All the World’s a Page

That rather snappy title has nothing to do with this weeks blog, which is slightly earlier than usual as the management and I are off to Palermo for a week to soak up the culture, the red wine and possibly the opera…..but mostly the red wine.

Firstly progress on the novel. Have spent most of the week rewriting and plotting so the word count has only gone up to 36k. However I am much happier with where it is and how it is going than I was last week. The main issue was the introduction of a new character and the transition between two chapters that originally was just not working.  I suspect this is because of my slightly weird first person narrative style which is forcing me to be quite inventive in having to keep Perrin present in the story, even when It would be arguably better to have an alternative narrative perspective.

The main thing I wanted to share with you was some artwork ideas I have been working on. Although a rank amateur in this area, I have dabbled in the past designing the cover art for my band Strange Boudoir

Originally I had this idea, based on the Thames but with a slightly computer grid feel.


However thanks to the magic that is Google images I found some really cool illustrations of 1830’s computer architecture, one of which I really like and that also alludes to some of the themes and characters in the book, which for the sake of inscrutability I will not divulge here. So here is the current working cover for the book. Enjoy and see you in a week or so.Slide1

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A Time and a Place

It’s the anniversary of when the idea for The Differences first came into being. Whooohooo I hear you cry. Put the bunting out and crack open the bonios.

In fact the idea can be pin pointed to a specific place, scribbled on a paper napkin her at the Café Brasserie Le Palace in Quillan France, a sleepy market town we were passing through on a touring holiday in the Languedoc. Nicky and I were shooting the breeze about doing something different and the subject of writing a novel came up. “Ahh but you need a good idea to base it on.” said one of us. “Hmmm.” said another one of us. Five minutes later the idea of “Steam” was born

Cafe Brassererie Le Palace

Back then it was more of a world building exercise. I had the idea of creating a multi-media universe that operated in multiple formats. Books, short stories, comic, film, TV etc. I would create the key characters, a basic timeline and the rules of the this pocket universe and invite others to contribute whilst I stayed on as a sort of editor in chief and arbiter of what was and was not appropriate and/or consistent with this imaginary world. Over the next few months a wrote a few outlines for how the new world would operate. My original intention for the novel I am currently writing was that it should be a series of linked short stories, a form of prequel showing how this alternate history came into being, the key “differences”. One of the essays to set up and explain this world was about Perrin’s first meeting with Babbage and was intended to set up a later story about an expedition to Africa.

However when I started this standalone piece I soon realised it was much better to start the novel there and explain its particular  reality as I went on. This short piece has now become the novel proper and the idea of going back and writing a series of separate essays to explain it seems unnecessary and potentially rather tedious for the reader. They may appear one day as a sort of background reader, but don’t hold your breath. This original intention behind the stuff I was writing  helps me now understand why  starting the novel was quite difficult. I had not set out to write a novel so what I was writing initially was rather false as I have alluded to previously.

As to current progress. Well last week was quite productive, and the narrative stands at approx. 33k words and I have also finished a key section. In addition I a have now moved on to a bit of backstory narrative for one of the key characters basing it on a real (anonymous) person that can be found here. This has the added advantage of the use of real places adding a veneer of respectability to my hack paraphrasing. Oh and the Lucullus glaze has made an appearance too.

See you next week.

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It’s Getting a Bit crowded in Here

Apologies for the slight delay in this blog, there have been a number of developments in the whole process. Firstly I have finally left gainful employment and now am an official burden on society. This amongst other things means I have had more time to focus on the book with the result that I am now up to 28K words and have achieved a no of key goals.

  1. All the major characters bar one have been introduced.
  2. The first two story arcs have been established
  3. A number of sub-plots that may or may not be important have been initiated.
  4. There are a few unanswered questions and issues in the narrative – this is deliberate.
  5. I have had more feedback.
  6. It’s getting more complicated.

That last one is really the key issue. Previous posts have alluded to a an emergent writing and plot style. This was the naivety of youth. Ahhh, when I look back on those carefree days of a few weeks ago when I only had a few characters and one plot line to establish my view on how I was going to write the rest of the book seems woefully optimistic. Not anymore. I have multiple plots to move. Multiple characters demanding attention and screen time. There is some world building and laying the path for issues that will appear in subsequent parts of the book as well as other books. There is more going back  over previous stuff as new plot elements emerge that require a judicial amount of re-writing to make the ever more numerous ideas work and that the tone and plot are consistent. There is also the constant nagging doubt of can I sustain this present tense style from one characters point of view as other bits of the story ideally do not require his presence.

As a result of all of this I have started to do more planning, put more staging posts in the plot and flesh out the story by writing chapter summaries which have the added benefit of making me review the overall plot arcs and whether or not they make sense or are strong enough. There is also more research on people and places as well as historical events that could be involved. The feedback has also been positive and helped encourage me that I am still on the write track

“Thoroughly enjoying the novel and I admire your hold on the present tense and the manner in which you maintain the personalities or your characters thus far. It is always pleasing for the reader to be lead through the streets of the place in which a narrative is set. So we feel like we are following Perrin and Salt in the latter part of the pages you have given me. Helps us enter into the period too of course. Dialogue feels just right.

It is of course a good thing to follow a sustained period of ‘talk’ with segment of action. You keep it very pacey on the way to the brothel..and are they indeed being followed? The brothel segment is funny.. I do like Madam Creasy…Mercy, she’s an intriguing one for sure…”

“So far you are showing an impressive control of the unfolding of the plot. And the present tense…”

So not sure how the next week or so is going to go. The story is now demanding a better and more thorough approach. Let’s hope I am up to it.


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He’s Not Omniscient, He’s Just A Very Naughty Boy

This week’s creative writing class got into some excellent debate about narration, voice and point of view and I learnt something very interesting about my style of writing. A brief discussion of the main options available to the aspiring author can be found here . I for one am extremely glad I did no research on this before starting as it would have confused the hell out of me and even worse I may have adopted a style that I thought would be appropriate rather than just get on with telling the dammed thing in a way that felt right. However hindsight being a wonderful thing and the fact that I am now approaching 15k words means I feel confident to find out just what I am actually doing.

Apparently I am not using the most popular technique of the third party omniscient narrator but a somewhat weird hybrid of first person free and indirect speech or discourse but in the present rather than the past tense. I know, I have no idea what it means either, but there is a wonderfully up it’s own arse definition  that you can find here. Anybodywhocantranslatethatintoengishpleaseletmeknow.  Better by far is this blog which gives some excellent worked examples and illustrations of various authors styles. However none of them seem to actually match how I am choosing to tell my story, or perhaps I’m just being thick.

From my perspective what I am actually trying to do is tell the story from one characters perspective (his name is Francis Perrin a young Victorian gentleman scientist) with access to his inner voice but describing the events as they happen around him as if he had a go-pro recording the whole thing. The use of the present tense to my way of thinking gives the story more immediacy and presence. The reader is right there with him experiencing what he does at the very same time and like real life the future will only be understood when you get there.

Here is a short example: First in the present tense in italics followed by the same passage rewritten in the more familiar past tense.

Order whatever you want, The Cadre are paying, it’s mostly good, especially the chops.” Babbage is keen to seem helpful and placate their guests. To Perrin the menu is a revelation, brought up to eat whatever was in front of him whether at home or in University rooms the choice is bewildering, roasts, soups stews, pies and more than one type of fish identified by name no less. Free will when it comes to ordering food is an alien concept to Perrin and although suddenly utterly ravenous he struggles to choose.

“Steak” says Salt, “rare.”

“Certainly sir” replies the waiter, “and for the vegetables?”

“Oh, they can order for themselves.” Says Burton with an evil grin.

Perrin, grateful that someone has made a choice dutifully follows suit.

“Order whatever you want, The Cadre are paying, it’s mostly good, especially the chops.” Babbage was keen to seem helpful and placate their guests. To Perrin the menu was a revelation, brought up to eat whatever was in front of him whether at home or in University rooms the choice was bewildering, roasts, soups stews, pies and more than one type of fish identified by name no less. Free will when it came to ordering food was an alien concept to Perrin and although suddenly utterly ravenous he struggled to choose.

“Steak” said Salt, “rare.”

“Certainly sir” replied the waiter, “and for the vegetables?”

“Oh, they can order for themselves.” Said Burton with an evil grin.

Perrin, grateful that someone had made a choice dutifully followed suit.

Dunno about you but to me the first version is more alive and immediate, you are moving through time with Perrin experiencing what he sees and feels as he does whilst the second reads as if you were watching through the window or on a TV screen at characters in someone else’s story. So if someone out there can tell me the official classification for what I am writing and how I would be eternally grateful.

See you next week.

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My Writing Day

This week I shall mostly be inspired by the Guardians “My Writing Day” a weekly article that appears in the Saturday Review and is also available online. I read this avidly. Initially hoping to discover the secret of the right way to write a novel, however it soon became very obvious that there is no ideal way. It should come as no surprise that every author is different and the way they write differs wildly. From those like Sarah Perry who bottle it up until it explodes out of them. To the method men like Michael Bond who have a well honed technique/routine that seems to define their whole existence. From them I have learnt the following.

  1. With a few exceptions most authors write most days. As Barry Cryer once remarked when asked how he remained funny and relevant after so many years as a comedy writer. “Humour is like a muscle, the more you exercise it the better and stronger it becomes.” Writing regularly usually results in better writing.
  2. There is no such thing as the right way to write. You have to find a way that suits you. Some authors can write anywhere anytime the muse strikes them, others need to be seated in a particular time in a specific place to allow for concentration and focus.
  3. Word count varies wildly. Apparently Ernest Hemingway was satisfied if he wrote a hundred good words a day. Others can bash out several thousand. Some edit as they go and some plough on almost regardless of tone and continuity to create a first draft that they know with subsequent editing and re-writing will be wildly different in the finished work.
  4. Some like Emma Donoghue reassure me that my approach is not unique and my desire to have the context right even when my real-life characters are doing fictional things is not unusual. I quote.

 “The main variation among my novels is not the writing but the research. Sometimes I stick closely to facts. Other times, as in my latest book The Wonder, I make up the story but the background is as historically accurate as possible, so I spend time checking whether a particular bird would have been in the Irish Midlands in 1859.”

So this is my writing day.

I get up at 08:00, and try to leave the house by  08:30. I cannot work from home. My last job was basically home based and I found that I was incapable of concentrating. My lack of discipline meant I inevitably started searching for shows I had not yet watched on Amazon Prime or whether King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard   or Steven Wilson have any new videos up. I need a place of work free of distractions. There is a 20 min walk into town to the local library, luckily we haven’t lost ours yet, and I use the time to think about plot, research and what I plan to try to write today. Once there I find a spare table unpack my laptop, water and any books I have brought with me to help with background etc. Then it is a question of starting, sometimes the first word is difficult and I fear I will loose the tone or atmosphere of the scene I am halfway through, however even if the first words are rubbish the characters soon take over and sort me out. By 13:00 I am done, my typing is slow and rudimentary and I have a tendency to edit and re-read as I go, so anything over a thousand words I deem a successful and productive morning. I pack up and return stopping only at Nero’s for a regular mocha extra shot extra hot to  drink on the way home. Lunch is followed by any number of permutations of the following, gym, blog, research, Amazon Prime, housework, email, You Tube, plot notes, new ideas, and Spider Solitaire. I’d be the first one to admit It’s not pretty or very inspiring, but it seems to work for me.

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Vaguely Right or Precisely Wrong

I have been thinking a lot about plot this week. The problem is one of inexperience. There seems to be two schools of thought. On the one hand the plot is mapped, planned, sub-divided into chapters and each chapter sub-divided into sections until you have effectively written a skeleton and the only task left is to clothe it with words. In fact this approach is so popular it has been reduced to a system which means anybody can be a writer hurrah! The other one is what I seem to be doing and there appears to be sod all about it.

I’ll be honest with you the first approach frightens me and whenever I have attempted it I have failed miserably. Why I hear you cry. Well dear reader it is because….(come close because I need to whisper so only you know) I don’t know what is going to happen. There I have said it, confessed my sin. Actually having written it down I feel better, my dirty little secret is out in the open. No going back, everybody now knows I haven’t an actual clue what I am doing. This issue really came home to me when I re-read my original plot ideas and synopsis that I wrote about six months ago. Oh dear. When I compare that to what I am actually writing there is very little in common apart from the setting the basic characters and a working title. The thing is, what I am actually doing feels so much better, the emergent narrative feels more natural, the characters more real and the story more engaging. I now look back at the original plot and see it is wooden, laboured and in service to the idea. What I mean by that is the characters are there to serve the plot rather than the plot emerges as the characters uncover it for themselves, which seems to me to be more exciting and interesting.

So does this mean I have no idea where the story is going and have no plot no end point? Will the narrative just wander aimlessly on until everybody, including the characters gets bored/boring? Well unlike Tales From a Topographic Ocean  I do have some ideas. Instead of a detailed plot outline I have staging posts, or scenes that I have in my head and also jotted down in note form. I have a framework, a set of rules about how my take on Victorian society would operate, but within that the plot and the characters have free will. I have written a broad synopsis about the overall story arc and the major plot strands for the first two novels, but that’s it. What is very interesting is that this approach allows me to add/refine/uncover new ideas that are rooted in the approach and what has gone before but add a level of complexity or detail to the plot or the world building. A recent example was when researching the East India Company  I came across this wonderful piece of serendipity Nemesis. What a name what a ship! Well as soon as I discovered her I knew that she must form a key part of the story. The Cadre (more of them later) would have been all over such a technology and so am I. So as the story emerges you and me can speculate about what might happen, but if no-one not even the author knows exactly what happens next, well that’s just ………

To finish with here is another creative writing class exercise. For this one (and I suspect all subsequent ones) I have used the premise as an excuse to write from the perspective of one of the characters in the novel rather than witter on about myself. This may or may not end up in the final draft but it’s a very good way of exploring/developing your characters in situations not of your choosing.Enjoy.

A Place of Tranquillity

Francis Perrin a young Victorian gentleman scientist is in West Africa searching for Oklo the “God of Steam” a deity said to possess the power of infinite energy. He and Lemmuel Salt his bodyguard have run into a spot of bother with the local Orungu tribe who believe they have desecrated the cave where Oklo lives.

Knocked flat and winded, Perrin turns to confront his fate and instead of an Orungu with spear and death he sees Salt in perfect harmony with the world. Sword in one hand his thick veined stick in the other, every limb operating independently and in perfect rhythm. In this sphere of death his movement is balletic a block a bend a kick a slash each action perfectly coordinated in time and space. The stick catches the next victim, he staggers, and is kicked hard in the groin, he doubles up and the sword enters his back, perfectly aligned with his heart. Then without hesitation weight is transferred to the other leg, the stick swings, a head jerks back, the body falls and is impaled in movement so smooth, so precise, so efficient as to be not of this world. Salt has commanded that this offering be delivered at a time and place of his choosing and so it has come to pass. Chaos reigns all around him but Perrin is in the eye of the storm, a place of peace and tranquillity, created by a monster. He notices Salt’s face has no anger, no frustration, the expression is calm as on waking from restful sleep, his eyes are soft and there is the hint of a smile on his lips as if a small child had amused him. Salt is in the moment, he is time itself, in complete control of their destiny.

“Oi Mary, get off your arse stop and stop staring at my crotch, it puts a bloke right off his stroke!”

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At some point you have to get feedback. No man or book is an island. It may on occasion  be a peninsula with very few visitors and no gift shop. However whilst it is often said you should create art for your own pleasure without reference to others, the reality is that all acts of creativity exist in some form of context and it would be a perverse type of solipsist that didn’t want some reaction to their work  critical monetary or otherwise. Of course friends and family are usually the first port of call and, let’s be honest, you are expecting uncritical praise and encouragement which by and large I have received . Except from my eldest son  who, as a scientist and blogger in his own right, is genetically incapable of not telling the truth who struggling, I suspect, with my slightly florid faux Victorian style suggested that I should read Hemingway “he’s a really good writer.” Point taken David. In my defence the style, however badly executed, is deliberate.

Eventually though you need to show what you have done to someone who doesn’t know you, has no idea about the context or reasons for your writing but who does have experience and knowledge of writing and the publishing world. You need to do this for many reasons the chief of which is “am I deluding myself that I can write” closely followed by “is what I am writing of any merit or interest to anybody else”. I genuinely don’t believe there are many artists who do not want their work to be enjoyed or appreciated by others. Even if driven by inner demons, we are at heart social creatures who prefer to be accepted and by extension that includes any act of creativity. So objective feedback is critical, nothing and nobody is perfect whatever we aspire to say or do.

So here is verbatim my first objective independent feedback on the first few thousand words of my first draft.

“Well, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve read so far of your book. The thing that stands out the most is the characterisation which I think is superb. Mr Babbage and Salt really appeal, though the others are very distinct also.I think that’s one of the most difficult things to do; to give a number of characters distinct and three dimensional personalities. They all really come alive. The whole idea of the cadre is apparent here..each one bringing a particular skill to a particular enterprise. The fact that they are personally at odds with each other makes it really funny . Tennyson and the poem for example…….Salt’s overpowering, threatening presence amongst the learned men..though he’s certainly not without humour himself. I keep seeing Oliver Reed.

I can see that dialogue is not a problem for you here. I think you’ve captured the texture and mode of the elongated sentence  structure associated with the period. My only point here is that it may obscure meaning for the average reader who may find this sort of language difficult. At this point you really need to ask yourself who the intended reader is. I think also you should spell out in this opening segment what exactly ‘the mission’ is going to be ( the idea is implanted) though you don’t have to go into a massive amount of  detail.

I like the roughness, rowdiness of the general scene created. I think a lot of writers and screen -writers avoid that kind of detail…the sheer filth of it all. I do think the first segment could be cut back a bit but don’t worry about that now.

Is this novel going to be from Perrin’s point of view throughout? Are we going to follow him through the whole novel? He’s a really good character. ..rather naive though by no means stupid.I think the reader will want to get to know why he is there pretty soon.

I do admire your ability to stay in the present tense. Our natural story telling mode is in the past tense. I don’t think you slipped once!

What fun you must have doing  some of your research on the streets of London.”

Yeah, I know what you are thinking. “He only published it ‘cos it was positive. I bet he’s got lots that told him  not to give up the day job”. Well all I can say to you unbelievers is no that’s it. As and when I start to get rejection or negative correspondence I shall publish that to. However at the moment I am buoyed and comfortable in the thought that I am not completely mad and useless, which is after all what we all want to know.

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