January 24, 2013

The Long Goodbye

It was time to say goodbye. I’d finally decided to scrap my old Audi A6. It was a hard decision to make – it’s served me so well. I do a lot of driving and it worked both as a mobile office (you wouldn’t believe how much storage space it had), but was also a genuine pleasure to drive. I’m not a real petrol-head, but I do love driving, and though I’ve tried out a lot of cars over the years, I’ve only ever owned three. I tend to hang on to something when I like it.

The A6 was a perfect mix of practical and a smooth, powerful ride. Unfortunately, with a 2.5 litre turbodiesel engine, it was also thirsty, and expensive to maintain. And it had some odd quirks of engineering, despite the famed German quality.

The electrical system was unique. After one bad night of torrential rain, the windows started opening spontaneously and the doors would unlock while it was standing parked. I discovered this was because the computer that controlled the complicated electrical system was in the floor of the passenger seat. A section of the engine compartment got blocked up with leaves and the rainwater flowed into the passenger cabin, shorting out the computer (very expensive) and turning my car into Stephen King’s ‘Christine’.

On the other hand, there was the time I put petrol in instead of diesel – my wife and I were swapping cars a lot at the time, and hers was petrol. The car started up and got me nearly forty miles back home before it quit.

The car got me to book events all over Ireland, through two long family driving holidays abroad, took the big freeze over 2010 and 2011 in its stride, driving through snow, ice and floods, it’s taken me up steep, narrow mountain roads and made endless motorways enjoyable.

It picked up my two newborn children from the hospital.

It was a surly old beast at times, but it never let me down and I loved driving it. In the end though, it was starting to rack up the maintenance bills. It had been sitting idle in the driveway for nearly two months and with Maedhbh unable to drive for the next few months because of the chemo, we just couldn’t justify spending a packet to fix up a car that was so expensive to run, when we were really only using one car anyway.

On Tuesday, I called the auto recyclers and they sent over a truck to pick it up. I’m generally not very sentimental about things, but this was like handing over an elderly horse to a butcher. I’ll pick up another car in a while, maybe one that’s more sensible and economical . . . we’ll see.

For now, here’s a salute to my old Audi. So long, and thanks for all the miles.

January 9, 2013

The Making of an Icon (39 of Them, In Fact)

This is a post about the small ‘icon’ illustrations I’ve done for the heads of the chapters in my latest book, ‘Rat Runners’. I do pics like this for all my novels – or at least the novels I haven’t been commissioned to do by somebody. Partly because I want the inside of the book to look distinctive as well as the outside (quite difficult with a novel) and partly because some things are best described with a picture . . . and partly because I just like pictures.

I start this process in the first read-through of the galley proofs – where the pages are first laid out as they’d be in the printed book. As I read, I note down the kinds of snapshots of images that would make a good icon for each chapter. The trick is to choose something in each chapter that will be eye-catching, distinctive, different from the other chapters and helps describe something in the story. You also have to be able to tell what each one is when it’s very small – these illustrations are only couple of centimetres squared when they’re printed, and I draw them at about five centimetres squared, so they’ve got to be clearly recognisable.

The first drawings are little more than scribbles, ‘thumbnails’ as they’re called in the trade. I do these on the proof pages themselves normally, trying to figure out what will work and what won’t. Then I move on to the proper pencil drawing. I have a standard template I work into when I start, which suits the head of a chapter; a wide rectangle marks the absolute margin for the picture, but the circle is the main frame, allowing for a bit of breaking out of that frame in most of the pictures.

I’ll use photographic references for some of these pictures – you can only find appropriate pictures about half the time, and even then, there’s a lot of adapting and simplifying.

For the Wildenstern books, I used an old-fashioned style with a lot of linework and cross-hatching. Because of the modern setting for ‘Rat Runners’, I changed the look just a little bit, using a lot more solid black with some linear pen shading, more like the very blocky black style I used in my earlier novels.

Each picture represents an image from that chapter – sometimes just a object that features, one that may not be vitally important, but gives a flavour of the text.

There are frames on these icons, though I haven’t used frames for the last few books. I do up a single frame separately (which, in this case, suggests a camera lens) then place it over each picture in Photoshop, once the drawings are scanned. Then they’re ready to send to the editor.

This is often the last piece of work I do for any book, bar the odd little text revision, and makes for a nice sign-off. It marks the end of the book and time to start on the next which, incidentally, is well underway.