I spend a lot of time fixing issues in my job. Software engineering is about creating solutions, yes, but it’s also about diagnosing and fixing problems. Some problems are run of the mill. You see the symptoms, you hear the complaints, you look at the context and it all points to one thing. A busted database, user error, cruddy printer heads.
Then there are those bugs that crop up and have no immediate solution. They are reported as ‘it sometimes crashes’ or ‘it intermittently goes slowly’. These are the ones to watch out for. It’s too easy to fob them off as ‘ah, user error’ or ‘an anomaly, nothing more’.
The report itself is full of assumptions, and these assumptions must be solidified. What was the user doing at the time? When does it normally occur? Is it the same terminal each time? Is it happening at other sites? In fact, there are so many possibilities of what it ‘could’ be, that it’s seemingly impossible to see what it really is. Worst of all, the assumption that the user has isolated the incident to where it broke is a terrible one. More often, the user has a prejudiced idea about what the nature of the problem truly is.
Jumping in to solve a problem at this point is prone to error, and one can easily find oneself chasing ghosts about, grasping at elusive problems in all the wrong places.
And that’s where being methodical comes in. If there is one rule I’ve found when busting bugs, it’s to go back to the very, very start. Take all of the current context with a grain (or spoonful) of salt. Stop, relax, take a breath and look at it from afar. Is the machine turned on? Is the application running? What version is it on? Is there network access?
All of these things, and more, can be assumed. Without testing, they cannot be taken for granted. It usually only takes a second to verify these basic things, and, from there, move onto the more complex issues. Funny thing, I would say that over half of the problems I face stem from something very simple, and half of the rest stem from something only marginally less simple.
And so it goes on, getting more and more complex until there’s nothing left. You find the code looks clean, the tests are working fine, and even when you artificially break the code to recreate the issue, it won’t fail.
And then it gets into hunch territory.
What’s the hunch? Your best and worst friend, the guy who pops up at the wrong time and gives you the right answer, but then talks utter crap for the rest of the week. The dude who hasn’t got the slightest clue why but knows for sure that the problem is a threading issue introduced by a third party integration. The hunch leads you up the garden path for a day, or gives you the answer in a sip of coffee.
The perfect thing about hunches is that we can often test them, test the assumptions, test the outcome. Sure, it can be wildly incorrect, and that’s where the mixing of the two mindsets comes into play: Be methodical, and rule out the obvious, then entertain your hunches by testing their claims, seeing if there’s any validity.
It is the same with Cooper Alley Ghost. The protagonist has had a bellyful of rigorous scientific methodology, and has been trained to ignore his feelings, what the nagging, unreasonable back of his mind is telling him. Until now.
Milena shows us that there is more to this world than the explainable, that so much is going on about us for we cannot account, that we cannot understand. We cannot put it all into a single sentence to explain it and we need our hunches, our guts, our feelings, to guide us.
The Professor is not so blinded as to dismiss feelings from his own personal convictions. Rather, we find that it is incumbent upon him, as a member of the scientific community, to maintain his rigorous methodology, or suffer the consequences of ridicule among his peers.
I’ve always liked the name ‘Jolimont’, ever since I would walk down that street toward the Melbourne Cricket Ground to go sell pies and chips. And on the way home again, exhausted and covered in post-mix and fryer fat, I’d stumble under the sign for Jolimont Station and wait, half-dozing, for the train to come and take me away.
The darkest of the series, Jolimont takes a good look what happens when you let rumour and gossip go unchecked, when you take for granted the goodness in people, when you become confident in your own findings. Both the Professor and the narrator are blindsided by the goings on.
Yes, it was the narrator’s clumsiness that got them into that mess. It was his fault, intentional or otherwise, and so it was also his duty to rectify the situation. Does that make him evil that he unleashed the demon? I don’t think so. It makes him naive, and it shows the danger he poses if he continues to bumble about in a child-like fashion.
And so the voices needed to reflect this. Chester had that ye olde radio voice, not too hard to pull off, although I must say it was difficult to maintain.
Sergeant Hart was a little tougher. He had to be rough, yet exude that forced politeness of a man of the city. I had to imagine him in his bobby hat sporting decent hair on his lip and chin.
Something like this dude:
Lighter on the science, with more adventure, I reckon I like Jolimont the most so far, even more than Beaumaris.
As of writing this, Jolimont is out on all the major platforms. There was a delay in getting to Audible, probably because of the Corona Virus. Isn’t everything, these days?
Can’t wait for the next in Paranormology? Me neither! That’s why I’ve been working into the night, propped up alternately by coffee and gin, to work the red pen and exercise my typing muscles to get the second draft down and smash out the third.
When I was working at MacDonald’s, I learnt a very important quote: “Hustle, don’t rush.”
In other words, get your stuff done quickly without sacrificing quality. It’s about being efficient, and thorough, and, above all, not procrastinating. And that’s exactly what I did. By last night, I was completely bushed, but I had in my hot little hand a manuscript that I could call a book.
And do this morning I consolidated and checked and poked and corrected and pushed Cooper Alley Ghost into the Smashwords Meat Grinder. What does that mean? It means it’s up.
Up! As in, it is going through the motions of publishing. First it goes through the Auto-vetter. That’s Smashwords’ fancy device to weed out common issues with formatting and the like.
Then it gets an ISBN: 9780463495261. Woot! With this, and after it has been checked for premium status, it gets distributed to the book outlets like Kobo and Barnes and Noble and iTunes. For Google Play and Amazon, though, I need to do this myself.
Finally, on 26th of April, 2020, it gets released into the big, wide (scary) world!
Head on over to the Smashwords page and have a look. The process of submitting to the other retailers takes a bit of time, so be patient. I’ll update the links as I go. And I’ve knocked up a landing page here. In the meantime, I’m going to settle down with a gin & tonic.
The excitement builds. The whisky is poured. Draft two is complete. It is a relief. The first run, you see, doesn’t feel real, it doesn’t feel like the end product. It’s almost as if the first copy is a grainy image of what is to come. It can be lax. It can be unstructured. Things don’t necessarily need to follow or make sense. Great slabs of story are missing. Other flabby bits are hanging off the sides, waiting to be cut out.
What a mess! What a disaster! How can we clean this thing up and get it into something readable? Well that’s where the second draft comes in. Still on the machine, I read through it all, start to finish, and cut out what needs to be cut out and put in what needs to be put in. I correct obvious errors or grammar and spelling and correctness. I think whether the timing makes sense, the locations, the people and the settings.
Is that what this character would do? Is that really the best way to describe that? Bit by bit I massage the story out from its amorphous shape and, with a pinch here and a cut there, it becomes a story with a purpose. Great. That’s the point I’m at now. That’s the moment of ‘woot’ where I can take a breather and fix up the garage or fly a kite with Joey.
That’s not the end of it, though. For now comes the nasty part – the Red Pen.
The Red Pen is ruthless. The Red Pen cares not for fancy constructs, nor for passive tense. The Red Pen spots that naughty comma and herds it into the right spot. It scrawls its thoughts down in haste, it draws arrows and brackets and, when it gets really steamed, it draws thick lines through words, sentences, even whole paragraphs!
That’s what happens when you leave a Red Pen in a cup for half a year. It gives it time to plot and scheme. I only hope there’s something left after it has had its fill.
Hampton court posed its own challenges. Female voices, specifically. How do I take my voice and make it sound more feminine? More than this, there were not one, not two, not three but four women to deal with. Annie and Miss Fitzgerald were ok – although I think Miss Fitzgerald ended up sounding similar to the Professor – probably because they were older.
Lisa and Sally, though, they… they were tough. Lisa had to have a condescending tone in her voice, be a bit haughty and snooty, overly affectionate and bossy. Sally was quite the opposite, being bubbly, chipper, and homely. And, of course, they were both young.
I couldn’t ask for help with this. It was a mission I had to face on my own. And so I did. For Lisa, I took on a breathy, higher pitched voice. It took a good ten minutes to get it ballpark. At first she was squeaky and not at all lady-like. It oscillated between a mouse and a baritone until I landed somewhere in the middle.
The best I could do was imagine someone like this in my head and try to match her voice.
Sally took longer. For her, I needed something a little younger. Cue the baby voice. Nope, no good, too young. So I experimented a little, holding my noise, squishing my face. Then I relaxed my cheeks, letting them flop about a bit. It’s hard to explain.
Think of Richard Nixon:
He’s got those jowls that flop about a bit, giving a kind of hollow sound to the mouth. Not that Sally has jowls in my mind’s eye. She’s more of a happy-go-lucky button that sees the good in the world before the bad, a tad naive, but not stupid. Only, I couldn’t get that playfulness in her voice to come through and, after experimenting a lot, I came to the conclusion that I could only do so much with the equipment God gave me, and that the whole ‘hollow-cheek’ thing would have to do.
Now I’m really sorry for Sally.
I’m really happy for Hampton Court Ghost, though, because that is up and out on Audible and Google and Chirp and all the good places!
I really needed a picture of this house for the front cover. But taking the photo is only the first part of the job. Next was turning this rather old looking piece into something one might consider haunted.
The house, captured in broad daylight, was not exactly ‘creepy’ looking. Not only that, as you can see there are artefacts within that would not belong in a Victorian era story. Anachronisms, perhaps? Either way, they had to go:
We can see the walker, the plastic bins, the electrical junctions and the wires. The letterbox looks fine and the number on the door is too small to make out, so that’s good, too. Oh, right, and the compact fluorescent lamp as well. Another little ditty is the reflection in the glass – there’s a ute in there. Aaaand that building over to the right.
To get rid of these things, I used the good old ‘clone’ tool in Gimp. The technique is to carefully clone parts of the surrounding background and surface over the top of the unwanted anomalies.
This works best with consistent (like the grey bricks) or noisy (like the mulch on the ground) backgrounds. It’s a pain in the bum with distinct, contrasting objects like the fence rods and the window. For these, I had to match up the cloning very carefully indeed to avoid a glaring inconsistency with the straight lines.
Not that anyone is looking that closely, but still. It’s also a heck of a lot easier when you don’t have a Joey jostling your arm every few seconds.
I then removed the sky, twiddled with it, darkened it and kept it for later. The colour of the house and the leaves needed to be duller and more dreary. For this I adjusted the grey bricks to be more purple, and the green leaves to be more yellow. The top windows needed dulling (because we can’t reflect a blue sky at night, right?) which was a matter of using the magic selector and reducing the lightness.
With all that done, it was time to add some layering in there.
The story is set in winter, and while it is not full-blown midwinter, it’s still cold and there is a smattering of snow about. Well, that means I needed to add snow. Where and how the heck could I do that? It took some doing, but I think I got there. More on that in a tick.
Making scenes to represent the various parts of Grosvenor Lane Ghost proved harder than I expected. I had, in my mind, a grand set of a horse and carriage, of a row of dilapidated houses, of looking up to see the young boy in the window. Yeah, right.
The problem is that I was reverting to the ‘tell’ rather than the ‘show’, that is, I was telling the story as a movie, scene by scene, rather than showing what the book was about. What I really needed to do was scrap the chapter by chapter approach, getting more into what the message of the book is about.
And what is it about? Science. The introduction of the Protagonist to the world of Paranormology. His first steps into a strange world. The Professor learning to take his own advice and judge a case only after gathering evidence.
With that in mind, I got cracking on making up a few key elements: The equipment, the larder and the laboratory.
Finding an image of an ‘old-school’ thermometer was tricky, since many were large, ungainly contraptions, nothing portable as the Professor would use. I had to be a bit creative, change the gradient to a positive / negative rather than absolute, and add in brass screws for calibration.
I found many image for an electroscope. Diagrams. Blueprints. None were suitable. So, I had to construct one from a bell jar, a copper rod, a disc and copper sheeting. The vibrometer? Well, that’s actually a high temperature thermometer, but let’s just keep that between you and me, shall we?
I really wanted to get the equipment into the animation since, as the books go on about, any real paranormal investigation require documented, calibrated evidence, not just ‘feelings’ and the like. Plus, a big part of the Professor’s obsession is repeatability, such that his investigations might stand up to peer-review, so his equipment is all important.
The Protagonist spends a fair bit of time in the larder, listening to the house, observing his equipment, getting thoroughly bored.
I don’t have a larder in my house. And I don’t have floorboard. And the garage is concrete. So getting a picture of a larder was kind of hard. No problem. Gimp to the rescue! Taking shots of various textures around the house, including an inverted one from underneath the house, cropping, trimming and poking, I was able to assemble a larder.
On the left is the larder in the Gimp stage, where I was having issues getting the shadows to play nice. You can see some of the icky-thicky lines around the centre. Meh. On the right is after I got to it using the Wacom Intuit drawing tablet. Applying heavy shadows was made a bazillion times easier. The results is a lot more like what I had in mind.
Aw, geez. You wouldn’t think it would be too hard to find an old school lantern, light box, prism and holder, easel, and a sheet of paper and tuck them into a laboratory, would you? Well, it was a pain, let me say.
I blurred the background for a sense of depth, constructed the bench out of pieces of wood and scaffolding, found a decent signal lantern (and roughed it up a bit) and put it on top of a box. The result was uninspired. Why? Because everything was ‘different’, that’s why. The box was too clean, the lantern was too old, the paper was too shiny… you get the idea.What I needed to do was make everything a little bit ‘banged up’. Except the prism, since that needed to be an obvious ‘glassy’ element. Not only that, the whole thing was too damned bright. More shadows, more shine. Wacom to the rescue, once more.
Seriously, I’m loving this thing. Still getting the hang of it, of course, early days and all of that. But enough blabbering. I haven’t got the ‘old’ laboratory for comparison for you, my apologies. Let that be a lesson: Hard-drive space is cheap. Don’t delete stuff, move them into separate folders so you can see progressions.
I’m going to get going on some of the other images. Come back soon!