Over the years, I’ve written a lot of things, from comics to audio plays, to TV sketches to newspaper journalsim – I’ve even written the ‘I never thought it would happen to me’ letters in gentlemens magazines for a paycheque, it’s the curse of the freelance writer. However, over those years I never published a novel.
Sure, I wrote a few in my time, when I was a kid I wrote stories involving ‘J.J Jackson’, some kind of superspy who (my father is always happy to tell complete strangers at signings and conventions) for some reason had to either jump or be thrown out of a window every story. No idea why. Suffice to say they never went far. In my early twenties I wrote Lightblade, my swords and sorcery fantasy trilogy where a prince discovered he was actually the son of a commoner and went off to complete a massive quest, complete with generic quest compatriots. I never reached book two. A few years back I wrote Rahbin Hood, a tale where a Muslim half cast teenager returns in place of Robin of Loxley, and to hide his face wears a hood while helping the people of Nottingham, and more recently I wrote King Bill: And the Spirit Of Albion, where a teenaged boy discovers he’s the next in line to King Arthur’s throne. Again, none of these got anywhere, although I’m sure the latter two had some promise.
And then we had Dodge & Twist. Originally devised while watching the excellent The First Great Train Robbery, I had an idea of Oliver meeting up with Dodger, twelve years on and having an adventure. I’d bring all the surviving characters back into it. It’s be a fun and affectionate hoamage to a book I grew up loving. There were of course problems. Oliver, for a start had the happy ending that all book heroes yearn for and was off in the countryside, now wealthy and the landed gentry. Dodger was a convict in Australia and Fagin was dead. (Yes kids, the world of the Oliver! musical is a far nicer one to that of the book)
So for Oliver to actually return to London, for Dodger to return from Austraila, either pardoned or by escaping, there had to be a reason. And more importantly, for Oliver to ask for Dodger’s assistance, it had to be big. When I do my school talks I give the audience a scene, late into the book and say ‘now why did character A do this?’ and make them work the story backwards – and this is what I did here. Oliver was last seen wealthy and happy. What if he wasn’t any more? How could he have lost everything? If Dodger was back, it meant there was a big score. But why did he need Oliver? As the story progressed I had the bare bones of a tale, then aimed at the comic market of a penniless Oliver, returning to London to argue the case with Mister Brownlow’s solicitors about his inheritance. Or, perhaps Brownlow was dead, and the solicitors were refusing to give Oliver what was rightly his? Either way he was broke again and desperate. Dodger, having done his seven years had spent five more returning home, a plan in his mind on a massive caper. However, he also had the voice of the long dead Fagin in his mind, blaming Oliver for his death. A real ghost or Dodger’s insanity? Who knows. All I wanted was Dodger to deliberately guide Oliver into the heist to betray him, but then start to change his mind and plans as he remembered his own brief friendship with Oliver.
I read and re-read the book to work out who was still alive after the bood bath ending – Sikes was dead, Nancy too, but Noah Claypole and Charlotte were still about, as were Bumble and Sowerberry. And so a plan began to form in my head.
Oliver Twist was always set to be about 1838, so by making it twelve, thirteen years later, I found myself around 1851. Looking into events that happened around the same time, I stumbled upon an old friend, somehting I was once going to use elsewhere, the Koh-I-Noor diamond and the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The Koh-I-Noor diamond was an Indian treasure that was ‘aquired’ by Lord Dalhousie and brought to Queen Victoria. It was agreed to be displayed at the Great Exhibition and then the British Museum would make a replica of it before it was recut to be placed in Victoria’s crown. It’s still there now. However, there was a large uproar when the recut diamond seemed to be significantly smaller. Some said this was natural, others said that Victoria had made small diamonds from it to boost her own fortune. Either way, there was something there, and the timeline fit. What if Dodger was going to steal the Koh-I-Noor diamond, and take a chunk from it?
With a story in place, I started on the first incarantion, a graphic novel. I had twists and turns and betrayals on both sides, I had both new and old characters walking through familiar locations and subplots from Oliver Twist brought back to life. Once the synopsis was done, I spoke to Bob Shreck at Vertigo on publishing it – he was interested, but eventually it was passed on. I saw Larry Young at AiT/Planet Lar one San Diego Comic Con and asked whether he’d be interested in it, and he said yes, bringing on an artist, Paul Peart-Smith. I wrote a 144 page script and waited for the art. Which never came, as Paul was also working a long hours full time job and wasn’t physically able to hit the deadline. By the time the 144 page deadline was up, he’d managed no more than about 30 pages and was taken off the book. Once more I was at square one. We looked at other artists. We couldn’t come to agreement – and eventually the contract ran out, and I was alone again.
It was Julian Friedmann, my literary agent who suggested re-writing it as a novel, and over Christmas 2009 I wrote ferociously, finishing the first draft of 84,000 words in early March. After edits, Julian sent it out, and we waited. And waited.
The book was liked, I know this for a fact as once, while in a meeting at Hachette one of the test readers of it (from a department two floors down) actively sought me out in the meeting to tell me he enjoyed it – but even with such glowing recommendations, not one of the publishers would commit to it. We heard several reasons, there were other, similar stories already taken on board for 2012 (the bicentennial of Charles Dickens birth), they weren’t too sure if it was Adult (one department) or YA (another department), I wasn’t an established author, a whole wealth of valid excuses why the book was loved but not bought came through my agent. I started to hear more worrying tales of new ‘Artful Dodger’ books in the next year and realised that I was about to lose any chance of ever having what I believe is my best work ever being seen.
So I spoke to Amazon, about putting it on the Kindle.
There are those who say it’s ‘vanity press’, the worst kind of authorship, that my book wasn’t good enough to be published, so I’m just throwing it out there. Not the case. I want my book to be read, I want to know whether it’s any good or not and by putting it out there onto the Amazon Kindle (and down the line other e-readers like the Nook, etc) I see first hand, the book literally lives or dies by the reviews. In a way, it’s one of the most exciting and terrifying things I’ve done in years. And this from a guy who’s had graphic novels top the New York Times Bestselling list chart.
And it’s not just ‘The Kindle’, as Amazon have a free, downloadable app for the Android, the iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, Windows Smartphone, PC and even Mac, where you can download and read on whatever device you want. Just click on the link and pick your poison.
It’s cheap, too. I went for the minimum price I could under the e-print option I chose – $3.43 for a download ($2.99 plus tax), which equates at the time of writing this as £2.16 in the UK. It’s cheaper than a comic, than a pint, than a cup of coffee in most places – and I think it’s definite value for money.
Paul Peart-Smith kindly allowed me to use one of the larger panels of the aborted graphic novel, and Ciaran Lucas used his incredible skills in colouring it to ensure I had a cover that was second to none. I had a dozen proof readers who came back to me with two dozen changes that needed to be made, but finally I believe it’s ready. And now you too can decide by going to the Dodge & Twist Kindle page on Amazon and buying it, either at the US Site or the UK Site. You can even read the first 10% of it for free, which is a brilliant way to help you decide, and also a brilliant way to while away a slow afternoon at work, or on a train, plane or car journey – although not if you’re the driver.
If you liked Oliver Twist, Victorian adventures like the recent Sherlock Holmesmovies or ever wished that Oceans Eleven had been done in frock coats and top hats, then this is the book for you. All I ask is, even if you hate it, put a review up on the Amazon site, tell your friends what you thought. I don’t have a publisher behind me here, I don’t have a marketing budget. I have word of mouth and the speed that I can type, and I need as much help as I can get to ensure that people see this book.
If it does well, maybe there’ll be a paperback out of this after all. Or even a sequel. You know, to that sequel. Either way, at least the book will be read.