Where’s May’s update? You ask. Where have you and Chris been? You might also ponder. What the hell is ‘The Separated Man’? You say.

All valid questions. With different things going on in our lives (Chris doing work for FYW and me getting distracted by a cartoon dinosaur) we sort of let our updates for May slip. Very naughty of us, I know.  No excuses. Now halfway through the year I think we’re both beginning to realise that our chief rival is not one another, but Time itself. So, with tempus fugit-ing, there’s no time to dawdle. Let’s crack on.

How many words have I done? God knows. A lot. I’ve been working over sixteen different chapters and I’ve lost track of the word count. It’s well over ten thousand though. Probably closer to twenty thousand actually. I think I’ll leave it as a surprise now for when I stick it together. No. No, I promise to have counted by the next update.  But as you might be able to tell from that estimate it’s been going well. Very well. No creative constipation, just lots of writing, lots of story and plot progression, and lots of focus on this line in particular:  

“I conceived the perfect crime: a dead man committing a murder.”

 This is a sentence spoken by one of my characters: it’s up on a post it note on my wall, and whenever I write it is in my head. Because no matter how much flash and exuberance I add to the plot, no matter how many undead soldiers or Difference Men or ray guns there are, no matter how gaudy the Steampunk trappings, ‘The Separated Man’ is all about that one sentence. At it’s core it is about one, audacious crime, and everything else pivots around that.

 What’s that? What’s The Separated Man? Oh yes, sorry, I forgot to mention. I changed the name. ‘The Invention of Steam’ is now ‘The Separated Man’. I hope you like it as a title. I said right at the start of this Duel that ‘The Invention of Steam’ was a title likely to change. I expected it would. Titles, like any other part of a novel, can change at the click of a key or the flourish of a pen. I like to have a title in place though – I’m pretty good at them and having one helps solidify the idea of the story in my head. A good title is something you can really get behind.

‘The Invention of Steam’ sounds good, and makes sense in the context of the story, but I always felt there was a more apt and maybe exciting title to have. During May I went through an exhaustive list of possible titles in the hope of finding just the right one. The answer, as often is the case, was staring me directly in the face, but there were some serious contenders to it. Remember, it’s a Steampunk origins tale.

‘Rebel Steam’ was, for a long time, the lead title in my mind and one that best described the plot and themes, but the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like a Steampunk Steven Seagal movie … … … Actually I’d watch that. ‘The Difference Men’ was another good one in my mind and had a couple of levels of meaning to it, but as the story has progressed the characters of The Difference Men became less prominent. It would be like naming ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘The Adventures of Mr Bumble’. ‘SteamHeart’ grew on me, but it made it sound a bit Young Adult and so far the novel can’t really be described as that. It’s gotten surprisingly dark and Gothic, what with its numerous murders and, what I’ve come to best describe as ‘anatomical horror’. Eventually, looking through the chapters already completed, the heading ‘The Separated Man’ stood out and it worked on more levels than any other. Many characters in my story can be described as ‘separated’ men or women, and all for different reasons. And the theme of separation and its interpretation goes right to the heart of the story. In fact, it goes right to that sentence I have on a post-it.

But while characters may be separated, the story is finally knitting together. ‘Phew!’. It’s been a fair challenge writing chapters out of order when they all have to connect so neatly – a bit like putting together a Lego set in the wrong order – but things are starting to coalesce. I’ll remind you of this when the whole story is finished, but you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled. Everything is connected, every interaction has a cause and effect, and there are moments early in the narrative that appear meaningless but which are vital to the plot later on. A bouquet of flowers that are mentioned in one chapter become an entire plot point later on. A stranger in the street doing something completely unrelated to the story is actually doing something integral to the story. My aim is to have you go back and realise ‘Ohh that was there all along but I didn’t notice it!’ Gosh I hope it works. And now that the story is actually taking shape here are ten tasty teasers as to what you can expect from it: 

  • Ray guns make more work for butlers.
  • Do not try and play the drinking game ‘drink every time a character drinks’ with this story. You will be dead by Chapter 3.
  • ‘Mr. Othniel Maggadees’ is my favourite name.
  • An entire career will become completely redundant in Steampunk Britain. It’s not dustbin men but it is disposal of a sort.
  • Speaking of jobs, new Steampunk careers include: Zeppelin Refuelling Technician, Omniclock Repairman, Ionised Potassium Salesman, Chief of Aesthetics, and Holography Designer.
  • Spring-Heeled Jack is the evil Iron Man of the 1800s.
  • There really is a fight in a special effects warehouse. Ardent viewers of Futurama will appreciate this reference.
  • One man’s Steampunk terrorist is another man’s Victorian freedom fighter.
  • There’s a restaurant that serves only exotic and endangered species in dishes such as ‘Toucan Salad’ and ‘Rhino a la Hamburg’. Weirdly, this isn’t so far from true high-class Victorian eating as you might think.
  • “Why would you give a calculator eyes?” is a very bad question.

That’s all for now. See you next month!

Words done this month: 6000, ish.

Current total word count: About 18,500.

Current mood: Excited!

April low point: The last few days of the month, when I felt really stuck on where the story was going.

April high point: 21st and the following few days. I pledged to write 1000 words a day. I didn’t manage that, but got a lot written, and was really enjoying it.

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So, Christ on a bike, it’s May 2010 already. This year is absolutely belting along, like a runaway train it sometimes seems. Like Rob, I’m going to keep this brief.

March was a pretty crappy month, for many reasons, let alone the utter lack of writing that I managed to get done. If you read mylast update you’ll know how down I was feeling, after struggling through March. April has been much better. After a bit of a slow start, March still being fresh in my mind, the writing began to pick up towards the middle of the month. Now I’m really in territory beyond that which I normally write. The story is nearly at 20k words now, and besides my NaNo novel, which was written a long time ago, my stories are only ever a couple of thousand words long. So, getting my teeth into something longer is proving really exciting, if very challenging at the same time.

About two thirds of the way through the month the writing was really going strong. I was writing both on the computer and longhand, at different times of the day, long writing sessions and smaller snippets of writing tucked into lunchbreaks and at the end of the day before dropping off to sleep. I was really enjoying it, and was also invigorated by some rather exciting news. Some of you will know what that is, those of you who don’t will find out tomorrow…

Unfortunately, the writing ground to a halt at the very end of the month. I became unsure about the plot of my novel, and found myself writing without really caring what was happening. The ‘jumping’ that happens in the novel is key, and at the moment it involves jumping to another place, another world. Yet I was suddenly unsure as to what this world should be, and my questions about whether I should change it ranged from subtle tweaks to complete overhauls. I have yet to write anything in May, with having a busy weekend away, but I think I have now decided where to take the plot of my novel, and settled on what the jumping in the story actually entails. Hopefully this will mean that when I come to write later today, I will be more comfortable with the story, and it will begin working again.

I am feeling particularly invigorated actually, after talking with my good friend Ben on Saturday. I have asked him to create a cover image for StairJumpers, and he agreed! We had a really in-depth discussion/brainstorming as to what the cover might look like, and he is excited to work out some ideas. Visualising a cover to StairJumpers has really got me excited about the story again!

Let’s see what May shall bring!

 Words Done This Month: 2,901 (most of them in the last three days)

Total Word Count: 26,702

April Low Point: The week when nothing was done.

April High Point: The few days when everything was done.

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This’ll be brief: I don’t want to write more words in an update than I did in all of April. I jest of course, but only just… 

What I wrote was good, there just wasn’t a lot of it. Not a bad thing. Better than writing thousands of terribly dull words. And it wasn’t as if it was a struggle to get that much done – I had a good time writing it. I’m not sure why then, the count is so low. Okay, there was one week where nothing was done, but that’s because there was a death in the family and everything sort of stopped. Apart from that there was nothing but open Time in which to get stuff done. Yet I’ve got to say I’m not one of those people who just sit and write at any time. You can’t force it out of me like juice. I’m not an orange. I have to be in the right mood. For two weeks I just wasn’t in the right mood. You might say, “oh well just set aside an hour and sit down and just write something, anything, just write!” but I say no. That’s just not how I get it done. Last week was the right mood, so I got some good stuff down. Ta-da! 

So the word count is a bit low. As a wholly remarkable book says ‘Don’t Panic’. Just because I wasn’t writing doesn’t mean the story was on ice. I was thinking and plotting and trying to infuse the plot with a bit more ‘fearful whimsy’, and by that I mean those fantastical, fairytale-like things turned twisted; a Grimm’s Fairytale with more technology. I already had some of it – the key to how to take over the world lies in my short story ‘The Clockwork Heart’ – but there are now plenty of extra little touches: cirrushows (advertising on clouds), buildings that are there but aren’t, gramohats (imagine an iPod in a top hat, except it’s not an iPod it’s a gramophone), and Charles Babbage’s chilling ‘Difference Men’ and their binary death cry (if there’s an excerpt this month then it’s definitely time you met them).

Ooh, and very, very soon ‘The Invention of Steam’ will have a name change. More on that later this month.  

So there’s plenty still to write about and plenty of fun to be had. The word count’s low but this isn’t a competition to see who can write the most words in a month. It’s a competition to see who can write the best story, and there’s plenty of time left in the year for that.

Wait, what do you mean it’s now May?!?!

Words done this month: 5,800

Total Word Count: 24, 360

Current Mood: Splendiferous

March Low Point: Nothing really to single out. Just need more discipline in writing.

March High Point: Adding up my word count and realising I’d done more than I thought.

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 Let’s start with a story that actually happened. Just the other night actually.

 Some friends and I were in Newcastle for dinner, and on the way to the restaurant we passed a man standing in the street in a very fine purple suit. His hair and beard were unkempt and he walked with a bit of a stoop. He carried with him a mobile phone and a suitcase.

“Dyhvatime?” he asked us as we walked past.

We stopped.

“Dyhvatime?” he inquired again. “Thatime?”

‘Oh the time!’ I realised in my head that he was Scottish and very much the worse for drink.

“Yes,” I said, looking at my watch, “It’s five past six.”

The man in the purple suit looked shocked, and for a second intense confusion could be clearly made out, even under all that beard. And then, in his drunken Scottish drawl he asked something that rather startled us all.

“Mornin’ or evenin’?”

“Evening,” I said.

We stood there, us and the drunk, staring at one another, both in states of disbelief. And then, because there was really nothing else we could do, and because our bellies were rumbling, we left the drunken man in the fine purple suit to walk on into his brand new evening.

Time is a funny thing, and whether or not you’re so off your head you lose all notion of its passage, it is very easy to let it get the best of you. At times it drags, at times it soars past you, and always at the points you want it to do the very opposite. Einstein had it right: sit on a bench with a pretty girl and an hour will feel like five minutes. Hold your hand on a a hot hob for five seconds and it will feel like an hour. 

After the true ‘hand on hob’ disaster month that was February I resolved to make March a good month. March was when every challenge was going to be faced, every put off thing put on; everything was going to get done: romantically, financially, creatively and businessly. And it was. What I remember of it. Because I really don’t know where March went. It really did speed by, and I was only drunk for part of it. Maybe it was because I was doing the stuff I liked; writing, cartooning, setting up my business, waiting for the new series of Doctor Who, that everything passed so quickly. I’m not sure. I’d certainly like to think it was that, and not just my addled, pun-crazed mind making me believe it. March certainly has felt like the month for sitting on the bench with the pretty girl. I’m glad of the change: my hand was starting to smell like bacon.

 So as a result of this fast-forwarded March and it’s many distractions that needed tending to I actually thought my word count was going to be low, but was rather surprised by how much I’d done. Not a massive amount but more than expected and enough to keep me on the very loose target I’ve set myself. Apparently I got some writing done on that bench.

 I think that the higher word count wasn’t just as a result of a more positive attitude, but because I was writing sections that really excited me, and which I’d been dying to write from ages. Real pulp action stuff. Outrageous, word-spilling fun like Spring-Heeled Jack bounding through London, crashing on top of Hansom cabs and leaping back onto the rooftops while gunfire bends the air around him. Or tense moments where an Inspector manages to trick an answer out of a suspect with some clever wordplay. It’s been immense fun, and as Chris and myuself have said many times before, writing should be fun. The day it becomes a chore is the day I’ll think about becoming an accountant (again). And thanks to the fun things are really picking up plot-wise. The story is taking more definite form, characters are fleshing out nicely and a good dose of intrigue has been added. And now that some textual chaff has been cut out from the literary wheat in the editing process I’m a lot happier with what’s been done.

What will April (described as ‘the cruellest month by Eliot) have in store? Well my Smedley Senses are tingling. A change is gonna come, some hands will be on hobs, and it’s not going to be the easiest of months to navigate, but there’ll be time – hell I’ll make the time – to write. And yes, an entire quarter of the year has gone, and I’m as terrified by that as anyone (seriously, a whole three months? Where’d that go?!), but there are three quarters left, and that’s a lot of writing time.

 And in the end, at least I and my opponent are aware of the time we have left. Unlike a certain man in a purple suit…

Words done this month: 1,675…

Current total word count: 12,384

Current mood: Pretty crappy, to be honest.

March low point: The past few days – realising that this Duel is a quarter of the way over already, and seeing just how low my word count has been this month.

March high point: Today, now that it’s over! Bring on April.

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So, we are a quarter of the way through the Duel, and my word count was abysmal this month. I don’t know what my final word count will be but I’m aiming for it to be at least 50k words, which means that I’m behind schedule at this point, which I didn’t want to be.

This has been a difficult month, not just with the writing. I haven’t been feeling particularly upbeat, I’ve let some personal things get to me, I had a good go at chopping the tip of my left thumb off, and over the past couple of days I’ve came to a realisation that it looks almost entirely certain I won’t get to start any kind of teacher training this September, which is what I was hoping to do, and that I will have to wait now until the September after to start, which is an awfully long time away, and I’m going to have to try and find something to do in the mean time, besides buck my ideas up on this novel.

I believe that to be called ‘a writer’ it is not necessary to be making a living from writing, or to even have anything published – all you have to do is to tell people that you are a writer and to be able to back it up. This month I definitely cannot do that, which is upsetting. My blog at Never Too Serious! has been updated a couple of times, but nothing for two weeks now, and there were no updates in February. My writing for Fuel Your Writing is only once a month anyway, and I’m pleased with my recent article as I have been with the others, but I should really be knocking several of these articles out at a time, especially the short ones. I have enough ideas to do that, and the time. Obviously my writing on StairJumpers has been very minimal, and most of my words have actually been written in the last few days. I did start writing a short story, for the first time since probably last summer, and was really enjoying writing that, but even that has died a death – probably because I was too worried about not writing my novel. So I ended up writing neither, of course. Which isn’t the way this is supposed to work.

On a postive note, what I have written this month I think is pretty good, brief though it is, and various aspects of my story are starting to flesh out in my mind. If only I had written more they would be coming alive on the page, and they would be coming more real. Also, by not writing I am beginning to realise just how much I do love writing. The same thing happened in February, but from the other side. I was reminded how much I love writing because I was actually writing, mostly in my Moleskine at any time of day: in my lunchbreak at the school where I volunteer, writing away while teachers wandered about and talked and laughed and moaned about the kids; in the early hours of the morning sat up in bed with just my lamp on; or scribbling away in a quiet, cosy coffee shop sipping a cappuccino. I love it.

Which makes the fact that in March I did none of these things all the more frustrating. I realised (and I’m not just talking about writing here) that I get miserable when I don’t do the things that I enjoy doing. Surely that’s obvious, right? Writing, playing guitar, reading, running, blogging – these are just some of the things that I love to do, so why am I surprised that I feel down when I don’t do them?

So, on this April Fool’s Day, I can only declare myself somewhat of a fool. But, this is a whole new month, the sun is shining, and spring may actually be here. To quote H.G. Wells, in what I know is one of my opponent‘s favourite quotes, “The crisis of today is the joke of tomorrow.” So excuse me, I can’t stand around here all day being a fool, I have a novel to write!

We begin in the rain.

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.”

Ohhh…that’s good isn’t it? Not least because it’s an ad-lib. Film buffs and quote fans will know it’s from ‘Blade Runner’ and, as well as it being just bloody good, it illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about in this post. The Name Drop.

The Name Drop in fiction is a fine art and, done right, will expand the imaginative borders of your story without you really trying. Be warned though – it’s a thin line between igniting your reader’s imagination and putting together a boring list of names. ‘Blade Runner’ does it right, by obeying the rule of mystery. What are C-beams? Where is the Tannhauser Gate? I have no idea, but it’s more fun imagining in my head than being shown. Because the power of a name can be so potent and so inspiring that it will put images and stories in the mind of your reader more intense than you could ever tell. It will allow them to take that name and conjure up their own notions of it.

Here’s a couple more example to illustrate the point, and they’re all from sci-fi, but that’s because sci-fi (and fantasy) does this so very well. You don’t find this sort of thing in Pride & Prejudice. Plus I’m a big geek. Another occasion when the Name Drop is done well is with Khan’s speech from Star Trek 2 (incidentally, fact fans, this speech is sort of a 23rd century update of Moby Dick)

“He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I’ll chase him round the moons of Nibia, and round the Antares Maelstrom, and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”

The Antares Maelstrom… What does that bring to mind? A tower of boiling nebula gases stretching for Lightyears across the dark and cold? A whirlpool of unstable gravity, flexing and distorting Space and swallowing up stray planets? Something else entirely? That’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to know what it is. It’s not going to affect the plot. But it sounds bloody exciting. And it gives some extra depth to proceedings.

‘Doctor Who’ does it to, and it’s one of my favourites when it comes to sci-fi name-dropping. Planets and places mentioned but never seen include Shalakatom, Woman Wept, Poosh, The Lightning Skies of Cottapalooza’s World, The Celestial Belt of the Winter Queen, The Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magella-Geshtat, Pyrovillia, Klom, Villenguard, and the inimitable Rexacoricofallipatorius. Aren’t those places you want to go to? Don’t they make your mind wander to the farthest corners of possibility and linger there, revelling in exotic ‘maybes’? The mention of all those things stretches the scope of the universe the story is set in and, more importantly, fleshes it out. It gives it depth in the reader’s head. Be careful not to overdo it though. A few choice names work and pique interest; a great list of them will bore your reader.

And be sure to make any names interesting. They have to have some quality about them that provokes further thought. The Antares Maelstrom sounds dangerous and exciting. The Antares Cloud does not. I can’t tell you what works and what doesn’t – it’s trial and error. You just have to come up with something, say it out loud, and see if you get that thrill of possibility. Don’t inhibit yourself. Put words together you might not think would work. Flick through a dictionary or a book and just pick words that sound fun or evoke a certain thought/feeling, and see if they gel to make something. The crazier the better. Use foreign words too if you feel like it. You might just come up with the next panserbjorn.

It’s a device I’m using here and there in ‘The Invention of Steam’, mostly to fill in the nine year gap between the end of the Victorian Empire and the rise of the Empire of Steam. Events such as the Mineral Siege of Johannesburg, The Sterilisation of Paris, and illusions such as ‘The Charybdis Cord’ and ‘The Crimson Five Million’ all add to the mystery and thrill of the world without me blabbering on about it for pages and pages, slowly draining the mystery from them by explaining them.

So the next time you’re writing your sci-fi or fantasy, or maybe writing in a real world setting but need a good name for a book or game, give the Name Drop a try. Trust your reader to fill in the world for you. Let their imagination do the work. They’ll feel all the more rewarded for it. In just a few words you can give them the building blocks to imagine places more wonderful than your words can describe. Above all, have fun with it. If you do, your readers should certainly have fun with the results.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see those attack ships…

Like Rob said to me yesterday, this Duel feels a lot more real now that we are sharing our writing with you all! Hope you all enjoyed Rob’s excerpt yesterday – I certainly did, it was just as good as I expected it would be! – and hope it whetted your appetites to keep following and to find out more about The Invention of Steam.

Here is my first offering. Sam has followed his brother, in the middle of the night, to a graveyard. That’s all you really need to know.

I look through, and shiver when I see the four figures gathered amongst the gravestones like ghosts. They are illuminated by a flickering glow that comes from a flame held up by one of them. The flame is a thick piece of wood, a primitive torch. I’ve only ever seen people on television use them, like explorers in films searching deep, dark, scary caverns and ancient temples. I don’t feel like an explorer any more. The figure moves the flame up, illuminating his face more now, and I can see that it is Ollie. He looks slightly mad, covered in moonlight and firelight. Maybe he is the real explorer. And I’m just following in his footsteps.

He is facing across the graveyard towards me, but I don’t think that he can see me. I am deep  in the bushes, and slightly higher than where he and his friends are gathered. The low squat shape of the dog is restrained now, lying down in the snow. The figure holding its lead sits on a headstone, tiny legs dangling just above the dog’s head. The figure looks like a girl.

I look around the others. The one opposite Ollie is a round silhouette, his flat back staring at me. It must be a boy, besides his large shape his shoulders are broad. It is hard to tell from behind, but I think he has got his arms crossed. There is a skinnier boy, definitely a boy, between the big round shape and Ollie, and opposite the girl with the dog. He is the only one that looks cold, hopping back and forward. He takes his gloves off for a moment to blow into his hands, and the gloves dangle from his wrists, tied on strings through this coat. I try not to laugh. Even I don’t have gloves on strings.

Ollie is talking to the group. It doesn’t even look like him. He’s not an explorer, I realise. He is a General. The leader of this gang. But no ordinary gang. An otherwordly, alien gang. And I am Sam the Astronaut, hiding from an alien colony, and its General has shapeshifted into my brother to lure me out, using my weak human mind against me.

None of this feels real.

I realise I have absolutely no idea what time it is. I didn’t even look when I left the house, and that seems like hours and hours ago. It is probably not been that long since I was woken up by the snowballs at the window. I have certainly never been awake at this time of the night before. Let alone outside of the house. I am awake in a new world, watching someone who looks like my brother standing in a graveyard, holding fire and talking to ghosts.

I concentrate on my breathing. Long, slow, silent breaths. I close my eyes, and listen to my heartbeat. That is definitely real, still thumping in my chest. My breathing is real. I touch my arm. Even through thick gloves and a thick coat, my arm is real. I am afraid to open my eyes and look back down into the graveyard. Reality might disappear again.

One last look, just to make sure what I’m looking at is really there, and then I will go.

Something sharp presses into the back of my neck. Somebody laughs behind me.

“Well, well, well….”

There you go… hope you liked it! Please let me know in the comments.

I forget, what with all the writing alone at my keyboard, that other people might eventually read what I’m typing. That’s a good thing though. It means what I write is solely what I like and isn’t influenced by me second-guessing and wondering if Joe Bloggs will like it. Although I hope Joe Bloggs does like it.

I chose this section as it makes the most sense on it’s own. Chapters 1-7 (ie: the finished ones) contain a lot of dialogue and won’t make much sense when split apart. This bit doesn’t really need putting in a massive amount of context, but I will say that it is the opening of ‘Part 2′ of ‘The Invention of Steam’ and from a chapter called ‘The Diplomacy of Fire’. It’s set nine years after ‘Part 1′ in a time when history has been changed to what we would call steampunk. Through circumstances I’m not going to tell you about (as it would spoil the gripping and quite frankly ingenious finale I have planned for ‘Part 1′), the British Empire has fallen and the technology-driven ‘ever-shining Empire of Steam’, led by Lord Rhodion, has taken its place. And with Europe and Africa under control the Empire sets it sights across the Atlantic…

“Let me tell you I will fight, with the butt of my rifle and the teeth in my head if I am so forced. I will fight until the last drop of blood in my body has soaked into the soil of this great nation and fertilised the minds its people to take up the gun and the sword and the scythe and stand against all foreign oppressors. We will fight. Let them know that we will fight, as we have so proudly done before. And as before we shall bear the fruit of victory.”          

   -President Ulysses S. Grant, in a speech to an assembled crowd at Chattanooga, Tennessee (1875)

 

It was rumoured that war was coming to the United States.

For Edgar, such news was always digested with toast and eggs. Each morning he would sit in the dining room and eat one fried egg, (scrambled on weekends) three pieces of toast, and drink two cups of coffee (but never fully drain the second) while reading The New York Times. It was a routine so well-worn it had become see-through, but the worse the news from beyond the Atlantic became the more he drew comfort from such a little ritual. Secretly he worried for how much longer he would be able to enjoy it. He had always known that The Clockwork War would come. It was only a matter of time before the war Zeppelins cast their shadows over the streets of Manhattan.

For months now the American press had featured detailed articles of the Empire’s change of troop movements on the continent and the massing of armaments at Britain’s south coast ports. Each day new and disturbing information was filtered through ink: Von Zeppelin’s factories tripling their output, the caesium mines to the south-east of Russia churning up ray-gun fuel 24 hours a day, the fires of the Sheffield foundries bleaching the sky orange as they blazed through the night, fed by veins of iron and steam. Undoubtedly the cogs of war were being greased for fresh conflict. The armoured engines that rolled through the capitals of Europe were being refined and built with greater speed. Heavy canons capable of turning cities to vapour and dust from over a mile away, and which had first been deployed in the Mineral Siege of Johannesburg, were moving back toward the French aerial harbours. Fishermen had sighted an armada of war frigates performing manoeuvres in the Norwegian Sea, using icebergs as targets and smashing them apart with jets of particle light. There were even reports of a strange ‘walking’ weapon being tested on the Portuguese border, but of this there was nothing more than speculation.

Such rehearsals for war were anything but hidden, and what was not seen was to be heard from the seat of power. Lord Rhodion’s speeches were re-printed in full, with each new declaration being a clearer statement of his intent than the last. He talked of ‘expanding the borders of progress’ and ‘the land lost to the ungrateful’. By the start of 1875 the Empire of Steam’s great leader had all but officially announced the plans for an armada to sail across the Atlantic and ignite the East Coast with his ‘diplomacy of fire’.

The response from the United States to such threats was fierce. In vitriolic addresses to Congress and the public President Ulysses S. Grant showed that gunpowder still ran through the old soldier’s veins and much rapturous applause greeted his bold words. But between each new tirade of rhetoric was the national fear that any blood would have to be shed to maintain the hard won freedom of the States. Its people felt they had lost enough life in pursuit of peace. The battlefields were still wet, the graves still warm, and the nation rebuilding on scar tissue.

 

Aaand that’s all you get. I’m not going to say anything else about it. Ideally you’ll have liked what you read. And given he never said such words I should really be given a job as Ulysses S. Grant’s speech writer.

Words done this month: 4,697.

Current total word count: 10,709.

Current mood: Slightly disappointed with my word count, but hey… I beat Rob this month!

February low point: About the 16th, when I realised that I had no idea which way my main character was going to take a major decision.

February high point: About the 16th, when I realised that I had no idea which way my main character was going to take a major decision!

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Yes, my high and low points this month were the same moment! The scene which I was writing was a major one, in which Sam takes part in the StairJumping “ritual” in order to be accepted into his brother’s gang. I kept writing and writing, hoping that inspiration would come and that Sam would make his decision for me, but he wouldn’t! Which is unsurprising really – he is a fairly weak-minded character, who is unsure of himself and very nervous given the situation he finds himself in. So I began to get very frustrated, wanting to finish the scene but finding it impossible to get over this hurdle. This caused several days of not writing anything, until the point where I made a concious decision to leave the scene behind for the time being, and write some different scenes happening later on in the story.

This was a tricky point for me, but I also rather loved it! It was the high point of my month’s writing because it reminded me why I love writing, and why I write the way that I do. I don’t like to plan things, and prefer to write and see what happens as I go. Because, as I see it, writing is a living, breathing thing – characters and places come alive as the words appear on the page. Sometimes I will be writing and a character will do things differently to how I may have planned it, or will bring things to the story that I won’t have anticipated. When I realised that I didn’t know what Sam was going to do in the scene, I also realised that Sam didn’t know either. He wasn’t making a decision, and hopefully this uncertainty will show through in the final written scene. Writing is magic, and alive, which makes it incredibly fun, if also incredibly frustrating and challenging at times. But these are the reasons why I love it so much.

My word count is also lower than I expected this month – lower even than January’s word count, which I had thought was quite low in the first place. February’s writing was mainly done longhand, in my Moleskine, which I find can be a more relaxing and inspiring way of writing. The feel of my fountain pen across the page, the sound of the nib slightly scratching as it releases the ink, the look of the words on the page and the feel of my notebook in my hands. All of these things contribute to the magic of writing. However, it does make it harder to keep track of a word count, so it was only when I wrote up my longhand onto the computer on Saturday that I realised how much (or little) writing I’ve done this month.

Despite this, I am pleased with the way I have been writing in February. Although I didn’t write as much as in January I have written almost every day, whereas last month I wrote the bulk of my word count over about three days. This more regular writing is encouraging – I am finding myself more in the writing habit, which I have struggled with in the past. Throughout March I am sure I will keep up this regular writing, but hopefully I shall increase my daily word count.

So, bring on March! Although, like Rob said to me a few days ago, I feel like I could do with an extra month of “Smarch”  in order to get this novel written this year, but that’s not going to happen! Look out for Rob’s excerpt tomorrow, and then mine on Thursday, to give you a taste of our stories and our completely different styles.

Hope you’re all enjoying the Duel as we enter our third month. Keep reading!

Words done this Month: 3,000

Current Word Count: 20,000

Current Mood: Best not ask…

February Low Point: Pretty much the whole damn month. February is unwelcome guest of months.
February High Point: Finding a box of ‘After Eight’ in the cupboard. They are now mine, and a delicious minty treat whilst writing: ‘End of paragraph? After Eight time!’

February gave with one hand and took with the other. My writing completely lost steam (no pun intended) and for over two weeks (two weeks!) I wrote not a scrap of text. It wasn’t writer’s b***k (I hate that phrase. Makes you sound like you’re at your typewriter, staring at the keys, smoking an endless string of Lucky Strikes as your shaking hand wipes the sweat from your ruddy brow and the other hand reaches for the liquor bottle. Even the phrase itself is uninspired, like it was thought up by someone under its weight. It should be called something cool like ‘Creativity Torpor’ or ‘Phrasal Inertia’ or ‘Wordsmith’s Constipation’. Anything but w*****’s b***k). Sorry, that went on a bit longer than I planned. Anyway, it wasn’t wordsmith’s constipation. It did allow me to get plenty of cartoons done for my neglected blog, but in the back of my mind I was conscious not enough ink was being directed towards the written word. Was I incredibly worried about this? Not especially, as I had prepared for the inevitable torpor that I knew would set in at some point. I’d built up such a head of steam in January’s word count that I knew I could afford to lose two weeks work time. I would have preferred not to lose it this early, but never mind.

After sixteen days things righted themselves and I was back to the regular flow of words. The goggles were on (literally), the boiler was stoked, and a fleet of clockwork engines could not have pulled me away from my keyboard. In the story, an Inspector called, a non-existent body was exhumed, and rumours of war began to stir. The result? 3000 done in all by the month’s end. A paltry sum compared to January, but I did say at the end of the last update that it would be less. Importantly, I’m still within my planned timetable and on track. So I’m not worried or disappointed: what was done was good (well, in my opinion), and although I wasn’t writing a lot of the time there was plenty of other vital work done, in terms of editing January’s words, some historical fact checking, and thinking about the way the whole course of the novel will pan out. And as a result there were some important and exciting changes made in the direction the story will take.

So, setting the Zeppelin’s course Marchward, and with a fresh wind in the sails, I can already feel the pace picking up. February’s tiresome skies are gone and the outlook’s bright. There’s new music on my iPod, a drawer full of post-meal mints at hand, a cup of Darjeeling waiting to be quaffed, and (most importantly) the desire to write something bloody brilliant. Oh yes, it’s full steam ahead. Pun definitely intended.

Chris will be here tomorrow with his update, and then on Wednesday and Thursday things get really interesting as we each post a short section of something we’ve written so far for your perusal and comment. Mine will be up on Wednesday and Chris’ will be up on Thursday. It’ll be your first chance to read our stuff, get a feel of our stories, and see just how very different we are in our writing styles.

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