness. There were three exceptions, one of which never made it to the final edition. I remember checking the flight time from London to Prague and the train connections from Watford to Warminster. In the first version of the book, Peter has three passports and I spent hours investigating possible conflicts in citizenship laws. In the end it was easier to give him just two. It also gave me an excuse to cut several pages describing the complex post-War history of Peter’s family.

I’ve a feeling that, way back in Victorian times, the only terraced streets in the Watford area would have been around the station, housing railway labourers. Placing Rochester Street a short bus ride from the station was probably a goof, but one I felt powerless to change.

The same goes for the Prague and Wiltshire locations. I considered other settings that led to fewer complications, but my subconscious refused to cooperate.

As I noted in the Afterword, the book is probably full of egregious goofs, the consequence of my reluctance to spend time on background research. One of the merits of the Leanpub publishing framework is that authors can update their books as often as they like, and readers can download the updates for free.

I’d be grateful if readers could alert me to any goofs they find. My subconscious permitting, I’ll do my best to fix them.

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Cynthia

Cynthia was one of the many characters who never made it to the final version of Psychic Awakening.

Like all the other people in the book, she appeared out of nowhere and took on a life of her own.

It was a shame to let her go, but I was determined to slice 50K words from the first draft.

In that draft, when Megan tells Peter that she’d like to look around the Institute where he works, she’s expecting him to give her a personal tour. He doesn’t. He tells her that a young lab assistant called Cynthia has proved so popular with visitors (especially men) that she’s asked to do the tours whenever her work permits.

Reluctantly, Megan sets off on a ramble around the huge building, but in no time she, too, finds herself falling under Cynthia’s spell. By the time they get back to Peter’s office, they’re holding hands and chatting like old friends.

From time to time I’ll introduce other characters who ended up on the cutting room floor, or entire episodes that disappeared into thin air.

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Psychic Awakening

Congratulations. You’ve stumbled upon a new blog I created to discuss Psychic Awakening, my first fiction book and my first attempt at self-publishing.

Writing the book was effortless and enjoyable. Deciding what to do with the finished manuscript was not. Most of the authors I know publish through small independent companies that specialise in specific genres.

Judging from the standard of editing and proofreading, these micro-publishers are probably one-woman businesses that do little more than commission a cover, convert the manuscript into digital format, and then feature the new book on their website—for a week or two, until the next batch of new books comes along.

Psychic Awakening has no shape shifters, dragon-slayers, BDSM, or hardcore erotica. It wouldn’t fit into any of the standard micro-publishing niches.

I considered Smashwords, but discovered that, with the exception of romance, they are no longer accepting author submissions, only those from literary agents. That leaves me out.

Kindle Digital Publishing I also investigated. By the time I’d filled in several pages of declarations for the US Tax Office, the system had decided it would have to withhold 30% of my earnings, even though I’m not a US citizen. I presume that 30% is over and above Amazon’s standard 30% royalty. No thank you.

Which is when I discovered a small Vancouver outfit called Leanpub and watched a YouTube video of one of the founders explaining their business model. I liked their ideas, but what clinched the deal was Leanpub’s generous attitude towards authors publishing with other companies.

So far the Leanpub workflow has been smooth and trouble-free. My only reservations are the use of limited markdown that doesn’t give consistent results across different ebook readers, and the dominance of computer textbooks in the Leanpub catalogue.

That’s not likely to change any time soon, so leaving my book with Leanpub is placing it in a niche within a niche. The book has no chance of selling unless I mount an aggressive word-of-mouth campaign, sufficient to lift Psychic Awakening into the Best Selling category, where it will get more exposure.

Psychic Awakening was uploaded to Leanpub about two weeks ago and far from breathing a sigh of relief and moving on to another project, I find myself chipping and polishing away at the text, removing a word here, changing a word there.

This flexibility takes a great weight off an author’s shoulders. I can remember the distress I felt back in the days of typeset paper publishing, when I found a careless mistake after the publisher had run off a few thousand copies.

I’d like to use this blog to update readers on changes I make to Psychic Awakening, and from time to time I’ll introduce some of the characters and episodes that never made it to the super-slim final version.

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