Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Editor Regrets…

Behind every author who has ambitions of success, there is a good editor. In my case, she is also my wife, Juli.

The Butterfly & The Bull is my first novel (indeed, my first significant piece of fiction writing) which means that the whole enterprise, from blank sheet to publication and beyond, was a constant learning experience. From the first glimmer of an idea while walking on the beach by the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, I developed the plot and action of the story in my head over a period of six months.  I shared it with no one but Joe The Dog and the occasional turkey buzzard or seagull that happened along during my meanderings.

It wasn’t until I decided to write the story down that I began to get a sense of the key role of the editor.  I shared the hasty outpourings with her. She was encouraging, but offered advice which proved to be crucial. Things like:  “Donnie is the hero. You just can’t make him behave like a wimp. It spoils his character;” and “The story is really about Donnie trying to get his wife back. And yet you’ve got several chapters here where she isn’t mentioned at all. It won’t work;” and “This section is just boring – you need some action here;” and  “Donnie/O’Malley/Ellie/Lynn would never say something like that. It’s out of character.” And so on.  In amongst comments about grammar and style and typos, there was this flow of advice. I didn’t agree with all of it and we occasionally has some robust discussions, but almost always her sense of what would work was spot on.

Then, I rewrote the whole novel and, in the process, began to find a style and a voice. The author/editor relationship began to change.  I got even more positive feedback, but also harsher criticism when I overwrote or failed the realism test.

And then it was done and we began the long process of checking for inconsistencies, typos and formatting errors. I completely underestimated how hard that was going to be. Adding to the challenge, what I thought was a tight control of document versions proved to be too sloppy and we would occasionally find errors appearing which we knew had been corrected. But after maybe six line-by-line passes, we felt ready for the next stage.

When the interior and cover were finally uploaded to the CreateSpace website, I was fairly confident that the final proof would need very little correcting. I guess it depends what would count as “very little” – it seemed like a lot at the time.

The book has now been on sale for several months. I know that there is a character in it called Willits who has his name spelled Willets at one point. Apart from that, no one has pointed out any typos.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are none there…


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An Author’s View of The Butterfly & The Bull

The following is a recently posted review of The Butterfly & The Bull on Frederick Lee Brooke’s website.  My thanks to him for this high-quality critique and for sharing it with his fan-base.  Fred is the author of Doing Max Vinyl – a high octane, highly entertaining thriller with a green heart (

“In this marvelous thriller, the government of the United States has collapsed due to a world economic meltdown, and the military has taken over.  Shots can be heard all over the city, even as the protagonist and his girlfriend head to a restaurant for a quiet dinner.  We are one step away from martial law in our own country, and innocent people are being pulled off the street and spirited away in black SUVs on orders of the FBI.

I talked about this scenario with some friends, and we all agreed it seemed awfully plausible.  In the book a resistance movement has coalesced in reaction to the military coup d’état and the kidnappings, and there is hope.

Our main character is a transplanted Scotsman living in the U.S. for some years now.  Two things you learn about Donnie: he has premonitions, and he’s a world class computer hacker, in part thanks to his psychic powers.

When Donnie’s newlywed wife is abducted by the FBI, he learns he can gain her release if only he will work for the military government.  Hero that he is, he instead joins the resistance.  Now he both has to rescue his wife from the FBI’s clutches and also overthrow the government.

The writing throughout this book is elegant and spare, alternating riveting action with meaningful flashbacks to Donnie’s childhood or other scenes from his past.  The workings of his brain are central to the development of the plot, so it all fits together beautifully.  The action moves from Washington D.C. to the Chesapeake Bay to an ocean crossing in a small craft, to Ireland and England, and back again.  Bonds grow strong through shared hardship and danger between Donnie and a battle-scarred band of others who are determined to fight for what is right.  The special relationship between America and the UK is affirmed.

A small sample of Haddon’s prose: ‘Our wake trailed behind us, a transient signature of our passage. People slept.  Except John.  I took the helm just as dawn revealed a bloody mess of sky to the east.  Sailor’s warning.  A fresh breeze began to brush the oily look from the sea and stirred the surface into wavelets.’  There is a self assurance here that belies his status as a first-time novelist.

I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of The Butterfly and the Bull.  This book reminded me not a few times of the early Tom Clancy novels, in which the characters were fully developed and in which there were always deep moral underpinnings to the basic story.  In this book, the first novel of author Stuart Haddon, a perfect balance is achieved between a good, taut storyline, well-drawn characters, and fine writing.”

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Errors and Omissions Accepted

Writing a novel is one thing, having it published quite another. What would be perfectly acceptable in the privacy of one’s own boudoir becomes unacceptable when exposed to the quirky light of public scrutiny. The typos, missing quotation marks, variable spaces between sentences and other minor blemishes in one’s magnum opus become suppurating sores in the mind of the author, post-publication. In the run up to the final act, it is easy to come to the conclusion that, even while the precious .docx file is tucked away on the hard drive, errors are randomly generated by some mysterious, subversive process which it outwith your control.

There are other varieties of errors, though, and these are not always quite so readily apparent to the reader. They fall into a spectrum which ranges from factual and/or continuity blunders to deliberate manipulation of fact which falls under the general heading of “artistic licence.” An example of the former would be the point in The Butterfly & The Bull where the hero is standing in the road beside the forest and can hear the rain “as it followed the call of gravity and slipped from canopy to floor, leaf by leaf. ” An observant reader, who also happens to be familiar with the seasons in Southern Maryland, would realize that this action is set in March and there would be no leaves on the trees.  The author, having spotted his mistake, thought it a risk worth taking to leave well alone, mainly because he liked the passage so much. He did consider briefly an alternative solution which was to change the whole time frame of the novel, but baulked at the magnitude of the task.

An example which is somewhere near the other end of this spectrum is to be found when the action moves to an island off the west coast of Ireland.  At one point, the hero and his companion are bundled into a van and driven onto an old ferry which takes them to the mainland.  In point of fact, research revealed that ferries of the “landing craft” type which the author had in mind are not used in that part of the coast.  But he stuck to what he had originally written, because it suited the flow of the action better (and also because of many warm memories of being carried on such craft in his native Scotland).

There are several more examples, but I’m not going to share them with you.  Read the book, and you can find them for yourself.


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In a Varicose Vein

When Juli and I go on a road trip, we take a ‘talking book’ with us. It’s an excellent way to help pass the time. The choice of title in these circumstances is crucial, of course, and we have had some occasional disasters.  For a start, the quality of the narration is crucial. Anyone with a tendency to boring monotones should be avoided. And an actor who can create characters’ voices and maintain them throughout is a definite plus. A recent trip started with an American narrator trying to do several voices in a Cockney accent. If I tell you that he was worse than Dick Van Dyke in “Mary Poppins,” then you may get some sense of how bad it was.

A very complicated or convoluted plot is also a no-no. For the person driving, there are bound to be points where it’s heads-up.  Come to think of it, the driver really should have her or his head up throughout.  The passenger, on the other hand, is likely to be drifting in and out of sleep (especially as our road trips tend to start at stupid o’ clock) and cannot be expected to cling to all the plot nuances involved.  This can lead to tricky discussions.

(Pauses the disc) “Who’s the woman with the triplets and the wooden leg?  She seems to have appeared from nowhere.”

“Sorry, haven’t a clue.  I must have been negotiating the George Washington Bridge at that point. I’m struggling with the role of the dwarf and the Russian guy caught with the llamas in his trunk.”

All of which leads to Dean Koontz. For a couple of trips, well-narrated versions of his stories provided the perfect accompaniment to the unrolling of the Interstates. We thought we had struck a productive seam and selected him again for our next trip. Error. Your Heart Belongs To Me turned out to be a swollen, knotted mess of a novel, an example of what happens when a talented writer gets to like the sound of his own writing voice so much that it plays havoc with his judgement.

I’ve since discovered lists on the GoodReads website which separate the good Dean Koontz novels from the clunkers. I’ll take that with me, next time we go to the library.


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Sequelitis (n): A severe condition experienced by authors who have committed to writing a sequel, especially to a first novel. Characterized by mental stress, plot confusion and an inability to decide on a working title. May be alleviated (though only temporarily) by copious amounts of alcohol, administered internally.

The working title. Hmmm. At the moment, it is “Sequel to The Butterfly & The Bull.” A couple of days ago, I spent the best part of an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” probing the quagmire of neural chaos inside my skull for inspiration. And was I successful? Let me tell you. Today, I couldn’t find the four draft chapters I’d completed so far. Several moments of raised b.p. later, I discovered them in a folder named “The Consummate Paradox.” I kid you not. Forty minutes of mental gymnastics, and I came up with something that I couldn’t even REMEMBER, never mind relate to.

People who make movies don’t seem to have this problem. So I guess I could call the sequel “The Butterfly & The Bull 2” or “The Butterfly & The Bull – The Reckoning” or even “The Butterfly and The Butterfly – a Tale of Two Fritillaries.” A rich seam? I think not. Perhaps there is inspiration on the bookshelf.  Take somebody else’s bright idea and modify it – a touch of justifiable plagiarism. Unfortunately, from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look promising. None of: Guatemala – A Visitor’s Guide, The Farmers’ Almanac 1992 or Estate and Trust Administration for Dummies seem like very fertile ground.

It seems so simple.  I know the plot (roughly), the settings and the characters. You’d think I could come up with something inspirational – or at least mundanely acceptable. The McLennan Six (or Seven or Eight)? Donnie’s Revenge? Jura to Edinburgh – A Traveler’s Guide? Nope. I give in for the moment. Pass the Pino Grigiot, for goodness sake.


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A Little Jura in the Night

Good friends came to enjoy dinner with us this evening. Mark brought a bottle of Jura whisky which I had given him as a thank-you for looking after Joe The Dog.  He hadn’t yet sampled it, so we had a post-prandial bottle-opening session. This is the whisky I like best – robust, yet not heavy and with hints of oak and notes of honey and caramel, soft liquorice and roasted coffee beans (OK, I got that from the Jura Distillery site – it just tastes like a stonking good whisky to me!). Mark only knew that this was a Scottish whisky, so I showed him the Island of Jura on Google Earth and then some photos of the place. This is my favourite place out of all those I have visited in the world. That’s why it features in The Butterfly & The Bull. Although it’s only about seven miles from the Scottish mainland, it has a wild and isolated feel about it.  It is rugged, with wild moorland and rocky coastlines.  And yet, at Jura House, there exists the most luxuriant walled garden with shrubs, herbs, vegetables and herbs galore. About one hundred and fifty people live on the island. There is one road, one hotel, one store, one distillery.  In the novel, I envision an island bereft of its absentee landowners, its tourist trade and its reliable links with the mainland.  The island community pulls together to bridge the gap between one set of circumstances and another. They are helped in this by one of their own. Colin McKay. A modest genius. The character is based on a real Juraman I met in 2009. He liked the local whisky, too, as I remember.


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A Trap for the Unwary Author

So. After almost two years of gestation, I was finally delivered of a bonny, bouncing novel on 20th October 2011. Thanks to the wonders of CreateSpace and Kindle, it is available on Amazon (and in other places) as a paperback and an ebook ( At that point, I raised my head wearily from the keyboard and sat back, wondering about the sequel. But a huge, black cloud gathered even as my thoughts were doing the same thing and I realized that there was something I had forgotten.  The bane of all self-published authors – the terrible twins, Marketing and Publicity. It’s not that the advice isn’t out there, it’s just that lots of us choose to ignore it until after the event.  In my case, I found myself unexpectedly on a scree slope of things to do, furiously scrabbling for purchase.

At least I had a website. And a Facebook page. “But you need a blog,” they said. So here it is. I just have to grit my teeth (what’s left of them) and write in the damn thing.  I’d rather be working on the sequel. But maybe it’ll grow on me, especially if people find it interesting.



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