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How to Write a Bestseller # 1

“Fiction is history that might have happened. History is fiction that did happen.”

  André Gide The Counterfeiters

 

   This story is meant to be set in the future, but based on things happening differently in the past. But because of the length of time it is taking to get this book published, the past has overtaken the future, and I have repeatedly had to revise the date to correct this. Well, I am not going to do it anymore. The book is set some time in the future in the past. If you find this too vague, then I suggest you locate the story more precisely in time you look at the publication date at the beginning and add five years.

     The story has its origins back in 1983. One night I had a dream that I wrote a novel. The title was A Line of Water, and my nom de plume was Howard North. It became a blockbusting best seller, and I became a literary celebrity. My disappointment when I awoke was devastating. The only way I could see to ameliorate this was somehow to realize the dream.

Some days later I sat at a makeshift writing desk with a fierce determination burning inside me, a scarily blank stack of A4 paper in front of me, and a idea for some sort of allegorical indictment of the present set in a dystopian future (what do you mean not very original, you haven’t read it yet.) Oh and the hope that the book would largely write itself.

    It should simply be a case of imagining a character in a room, inspiring him (or her) with a rousing speech, opening the door and granting him his freedom. The Character would then return sometime later to a hero’s welcome, battle-scarred and replete with ideas and an entourage of suitable characters, like some returning sixteenth century sea captain laden with exotic treasures. The role of the writer would then be to harness this seething tumbling mass and forge it into something coherent and beautiful.   The result: an instant bestseller, earning the author enormous literary prestige and financial fortune.

And if The Character should object that he had done all the suffering but received none of the reward, he could always be killed off in the final chapter, to prevent him going on strike or fermenting discontent amongst other characters.

Indeed, I could foresee that the seething tumbling mass could easily get completely out of hand, and that the only way to end up with a perfectly-crafted book might be through many acts of literary of despotism. I hoped that no trace of this would ever appear in print: I was confident that it would be possible to conceal the brutal mechanics of creation, by destroying the forensic evidence of my notes, using a pseudonym, that sort of thing. But you can never be too careful; you know how devious these literary critics are!

     Needless to say it did not go according to plan. As soon as the metaphorical door was thrown open, The Character made run for it, disappearing into the enormous void of my imagination, never to be thought of again. Or rather, like the behaviour of an electron predicted by Heisenberg’s Discontinuity Principle, he was out there somewhere, though never where I thought he was.

     It was the first lesson in a long hard realization: characters are treacherous! Their only perceived purpose seems to be to persecute the author who imagines them.

 

     Some years later I feel brave enough for a Second Attempt. But I decide to do it differently. I relax. I imagine a room again, but from the outside, a sort of suspended cube in an infinite void. I imagine a door, and leading back from the door an endless stream of characters snaking on an ethereal plane towards a vanishing point on the horizon. Each is wearing a tight-fitting body suit - like Spiderman’s, only slate-grey and without the silly pattern.

     I let my imagination drift into the room. A floodlight beam describes a perfect circle of on the floor. I exhale evenly, and command the first would-be character to enter. Small and fat it shuffles in under the beam of light.

     “Introduce yourself,” I command.

     “Slobodan Milosevic,” it says in an absurdly camp voice. “I’ve lost my pet giraffe”

     “Next”

     “Fuck you bitch!” says the candidate petulantly. See what I mean? It is dispiriting work sometimes. Casually I commit my first atrocity.

Another candidate enters. I see her breasts swelling the body suit. How did she get in here? I thought I’d rigged the audition for only male characters. 

     “Go on, get out!” I bellow.

     She exits hysterically. You get the idea…

     “Next.”

     This time, instead of the door opening, the ceiling bulges inwards and a large fish tank drops in. It distorts elastically after impacting the floor, and comes solidly to rest. Instead of a character, I get a fish tank! Now I hardly think a fish tank is the subject of a profound novel – one of those experimental French novels of the fifties maybe, but I like to think I at least have moved on from then.

     The treadmill of sorry would-be characters continues. Hunchbacks, freaks and even one with seven buttocks and a face like and ant. I grow weary. Maybe my mind is sicker than I realized. But just when I am on the point of giving up for another decade, a larger than life figure ambles insouciantly in. He is about 190 centimetres tall, and I can see that his body is hard and sinewy.

     “My name,” the character announces in a rich baritone and without being commanded, “Is Piers Rutherford, and I really want to be in your novel. In fact, I’ll do anything you want me to.”

     His limbs are long, his torso muscled without being distorted through excessive bodybuilding. It is like the surface of his suit hums with blue electricity. His broad shoulders wedge to a slim waist. He moves with animal grace, as slowly he pirouettes. With his back to me he clenches his buttocks, contracting them into two hard dimpled hemispheres. As he half turns again, my gaze travels greedily downwards. The bulge is enormous! Like at any moment the whole caboodle is going to boing out of his body suit. If I imagined it any bigger you’d think I was taking the piss!

     ‘Perfect!’ I whisper. ‘Absolutely perfect!’

He’s an absolute goddam three-fisted humdinger of a white alpha male best-selling hero Jackson! 

     “Remove your mask!”

     Slowly, teasingly he does so. I see his jaw is resolute; his eyes are shrewd, mocking. He is, I have to admit, one handsome bastard. The moustache will have to go though.

     “Congratulations, you are now The Character.”

     “I accept, on one condition.” He says. I am taken aback. This is the nightmare every author dreads – a character who tries to dictate terms before the story has even begun. But it is too late now, I have already promised him.

     “Tell me.” 

     “The fish tank stays.” 

     “Done!” I say. He turns to leave. “Don’t you event want to know the plot?”

     “I trust you,” he says. “I have read your previous novel.”

I smile. “I like the cut of your jib!”

   I leave quietly, locking the door behind me. Now that I have my Character, I do not intend to make the mistake again of allowing him to simply wander off into the void. But I leave behind a pile of books including:

Black Mischief 

Heart of Darkness

The White Hotel

Jealousy

Disgrace

The Interpreters

Under the Volcano

A Handful of Dust

The Third Policeman

Small Island

 

I need a strategy for making him read them. But to show that I am not a monster, I also provide him with a soft bed and an endless supply of pizza. Oh and a tub of fish food.

Despite his apparent lack of curiosity, he will need to know the plot sometime, but before I discuss this with him I need to make a small anatomical modification. One thing is needling me though: I haven’t written a previous novel…

 

Sometime later, from somewhere deep in my imagination I hear his first terrified scream.

*****

 

During his time in the training camp, Jamal Aariz had no time to feel homesick for his home and family in Guiseley. Two weeks of intensive weapons training, physical exercise, Qur'anic instruction and prayer. Plus the occasional video he preferred not to recall.

Now that it was over and he was deployed to a Boko Haram stronghold on the Northern Nigeria Cameroon border, he felt increasingly isolated and alone.  Practically no one spoke English. The heat was unbearable. The air fizzed with mosquitoes. The green tentacles of the jungle infiltrated everywhere. Every afternoon a caravan of pewter-coloured storm clouds paraded slowly across the sky, unleashing their fury in violent torrential rain that turned the laterite roads into orange ooze. The nights vibrated with manic cries of unseen creatures, and snakes slithered out of the bush into the warmth of the makeshift camp. He hated snakes. And his clothes were unwashed and he smelled.

 But all such thoughts must be instantly banished, he was warned. Weakness and sentiment would not be tolerated. Think instead of the seventy-two virgins that awaited a martyr as one of the seven blessings of Allah. 

At university in England his friend Brody had teased him about this, saying that the Arabic word ‘houri’ (virgin) in the Qur'an, is in fact a mistranslation of the Aramaic word ‘hur’ (raisin). The reward for being brutally cut down on the battlefield was actually a bunch of grapes waiting in heaven.

Brody was a troublemaker Jamal now realized, just one more Christian infidel hell bent on destroying Islam. But Islamic scholars were united and unequivocal in the face of such vile propaganda: Qur'anic Paradise was sensual in nature, the virgins voluptuous, martyrs’ erections eternal. It seemed slightly bizarre though that he would spend eternity doing that which on Earth would earn him a beheading and damnation.

Proud of his faith, increasingly fed up of the jibes and sometimes outright hostility of Brody and other students, Jamal had found himself drawn to a more radical interpretation of Islam. One that offered a defined path and a clear and simple truth. Where there was one answer to all questions: Allah. Where rain was no longer the result of evaporation and condensation, where man was not the end product of Darwinian evolution. This simple truth that Allah was behind everything exposed all Western knowledge as an elaborate illusion, a monstrous and mendacious construct. Further sojourn at university became impossible. However, the Imam’s claim that the concept of a spherical earth was another Western lie would take him a little longer to accept. Nevertheless he realized the absolute necessity to defend the purity of the Simple Truth through armed struggle. Muslims thought the world were victims of this Western Judeo-Christian conspiracy. It was like the Dark Ages, the crusades all over again. And if you had any doubt as to how brutal the Crusaders were, even to their own kind, well you only had to refer to the thirteen century siege of Béziers: after the besieged town of Béziers finally fell to the Crusader army, the Papal Legate, when asked how do distinguish between the faithful and the heretics, ordered “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius - Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His.”

Islam was gentle to its own kind, but implacable to its enemies. 

“Allah says fight those who fight you!” The training instructor had bellowed repeatedly. He also said the virgins liked you better the more infidels you beheaded.

 

*****

 

I want to let you into a secret. Parallel to writing this story, I have been developing an application: the Advanced Character Generator.

I was both exhilarated and exhausted after the trial and tribulations of creating the Character; but it seemed to me that there ought be an easier and quicker way. Suddenly it came to me in a blinding flash of inspiration:  combine my vast experience of both writing fiction and software development, to produce an application that will automatically generate fictional characters. 

I do not want to reveal too much at this stage, but basically the idea is this: you  answer a number of questions, and when you are satisfied with the specification, you press submit, and after a period of time out pops your character, physical appearance, psychological profile,  knowledge, mannerisms, expressions, action scenarios, plus a detailed horoscope. The better the information you supply the better the end product. For those of a technical persuasion, the application is based on Visual Basic’s RND function.

It has three variations: lead characters, supporting characters and crowd characters. Obviously a lead character requires the most information, and a crowd character the least. A lead character takes the longest, a crowd character is the quickest. Initial tests are extremely promising, but the application will require further refinement, because at the moment to produce an Anna Karenina would take in excess of fifty years. I hope to eventually to get the lead-time down to about twelve hours.

I still need to refine the code to prevent malformed characters from being prematurely released, and to ensure the program cannot generate a loop, endlessly spewing out characters like a malfunctioning printer spitting out A4 pages.

You will be pleased to hear, Beta testing will begin shortly. But first I need to do a spot of housekeeping. When I conducted my interview for the Character, I was initially flush with success, but now I am deeply worried about that vast rabble of aimless half-formed characters lurking in my imagination. These could seriously disrupt any trial of characters generated by the ACG. I need to do something about them. So I spread the news that I am about to begin a new literary epic. A truly gargantuan Homeric picaresque tale, spanning numerous generations and with a cast of thousands; a part in it is guaranteed for everyone. Casting will begin in two days time, by the ravine through the basal ganglia in the frontal cortex.

 

*****

 

My idea for the story is this. The Character is a lecturer in English at a redbrick university. Which one does not really matter. Bedford say - you can’t get much more redbrick that that. He is eccentric and maverick, popular with students, less popular with colleagues, and anathema to the Academic Establishment.

His main specialism is West African Literature, and in particular a Cameroonian Poet. He reviews his latest work, and finds himself suggesting improvements, which the Cameroonian Poet embraces. 

Until present The Character has been fastidious about not conducting relationships with students despite numerous come-ons. But all that changes when he meets Ashley Summers. Initially their relationship is platonic, then discrete, but as it becomes increasingly passionate caution is thrown to the winds.

But in the end Ashley proves treacherous; he runs off with the handsome bricklayer who is doing renovations on The Character’s house.

The Character is heartbroken when he discovers. Ashley tries to blackmail him, threatening to reveal the affair to the university authorities. His first thought is suicide. Then Ashley’s father, a local councillor hears about it, and does indeed bring the affair to the attention of the university authorities. The character is confronted. To avoid scandal a compromise is sought and found; he will accept a year’s secondment to the University of Bamenda in Northern Cameroon. It is the university where the Poet is also resident. Just before The Character departs, he and Ashley reconcile. They promise to keep in touch, and when The Character returns, well, who knows...

When The Character arrives in Bamenda he discovers that The University is underfunded and corruption ridden. The Poet is nowhere to be found, and no one wants to speak about him. Academic life is set against a backdrop of increasing terror posed by the insurgent Boko Haram. 

One day The Character is intercepted on his way to work and kidnapped at gunpoint by masked insurgents.

He endures miserable captivity in a centipede-infested cell. He learns that his fate is in the hands of the British government who must pay substantial ransom, but who refuse to do so. He is starved and regularly beaten. His only relief is conversation with one of the guards, a young radicalized British Muslim from Guiseley with an uncompleted university education. Then one day he receives he receives a surprise visitor; it is the Cameroonian Poet! 

Unbeknown to The Character, his increasing influence upon The Poet’s work, and the Poet’s growing disillusionment with the government of North Cameroon, had driven him into the hands of Boko Haram. Far from being resentful of The Character, The Poet is deeply grateful: The Character’s ‘interference’ has enabled him to find his true destiny in Islam. Due to his lack of aversion to brutality and murder, The Poet has risen rapidly through the ranks of Boko Haram to local brigade commander. His skin is revealed to be almost white; he is of mixed Portuguese extraction. He reassures The Character “Don’t worry I will make sure no harm comes to you. I need a companion to discourse with as a countercharm to these murderous brutes around me.”

The Character’s beheading is filmed and reported. But the victim is actually a hapless Character lookalike. His watch sent back to Britain where his death is accepted. His house is sold and the proceeds divided between his siblings. 

The Character is moved to the Poet’s house high in the mountains of Northern Cameroon, where he is required to write poetry for the Poet. The truth slowly gradually dawns that he will never be released. Then one day, he is presented with a copy of the Qur’an, and told to convert to Islam.

There you have it. Now all I need to do is illicit The Character’s cooperation. It is time to visit him and see how he is coping with my modification. And to reveal his new name.

*****

 

Before I continue the metamorphosis of The Character, let me show you something: a girl sleeping. But this is no ordinary girl, oh no! What I am about to show you is the First Literary Virgin. Let me explain.

I created her many years ago, and immediately and without sentiment concealed her in the furthest recess of my imagination and put her into cryogenic suspension. I have not allowed mind to visit her in all the intervening years. Not once. Until now that is

But as I approach my heart is pounding, the blood courses through my veins, I have a rushing sound in my ears. I am unsure what I might find: a hideously deformed old hag, a maggot-ridden corpse, or maybe just a pile of bones or collection of useless gibberish words.

As I shine the spotlight of my imagination upon her, what I actually find takes my breath away. She is lying motionless on a marble slab, casually draped in s white sheet, like a recumbent Grecian statue. Or Iphigenia in Perrier’s painting.

Her hair is a tumble of soft straw-coloured curls smudged with gold. Her pointy milk-white teeth are revealed through slightly parted lips. Her high cheekbones are lightly dusted with freckles. Her skin is honey coloured and without the slightest blemish, like soft marble. I have to be careful though; I want her to be actual perfection, not a pastiche thereof. I want her to be, the substantiation of the word ‘vernal’. Her breasts swell the sheet, her nipples protrude enticingly through the diaphanous fabric. Her shoulders and hips form a perfect parabola...I could simply twitch the sheet away and reveal her in all her nakedness, but I am not that sort of writer.

She is unique! She has never before appeared in any short story, novel, poem, magazine article in any guise shape or form. She does not even have a name. She is entirely uncontaminated by other writers’ words.

“Well duh!” I hear from some of you, but here’s the thing.

Just like every contemporary novelist is supposed to contain more than a million atoms that once comprised Charles Dickens, so every contemporary novel contains many words from Great Expectations. Look the ‘a’ here is actually the ‘a’ from chapter 47, page 372. No, not that one, this one here: a. Though I admit some difficulty in proving it.

And characters are made of words. Yes I know that there are an awful lot more atoms in the world than words in the English language (several gazillion more actually), (and an awful lot more people than novelists) and ‘a’ and ‘the’ etcetera are bound to be common, but by words what I mean is word associations leading to ideas. What I am trying to explain is ‘The Burden Of The Past.’ Just as a person can’t choose the source of the atoms that go to make them (for example, I doubt that many people would willingly choose atoms from Hitler, but oh yes! I’m afraid so), nor can a novelist prevent unwanted lexical contamination. So what? You might say, but the laws of plagiarism are not entirely sympathetic to a plea of ‘The Burden Of The Past.’ 

But now I must draw the veil over her, bring this visit to a close. Every dwelling second risks contamination. You must forget you ever saw her, and I shall never refer to her again.

 

*****

 

Clutching the poem I have written for him, I knock and enter without waiting for his bidding. There is much grunting and a tumult of activity under the bed sheet, both of which subside almost immediately. I see his forehead covered in sweat. His dark brown eyes glare at me malevolently. Empty pizza boxes are scattered everywhere. The pile of books lies undisturbed.

“So Winston, how have you been keeping?” I ask as solicitously as I can.

“My name is Piers. Piers Rutherford. Look what you have done to me.”

“Your name is now Winston Bundock. And I am here to reveal your new identity.”

“Put me back to how I was!”

“Well if you don’t want to know your story…”

“And what story might that be?” He eyes me suspiciously. 

“You are to be a leading academic at the University of Bedford.”

“Say what?”

“Doctor Winston Bundock, senior lecturer in Modern Literature. With a specialism in contemporary West African poetry.”

“NO No no I want to be a sportsman or a pop star – a famous rapper. I want limos and chicks and recreational drugs...What kind of name is Bundock anyway? It sounds like BUMdock. You already turned men into a black man you bastard. Now you trying to turn me into some kind of faggot as well?”

Oh my God, I just hadn’t seen that one, Hahaha! Clearly to have homosexual main character called ‘ Bundock’ is out of the question. Either the name or the sexual orientation has to go, though it is not as simple as you think. Bundock in not just any old name; it was chosen carefully from the list of passengers on board the SS Windrush. It is an integral motif of The Story: the history of the Bundocks, from (yes you’ve guessed it) West Africa to the USA, and Bundock’s physical and metaphorical return journey. 

To think of a new name, remove every trace of Winston Bundock, every subconscious reference, nuance, association would take me, well, more time than I can afford. Plus there could be slipups. No, Winston Bundock is too tightly woven into the fabric of the story. And anyway, to tell the history of the Bundocks under another name would be tantamount to telling lies. There is no avoiding it; Bundock will just have to be straight. Shame really, as the story will lose the dramatic tension of him concealing his homosexuality from Boko Haram. But my skill as a writer should compensate this. One thing is for sure: Ashley Summers is not going to be pleased - I can just see his sullen but adorable pout. I think briefly about making him a transvestite – Bundock does not find out until too late. But this is a bit too slapstick for serious literature. And it does not get round the bumdock jokes. No, I will need to create a new heroine with a new name for his tragic downfall OH NO I WON’T! And my heart goes into overdrive, as I think of a character I already created...

 “You can be Professor Winston Bundock if that helps.”

“Fuck you!”

“I don’t see what the problem is. You are physically unharmed, just a slightly different colour. You’re not prejudiced are you? I cannot for all sorts of reasons allow a prejudiced character in my story.” 

 Discretely I slip my poem back into my pocket. Now is probably not the best time to hit him with Ode to Autumn. Which is a shame because I sifted through my collection of poems of the last thirty years for something suitable. But I suspect its bucolic charm (“The furry peristalsis of a nutting squirrel” – that kind of thing) would be somewhat lost on a clearly agitated Bundock. And perhaps it lacks the required gravitas for a cutting edge African poet. Plus I don’t suppose they really have squirrels in Cameroon. Or autumn for that matter. No, I need a poem from your more traditional wild-eyed type of poet. You know, wielding a bottle of Jack Daniels and hurling out rhymes and obscenities. Suddenly inspiration comes to me:

 

Death comes creeping

Death comes sliding

Capricious mistress

She is here on a yelling wind of flame.

Jigsaw bodies , human carnage

Oh, how can I explain?

The futility is like gathering fragments of air 

Or following a line of water waiting.

 

Brilliant! It is the poet’s job to explain. This is the point that Bundock will emphasize in his review of the work. He will make suggestions for modification, adopted increasingly by The Poet, who becomes increasingly disillusioned and radicalized. One stumbling block is I cannot think of a suitable Poet’s name. One possibility might be Fortitude M’Pensa, but it sort of sounds like the name some lower division footballer might have. 

 

In an attempt to placate Bundock, I explain that Literature has many perks: almost non-existent working hours, conferences in exotic locations, pretty female students...He perks up at this and asks if he can have a relationship with one. Although he does not put it quite as delicately. My initial reaction is a theatrical no way, but then I say wait a minute, that would provide the perfect causality for the denouement...You see, it’s easy really, I’ve already got him participating in the plot!

I will need to sort this attitude out though, and I have just the thing in mind. I casually mention the O’Brien Scheme, named after the author who thought of it. This is a scheme where a writer is paid for not writing a book, on the basis that there are already too many books written, which makes originality almost impossible. All new books will to some extent  be a reworking of existing works, which further dilutes the pool of literary excellence.

   “So you see, I could expect to receive a lucrative amount for not writing your story.”

   A look of panic, and then suspicion attaches itself to Bundock’s face.

   “Like how much would you get, man?”

   “Oh, I don’t know. I should think at least 50K, given the excellence of the idea.”

   Actually, this strikes me as somewhat counterproductive. The O’Brien Scheme asserts that remuneration should be proportional to excellence, just as in the published work. Really though remuneration should be inversely proportional: the worse the idea, the more a writer should be paid not to write it. Although I admit this could lead itself to all sorts of abuse. I peer closely at Bundock. He emits an effete giggle.

   “Whatever man as long as you share it with me.  Fifty fifty. More If I suffer any further injuries.“

   “Don’t be stupid!” I admonish. “You can’t receive money from outside the novel. It’s physically impossible. You can only receive money from within the novel itself. You will have to generate your own income.”

   “And how am I supposed to do that? He asks aggrieved.

   “Oh I don’t know, use your imagination. You could do almost anything. Within reason...” I add. His face brightens suddenly.

   “I win the lottery! ”

   “You would need my help and no chance.”

   “Then I could rob a bank! Look I already got the weapon!” From under his pillow he produces an enormous semi-automatic pistol, which he wields theatrically. My adrenaline levels go from zero to overload in a split second. A character armed and dangerous! A white alpha male at that. A sudden shattering percussion, a bullet ricocheting crazily round the room,  a wet thwack and a neat red hole between Bundock’s  eyes, a momentary look of incomprehension and he falls backwards in a slow perfect arc…NO

   “For God’s sake put that down before you hurt yourself,” I say as calmly as I can. “Where the f..where did you get that from?” There is no way I could have let him have it by some oversight; I am far too experienced a writer for that. An awful possibility dawns: he must have got it from another writer! He is in a homicidal conspiracy with a rival! But Bundock is looking suddenly shifty.

   “I smuggled it in.” He grins slyly. 

   “No that is impossible! I deliberately made all candidates wear a tight-fitting body suit. Exactly to prevent this kind of occurrence. Oh!” The awful truth occurs to me. The impressive bulge in his trousers was literally a…”

I realize I will need to make another anatomical modification. Though this time I will make sure it is not as painless. For his skin change, both characters were anaesthetized. The screams you heard were when Bundock regained consciousness and saw what I had done. With his new eyes; yes, I decided to swap them as well. Unfortunately I did not have time to find the donor character another story. Sadly I doubt he will get far: blind and without skin...And before you get all moralistic, I know! It’s a bloody business, literature.

“You can’t just go around robbing banks.”

“Why the fuck not?” He asks petulantly.

“Because as a responsible author I would have a moral obligation to bring you to justice. And possibly a legal obligation too.”

   My God, I can see just the headline:

Leading Academic Led Double Life As Bank Robber!

Prof Shot Dead by Police Marksman After Killing Spree

 

   To change the subject, I Ask Bundock how he is getting on with reading. He ignores me.

 “I should start with that one.” I point to A Handful of Dust. “You will need it for your second chapter. You can actually read I assume?”

“I want a penthouse with a Jacuzzi and Ferrari F12 berlinetta.”

“Out of the question. You can have a bicycle.”

 

*****

 

The film set is a frenzy of activity and a cacophony of noise, as the assembled throng of characters excitedly discuss the movie for which they are auditioning. They are all there, Slobodan Milosevic, the dwarf with the face like an ant; every miscreant character I have ever created but never used. In the midst of the throng I spot Ashley Summers; he is trying to explain to a man with a clipboard that there has been some mistake: he already has a casing as a Character. Between two tall scaffolding towers a large banner proclaims:

UNDER THE VOLCANO – THE MUSICAL

Men with megaphones vainly attempt to assert some order. Make-up ladies scurry between the characters, adding a squirt of cream here, a dab of powder there. Camera tracks run everywhere, like a busy railway siding. A spaghetti of electrical cables litters the ground, feeding the powerful arc lights illuminating the edge of the ravine, about 5 metres before the edge of which is a long red line painted in the dirt.

I drive slowly into the middle of the seething mass in a golf cart, clapperboard in hand.

“MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!” I bellow into a microphone. I have to repeat this several time until the din subsides.

“You are gathered here today for the casting of Under the Volcano the Musical. This afternoon, we will be conducting auditions for the main singing parts including Geoffrey Firmin, Hugh Firmin, Yvonne Constable, Jacques Laruelle and Dr. Vigil. But before then we need to cast the dramatic finale. This requires hundreds of singing extras to leap into the abyss I mean ravine. For this I need you to prove your courage as stuntmen or women. The ravine you see in front of you has been lined at the bottom with thousands of air cushions. I need you to form an orderly queue behind the line. On my order “action”, I want you to rush towards the edge singing anything you like and then leap over. Are you ready? Right, three two one and ACTION!”

Hardly any jump, which is a shame as it would have spared them what happens next.

Out of the shadows behind the ravine emerge one hundred identical figures, clad head to toe in black lycra and toting machine guns. A bandolier of shiny bullets encircles their chest diagonally. They open fire almost immediately.

The firing lasts maybe 30 seconds, the angry roar of the machine guns drowning the howls of the dying characters. Then silence apart from a low ambient moaning. I order the executioners to push the remaining bodies into the abyss. As they advance over a crunchy carpet of spent bullet cartridges marinated in blood, there emerge from the shadows 5 more lycra-clad figures. They in turn open fire upon the first wave of executioners. They do their work efficiently, pushing any remaining bodies into the abyss.

And then there emerges from the shadows a lone lycra-clad figure; a monster of a man, wielding not a machine gun, but an automatic pistol. Yes, I arranged the executioner to steal it while Bundock slept! Now if he gives me any trouble then his fingerprints are on the gun.

Everything has worked perfectly! The executioners were in fact created by my Advanced Character Generator! I just needed to supply two key attributes: credulous as hell and devoid of conscience. But you understand I could not simply leave a hundred executioners on the loose in my imagination. The one remaining one I will use as a jihadist, who dies in a hailstorm of bullets from the Nigerian army, betrayed by treacherous villagers for the reward money.

Gentle reader, I have spared you the grisliest details. But it was necessary to bring you here, to witness for yourself the lengths to which you must be prepared to go in order to write a Bestseller.

I just hope Bundock’s door was securely locked throughout.

 

*****

 

Professor Winston Bundock experienced a visceral sensation of exhilaration as he cycled to work:  man in perfect harmony with machine.  It was only his second outing on his carbon fibre Velocite bicycle that he had finally taken delivery of the previous weekend. A wondrous combination of carbon fibre tubes hand crafted into a frame where every length and angle of intersection had been meticulously calculated according to Bundock’s impressive physique.  It had cost an eye-watering amount of money, a string of trailing zeros, but the investment had been so worth it! It was already felt like an extension of himself as he purred along the towpath in twenty-fifth gear.

As he rode alongside, the river Ouse sparkled in the November sunshine, throwing up dancing striations of light. A landing swan cleaved its water briefly. A fitful wind worried at the tall trees lining the towpath sprinkling a golden cascade. Overhead an aeroplane pierced the sky like a silver needle, its vapour trail like cotton threads sewing the blue cloth sky.

Bundock remembered he needed to buy cakes for his tutorial that morning, so he made a detour to the local shops adjacent to the university. Leaves rustled crisply round the feet of the early shoppers, and the sun bounced fiercely off the pavement making him squint. He moored his bike to an advertising hoarding, and headed for Patisserie Auvergne. 

     “Hi Win, I thought it was you,” called a voice over his shoulder. “I’d recognize that fine figure of a bicycle anywhere!” Bundock turned to see the Angela Saville bearing down on him with short ungainly steps, well muffled against the autumn chill in a smart sheepskin coat. A pair of impractically high-heeled shoes were responsible for her tottering gait.

     “Mwuuh.” She aimed a kiss in the vague direction of his cheek. 

    “Hello Angela. I didn’t see you at badminton last Thursday,” he observed; Angela was a member of his badminton club. He remembered she lived nearby with her husband and two teenage daughters.

     “Holiday!” she said, and beamed. “I sent you a postcard remember.”

     “Yes of course,” Bundock did not. “From, er…”

     “Brittany. Camaret to be precise,” Angela pouted. “Oh Win, I have a feeling you threw it in the bin without even reading it!” 

     “Certainly not! It was a nice picture of a…bronzed body with enormous biceps?”

     “It was a picture of a Menhir,” she ignored him. “Early Breton grave. Winston, you are forgetful. Must be your age.”

     “And how was the holiday? It looks as though it’s done you good.”

     “Marvellous!” Bundock feigned polite interest as Angela Saville launched energetically into a eulogy on Brittany in the autumn: the morning mists, the unpredictable moods of the sea, the secretive villages nestled into the rock coastline. Angela was a large robust woman in her forties. Her shape reminded Rutherford of a ligatured balloon. She was a ebullient and well-meaning but inclined to be overbearing in her many enthusiasm. ’Happy as Croesus’ was the phrase that sprang to mind. “And I bought a super painting.” She concluded triumphantly.

     Bundock recalled she was an enthusiastic amateur art collector, although he doubted that ‘amateur’ was the word her husband would have used.

     “Camaret...” he mused. Isn’t that where the impressionists used to congregate every summer?”

     “Very good Win. You’re not the philistine you look. Gauguin especially loved it. Before he went native that is. ‘To paint pictures and live a frugal life’ as he put it”

     “How much did you pay for it?” 

    “I’m not going to tell you, you impertinent man! You must come round and see it for yourself. Tell me what you think it’s worth. When it arrives.” She added. “The car was simply too full to squeeze it in so we had it sent. It’s a Rosine Barrier: had my eye on her for a while.”

     “Let me get this straight” said Bundock rolling his eyes. “You are not only asking me round to see your etchings, you’re asking me to value them as well!”

     “Seriously Win, it’s been ages since were round. The last time must have been with…” she tailed off, not mentioning Bernard’s name. Bernard was Bundock’s ex-partner. After four years together they had split acrimoniously in the spring. It was still a raw nerve.

     “Barrier actually has something in common with Gauguin. Though I guess Utrillo is more your cup of tea….” She was referring to the print that had hung above Bundock’s mantelpiece. It was one of the few possessions Bernard had left him.

     “Look, do you fancy a coffee?” asked Bundock anxious to change the subject. He gestured the nearby Café. Two hardy student types sat at a pavement table hands cupped round steaming mugs. The steam mingled with the vapour of their breath as they laughed carelessly together. Angela Saville hesitated.

      “Love to, but I’m not sure I’ve got the time. I’m meeting mother in town at half-past nine, and I’m on the bus you see.”

     “In that case better not keep Mother waiting!” Bundock hoped to make Angela’s mind up for her.

     “I suppose you are right. There should be a bus along at any minute.”

    Responding to the prompt, the bus duly appeared round the corner of the row of shops.

     “See you next Thursday. Sorry, must dash!” Bundock watched casually as Angela tottered – rather than dashed - off on a trajectory to intercept the bus. Just as the bus was drawing level with her, Angela half turned and flapped a wave at him. 

     What happened next, Bundock was unsure of at the time, but the story in the Bedford Evening News said that her heel had broken. Like a marionette whose strings have been cut, Angela Saville crumpled comically sideways. The bus gave a little jolt and stopped abruptly with an angry sigh of airbrakes. A hysterical lady bus driver jumped out and tore round to the front. Somebody began to scream. It was then that Bundock realized it was serious.

    By the time he strode over a small crowd had gathered. He could see a pair of bloody legs sticking out from under the bus. Liquids of various colours seeped across the pavement. And from somewhere under the bus, a mobile phone struck up the opening bars of Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending.

 

*****

Special Offer for Limited Period Only

Even better news: the trial of ACG was completely successful! And I can prove it; the minor character of Angela Saville was generated using it!

For her ‘Primary Characteristic’ I selected ‘maternal’

For ‘Literary Style’ I selected ‘comic’

And for ‘Interests’ I selected ‘contemporary art’

And hey presto, under ‘Appearance’ came, amongst others,  ‘like a ligatured balloon’,  she emerged with deep knowledge of French Impressionism and a passion for the contemporary artist Rosine Barrier!  

Ah poor Angela Saville: I was only going to squash her dog, but the plagiarism detector warned me that this had been done before. Her demise was probably for the best. It would have been too risky to allow my first auto-generated character too much literary space.

 

The trial was so successful in fact I am pleased to make the Advanced Character Generator available to my readers with an introductory special offer: 2 characters for the price of one! Now you too can have your very own character, specially customized to your own specification!

Benefits:

  • Guaranteed 100 % original. No previous appearance in any story, play, poem or novel.

  • No vetting procedure necessary.

  • 14 day free trial.

  • Buy one get one free.

What you need to do:

  • Click <FURTHER>.

  • Accept the Terms and Conditions.

  • Fill in your details (name and email), and I will return you the link to ACG and details of my bank account.

  • Start the link, answer the questions and click <SEND> when completed.

 

And that’s it. Within 5 working days you will receive your character by email, plus another random minor character absolutely free. I will also send you the literary adoption papers for your major character. You get a free 14-day trial with limited functionality. If at the end of the trial you are not completely satisfied for whatever reason, simply do nothing and the character expires. If you are satisfied, as I am sure you will be:

  • Transfer the required sum of money to the account number I have sent you.

  • Sign and return the literary adoption papers.

 

By return and you will receive an activation code and character license. What you then do with the character is largely up to you as long as you abide by the Terms and Conditions.

Terms and Conditions

1. You may not alter, change or modify the physical characteristics in any way.

2. You may not alter, change or modify the character’s name.

3. You may not subject the character to any cruel or unusual punishments.

4. You may not resell or pass on the character to any third party.

5. You are solely responsible for the character’ behaviour or damage caused.

6. While every care is taken to ensure the character leaves undamaged and virus free, I cannot be responsible for what happens in transit.

7. I cannot be held responsible for any personal injury or loss incurred through the character’s actions.

 

*****

Around 5am somewhere in Northern Cameroon, a group of a dozen men emerges stealthily from the swamp carrying rifles above their heads. Their heavy boots leak water, their camouflage fatigues are soaked to the waist. The air vibrates with the hum of cicadas. An unfinished moon peeks out from behind grimy clouds lighting the native village before them: an untidy scatter of mud and thatch huts huddling behind a wooden stockade, wreathed in the early mist. A smell of wood smoke hangs in the air. A couple of tethered goats bleat nervously. In the distance the conical summits of two distant mountains loom above the steaming jungle like the ears of a demonic rat. 

“Allahu Akbar,” Jamal murmurs repeatedly to himself. He had hoped to die quickly and gloriously on the battlefield in Syria fighting the Americans, but instead it has come to this.

The leader of the group surveys the village through powerful binoculars for signs of movement. He sees none and silently signals the men forward. 

Jamal fingers the barrel of his Kalashnikov uneasily as he advances, and tries to think of the virgins not Béziers...

……………………………………..
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