A novel is being created.
The stuff below this paragraph is a chronology of the development of this novel, and associated public readings. With gaps still here and there to one day be filled, for now, this is what there is to know:
July/August 1993: Once upon a time, in the summer of ’93, a few months after I became a teenager, I lay in the hammock in our garden with a blue jotter (which was given to me by Mrs Butcher – a Spanish teacher who never taught me – after I helped her carry some things up some stairs), and penned the meandering foundational chapters of The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil. I had no plan, just a vague sense that Derek had to do and experience dreadful, insane and fabulous things.
The title came first, in a longer form than it is today: The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil – In Color. The ‘In Color’ tag was inspired by its spoof usage in the opening credits of the TV show Police Squad!. The adventures are in color: the ink is blue and the pages are not quite white. Yet, despite the irrelevance being tantalising, this tag came to be snipped in 2002.
The prologue and 11 chapters were written in this chunky notebook, the vast majority of it remaining empty.
During August, I showed the opening chapters to my friend Charlie, and in September, I read them out to a few friends at break-time and on the walk between classes…
1994-1999: The story was typed up and edited on a Sharp FontWriter, with new segments added occasionally until around 1999.
2002: I decided to embrace the character of Derek and his propensity to have awfully conceived adventures, and plot a proper novel about his fabulous life, skills and fun times.
Here are some extracts from the first monumentally atrocious version of the plot:
- Derek lives within a small microcosmic community, in Big Vagina Valley, inhabited by humans and animals. He works in a castle kitchen, pre-empting when the chef wants a cupboard to be opened, and opening it for him. Derek has a strong sense of intuition and precognition.
- Derek saves the drowning king, by diving down and giving him air, then biting through his tangled belt. The king swims to the lake edge – his shirt is clinging to his chest, and Derek swears he can see the silhouette of the king’s erect penis.
- Derek doesn’t understand, so visits a priest who fills him with wonder about God and faith – a God that exists – so Derek believes in a God that exists.
- He writes poetry like: “God is really very great, He truly is my bestest mate.”
- Embarrassed by the rumours (including vulgar headlines in the tabloids), the king shows his lump to Derek, claiming it is his sticky-out belly button. ‘Should it really be sticking out three-point-one inches?’ Derek asked, whipping out a tape measure.
- One day, the king stuck his father’s remains up his arse, within a tiny glass phial. No one reacts to this news with disgust, just relief and understanding. ‘Ah, so he stuck his father’s remains up his arse. That would explain a lot.’
- Somehow, the old king has a special influence on his son by expelling some kind of evilness from the phial. Derek goes up the king’s arse to remove the phial, and has to confront the evilness.
- Derek dies, and goes to Heaven where he meets God. God is nothing like they said. God is called Alison. He is not the Christian God, he’s Derek’s personal vision or understanding of God. Derek has a unique sense for believing in a God that actually exists, unlike in other religions. Alison has powers that he demonstrates, unlike other made-up Gods.
- Derek also believes in a God who is his best friend – the way a God should be.
- Derek has not been told what God traditionally looks like. He imagines him as being funny-looking, and so he is. God: ‘They say I made man in my own image. Well, that’s obviously bollocks, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes, you’re a mess. And I’d say that’s a good thing.’
- Derek imagines Heaven as a gantry overlooking Earth. He looks over the gantry that hangs between Heaven and Earth. ‘The valley looks nothing like a vagina. And I should know, because I’ve seen four pictures of vaginas.’
- Derek becomes alive again.
- Derek wants fame. He tries many ways, which all don’t work – or even backfire by making him less well-known.
- As a journalist, Derek interviews God.
- He breaks promises and uncaringly publishes off-the-record information.
- Derek develops aspirations to rule the universe. To do this, he realises he must conquer God. He decides to do this by getting God to doubt his own sanity and purpose, and gets put in a mental institute.
January-March 2003: It seemed a good idea to make the plot better than absolutely dire, so I moved on from Big Vagina Valley, and opted to bring Derek into something closer to the real world, by integrating him into the plot of a short film script I had written about a depressed man who visits a psychotherapist. Somehow this morphed into a proposal for 12 episodes of a sitcom about learning the value of friendship.
Some scraps from Episode 1:
LANDLORD: I’ve got a new tenant moving in next week.
JON: But you said I could have the house for myself.
LANDLORD: I know. It just seemed a waste. Look, I’m dropping your rent by twenty quid a month to make up for it.
JON: Twenty quid?
LANDLORD: You can go if you want?
JON: Who is this person moving in?
LANDLORD: (gets out a scrap of phone-message paper on which he has scrawled down some details) He’s called Derek.
LANDLORD: Yeah, Derek the Homosexual Gerbil.
JON: Well, what’s he like?
LANDLORD: I don’t know.
JON: … Derek the what?
LANDLORD: Homosexual Gerbil.
JON: … What does he do?
LANDLORD: I don’t know. I didn’t meet him. The letting agents found him.
JON: It’s just a name, yeah?
LANDLORD: I don’t know.
JON: When’s he moving in?
LANDLORD: Next week.
JON: What day?
And so, Tuesday came along…
Jon gets a parcel in the morning but is too rushed to open it. He has lots of boxes and parcels lying around that he hasn’t bothered to open. Caption on bottom of screen: “Derek is in the parcel, but Jon doesn’t know this. Imagine the shock he’ll get when he realises. But how long will it take him to work it out?” A clock timer starts ticking on the bottom of the screen, counting up badly.
Jon didn’t open the parcel, but came to accept the idea of Derek coming to live with him. However…
That night, Jon is pissed off that Derek hasn’t turned up on the day he was meant to. He rings up Graham and has a one-sided go at him, complaining that he had stayed in all day to “welcome” him. He shouts that Derek is a complete twat. Jon hears a yawn, but doesn’t locate it. We see a shadowy Derek shuffling about in the parcel, waking up from his journey, looking out of an air-hole. We get the impression he’s probably really hurt by Jon’s words. After the phone call, Derek shouts from the parcel. He bounds out, totally not bothered by anything he’s heard.
So Graham the landlord comes to welcome Derek to the house in Episode 2:
LANDLORD: (to Derek) And the rent includes your gas and water bills.
DEREK: (to Jon) Isn’t he kind?
LANDLORD: But could you do me a favour and keep toilet-flushing down to, say, at most 10 a day, on average. I’m thinking of the environment, really. I feel it’s important to share these tips with you now, before we have any problems further down the line.
DEREK: I think it’s a brilliant idea.
LANDLORD: And you may have a guest staying up to a week at a time, unless otherwise arranged with me, prior to the visit, or sometime during the first 48 hours. And bear in mind this guest leniency only permits a total of 15 guest nights a month, which I think is very fair, but after which a penalty rent charge will be issued. One reasonable unit of breakage allowed a month. Any more, and I’ll think it’s personal, and I’ll fine you… Don’t break that mirror… I’m quite fond of it.
And in Episode 3, the housemates discovered ways to get on:
JON: You’re lucky I’ve decided to be nice to you.
DEREK: I am lucky! You’ve been nicer to me than I could possibly hope for.
JON: Yeah. So I’m gonna be nice to you and tell you some amazing secrets, right? Have you ever wondered how some people have really nice clean homes?
DEREK: Heck, now you come to mention it! It does strike me as odd.
JON: Do you want me to teach you how to clean up?
DEREK: (pause, in awe) Cor, yes please!
Certain elements from that plot would stick as the story developed, and other characters (Jon’s family and friends) started to emerge at this point that would become prominent, yet the sitcom format was quickly shelved.
But, before returning to the novel genre for good, I had a miniscule attempt at streamlining the earlier castle plot and a few snatches of the housemates scenario into a 3-act movie plot! Barely any new material was added, and a lot remained to be desired. Act 3 solely consists of the notion that, returning from his heroic journey, “Derek goes back to Big Vagina Valley in a flying shoe.”
November 2003: Concepts, themes, characters and plot continued to evolve. Here are a couple of snippets of Derek’s background that emerged in this era:
- Derek has an older sister called Mildred The Unwanted Gerbil and younger twins called Gary The Irreplaceable Gerbil and Gary The Irreplaceable Gerbil Part 2. They were named instinctively at birth, based upon suggestions from those present. “He’s got a kind of gay smile.” Derek is fortunate enough to witness his brothers’ birth and naming ceremony. The birth is a fucked up ritual, and they arrive in eggs with an envelope flap. They all have names which will both dog them, and be their making.
- Derek declares himself as happy as can be to Mildred. She beats him to test this, but he persists in his declaration. Then his mother states how useless he truly is, completely dismissing his special ability. She is quite temperamental. She orders that he get a job, or learn a trade, or get some work experience. He considers his skills, and realises he really is a fool. He meets a mentor who suggests he apply for a position as a pet. His mother bans him from this option, calling him a whore, wanting to wallow in sawdust luxury.
Very little of that survived long as part of Derek’s backstory, though oppressive family members and the influence names have upon us have remained key themes.
By now, it occurred to me that Derek was either a figment of Jon’s imagination, or a real gerbil for which he was providing the voice, so I began to consider ways to integrate and parallel their emotional journeys to build a cohesive metaphysical conceit about the emergence of latent fighting spirit.
And so there we have the roots to what would become the story of an anxious man challenged and inspired to get his life together by an enthusiastic gerbil.
2004-2008: Intensive plotting and dialogue sketching, with the novel splitting into 3, then 9, then 8, then 4 books. For three months in early 2006, I travelled around America without any of my existing Derek notes, yet made some excellent progress, storylining the novel from memory on teeny squares of paper, and brainstorming it from new angles.
December 2008: The time had come to make the leap from plot structuring to chapter formation, so I started fleshing out the odd chunks of dialogue and plot points, and discovered my style of narration.
August 2009: Assigned star signs and then birthdays for 14 of my characters. Derek was born on 2 April 1987, and then again on 2 April 1993, and then again on 2 April 2002, which is the year this novel is set.
11 April 2010: A sudden printed draft emerged of the first six chapters.
20 January 2011: Derek begged for and got his own Facebook page. “Derek is delighted.” So, this was an interesting development. Not only did this mark the beginning of publicity for the emerging novel, but my posts about Derek supposedly arsing about in my flat echoed the troubles, observations and projections of my schizoid protagonist Jon…
- 20 January 2011: Derek says, “Right away. No, write away! Just write what I say. No!” Then he stops and stares at me. What?
- “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, if I wasn’t already excited I’d be getting excited right now!”
- One day, Derek was at the park trying to work out what percentage of his pocket money he had to spend on electricity, when suddenly he found the world’s tallest slide.
- 21 January 2011: Hush, Derek, I’m trying to get to sheep.
- 22 January 2011: Derek! “What?” Derek! “What?” Derek! “What? Shut up.” You.
- 26 January 2011: Once upon a time this morning, Derek climbed a big huge mountain and discovered to his horror, when he had got all the way to the top, that he had forgotten to bring his bottom. But luckily, a passing giraffe had two spare bottoms, one of which Derek swapped for his sofa. And so happily it all ended.
- Golf, Derek?
- And Derek comments later in on the day tonight, in saying swiftly and wisely, “Sometimes, at the back of my mind, I think about going forward. Sometimes, on the tip of my tongue, I taste old sofas.” Gaily, gaily, he struts off away into the shadows to go to sleep upon this evening’s spit of bite-size tissues, carpet and trout begonia.
- 29 January 2011: Derek found Ko and Bu yesterday but has yet to decide what to do with them. “I don’t know,” he said as he put them in his syllables in-tray.
- 1 February 2011: “Boom, boom!” yelled Derek, doing an impression of a boom.
- Derek, beautiful Derek, how enchanting your face! It cheers up the place! How nice to embrace you again in this place!
- 11 February 2011: Derek saved the day today! Thanks, Derek, from everyone.
- 27 February 2011: Derek is busy starting something. He’s in the other room just quite getting close to thinking about possibly, oh maybe beginning.
- He’s got to be startin’ somethin’. He said, “I wanna be startin’ somethin’.”
- 1 April 2011: It’s Derek’s birthday in eleven minutes. Is it wicked not to care?
- “How many other 24-year-old gerbils do you know?” said Derek.
- That’s a fallacy. You’re just dots and ideas.
- “So are you.”
28 October 2011: Printed a ‘2nd Unfinished Proof Edition’ with the first 9 chapters well-honed, under the catchy title, The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil, Part 1: The Best Ever Of All Gerbils.
17 February 2012: At the Karma Kafe in Norwich, I hosted the inaugural night (‘Bethany Black and the Ducking Stool Divas’) of a dynamic monthly alternative comedy club, The Dysfunction Room, which three friends (Paul Knight, Hilary Koe, Tom Read) and I formed and ran for 13 months. During the evening, along with introducing our acts with renditions of classic TV themes, I read out a few extracts and chapters from the emerging novel; and also, to mark this first public reading since those halcyon days in the playground, I also brought with me and read a few lines from the sacred original blue jotter.
2 April 2012: It was Derek the Homosexual Gerbil’s 25th birthday. To celebrate Derek the Homosexual Gerbil’s 25th birthday, I printed ‘A third unfinished rendering’ of 11 polished chapters, under the new title, The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil, Part 1: Reading Between.
29 June 2012: Premiere reading of Chapter 2 of the novel at The Dysfunction Room’s ‘Tony Cowards And The Funpipe Experiment: A Summer Fete Worse Than Death’, at Farmer Browns Restaurant in Norwich.
14 March 2013: Keen to see a vaguely finished product, I rush honed the last few chapters into a First Draft state.
20 February 2014: Sat upon a table, I performed a few Derek chapters at the Redneck Comedy Show, at the dimly-lit underground crypt of Jurnet’s Bar, Norwich. A last-hour addition to the line-up, but effectively headlining, and very well received.
26 February 2014: Printed a 4th edition of the novel, presenting 14 tidy chapters, and just the titles of another 5.
23 April 2014: A return to the Redneck Comedy Show at Jurnet’s Bar, this time to read, for the first time in public, the original Prologue and Chapters 1 to 7 of The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil. Derek featured on the poster, designed by Pete Butler:
It still surprises me to rediscover this shambles, but the origins of Derek are really rather something very else, and beyond, and make for quite an exciting comedy set.
14 October 2014: Another reading of those early adventures of Derek at the ‘Quirky Turkey Cabaret’, part of the Norwich Fringe Festival, at the Playhouse Bar Playroom.
22 October 2014: So much touched and honoured by my dear friend Philippa who, days after emigrating to America with one of my shit little drawings, had Derek jabbed into her as a tattoo. Now adventuring nicely in Colorado, here’s Derek in the flesh, below Flump’s knee…
28 October 2014: Renamed the novel again, because The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil, Part 1: Reading Between just wasn’t sitting comfortably with me. As much as it is in many ways appropriate, it’s also a bit distractingly crap; and not, I figured, in a good way. So after many merry subtitles had come and gone – Happy/Sad, Search For The Best Gerbil That Ever Lived, Searching For The Best Ever, The Best Ever Of All Gerbils and Reading Between – I decided it was just right and correct that this first volume should be known simply, splendidly, as… The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil. Just that. Parts 2, 3 and 4 have all been renamed as well, but I’m not paying them much attention until this one is finished.
1 November 2014: ‘Hello, Derek,’ I said, laughing joyously. ‘Hello,’ said Derek. ‘Wow!’ I exclaimed and hugged the mrs who had stood her beautifully crafted Derek on my pillow while I was brushing my teeth. What a happy helloderek surprise for Halloween. Thank you, Danielle. He’s spot on.
2014-2015: A lot of restructuring, unpicking and reimagining of the last few chapters, and wedging in a whole new Chapter 4.
27 April 2015: Performed a selection of The Poetry that features in The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil, at St Margaret’s Church, Norwich, during the launch party of ‘Dandifest!’. Most thrillingly, my atrocious poems were swooshed into new dimensions by sign language interpreter Bobbi Hallsworth.
March 2016: I was much excited to hone the climax to Act 2 – the ‘supreme ordeal’ of the hero’s journey. 21 chapters had reached the 2nd draft point, with another 5 or 6 to go.
19 April 2016: A very nice cake for Jake from my beloved Danielle…
July 2016: Incorporated further extracts from the original stories I wrote as a teenager. Continued restructuring has increased the novel size to 29 chapters of around 9 pages each. I estimate this book will be close to 100,000 words and about 280 pages. Also embarked upon the beginning of the writing of The Making of The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil, which you can read here.
August-September 2016: Some improvements to the notes for the last 8 chapters of the novel.
31 October 2016: I’ve made a most extraordinary discovery about my novel! I was reading an eye-opening article by ‘Deja Reviewer’, Robert Lockard, detailing how the Back to the Future trilogy is one big chiasmus – written using a technique in which ideas are laid out in one order and then reversed. 31 parallels are drawn between BTTF Part 1 and the first half of Part 2, and the end of Part 3 going back to the middle of Part 2. The echoing scenes provide satisfying call-backs, bring certain story points to a close, and offer alternative perspectives on an issue. Along with other films listed on Mr Lockard’s website, the balance of symmetry in BTTF is quite startling and beautiful to consider. Within a well-structured story, it seems obvious that a writer would want to lay things out so precisely and completely, but I have to wonder whether Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale intended for this, or whether it’s just symptomatic of intuitive plot construction.
“No, I can’t prove that they meant to set up these three films to be a chiasmus. My purpose in uncovering this pattern in certain films is to show that often works of art have multiple levels to them that are unconsciously done by their creators.
Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale worked hard to make everything they set up pay off later. And in the process they did something far more clever. A chiasmus was a pleasing way of telling a story or expressing ideas in ancient times, and it’s really cool to see them pop up in modern films.” ~ Robert Lockard, 5/8/2014
I know I didn’t set out to make my novel symmetrical, but it turns out it pretty much is, and to an astonishing extent! I had a long think about it in bed a few weeks ago, and then began making a big list of all the plot points (major and incidental) in The Nice Adventures Of Derek The Homosexual Gerbil, and, well, I’ve got about 7 chapters in the middle still to analyse, but so far I have identified 62 links. I continue to be amazed as I progress, and now just expect to come across corresponding elements. A small number of scenes don’t quite match up exactly, though I shall look into expanding these as this process has helped me identify many ways to greatly improve the novel – not to force it into symmetry but to heighten and tidy up what is there already. And now I’ll press on with it, looking forward to finding out which is the central scene of the novel.
4 November 2016: I completed this interesting exercise last night, having formed 89 correlations across the novel. A few of these ‘twin’ elements are honestly rather tenuous, but the majority have a lovely symmetry, and have evolved into such a balance, unconsciously, as part of many years of narrative structuring. And the central scene is just perfect, a dramatic tipping point and microcosm of the subject matter. Mind blown somewhat.
November 2016: Made a few amendments to the novel, following the chiasmus exercise, and crafted a few extra pages in the middle of Chapter 13.
December 2016: Overcame a few months of writer’s block regarding the honing of Chapter 22; and then on December 22 made a momentous decision to change the primary font that I’ve been writing in – from Bookman Old Style to Constantia – taking it from “very first draft” to “when Derek grew up,” according to Wifey, who was “bothered” by the former…
10 January 2017: Completed second draft of Chapter 22. ‘Bottoms!’ cried Derek.
2 April 2017: Today, once again, is Derek’s birthday. Today he is 30. Derek is 30.
I didn’t discover him until 1993, by which time he was already 3. Since then he has literally doubled in age at least twice.
9 April 2017: It is happening. It is being written. It is, however, going to take a lot more time because at the same time as writing this novel I’m also having to learn how to write a novel. One of the latest revelations I’ve had is that my scene viewpoints are pretty chaotic. I think this works in some places, but in others it’s a startling maze of attention-shiftings. So I’ve been making adjustments, and also formed myself a little checklist to keep an eye on it all. There’s an awful lot still to hammer into shape, new research to do and utilise, and a good handful of final chapters yet to get my teeth into. It is happening, and it shall be very special when it is done.
3 October 2017: Progress has been slow since the last update, a rate of production which doesn’t bode well for getting this novel finished in my lifetime! Yet this has been an exceptionally challenging and busy year personally, and I anticipate things will soon begin to settle, and I shall have more time to devote to writing. Among other tweaks and glitch-fixings, Chapter 23 has taken shape over the summer, and I’m getting a better sense of the purpose of the Narrator.
22 March 2018: So, progress on the novel has actually pretty much stopped. And this is largely down to moving house just before Christmas, and being so busy with unboxing, plumbing jobs, tidying, housework, and family life. I’m not sure I’ve even opened the Derek document this year! But it is not given up on, and perhaps writing this ‘update’ will inspire me to take a peek and see what time and nonsense I can shove its way…
25 March 2018: Well, that’s better. 4 months of block is over, and today I’ve returned to tweaking the text, and I’ve remastered the front and back cover.
27 April 2018: Nicely back in the creative zone now, and kicking bottom. Slapped a good polish on Chapter 23, and said hooray. 5 chapters are still in a shambolic state, but it’s coming together filthily well.
12 October 2018: Derek rumbles on in the background of my life. Over the summer, occasional notes were noted: snatches of dialogue, an inspiring location, writing tips, and bits of character and subject matter research. But it wasn’t until this week, during a pleasant holiday in the Peak District, when they all finally got tumbled into the Derek document, and I got back into it. I’ve been honing my notes for the sequels for the first time in several years, and, in the early hours of this morning, I made the momentous decision to squish the 3rd and 4th books into one. So it is now to be a trilogy, which sits a lot better in my mind.
12 November 2018: Steady progress in the last month has culminated today in the completion of the second draft of Chapter 24. Hooray! 25 and 28 are already done, so that just leaves 26, 27, 29 and 30.
4 December 2018: Pleased to report that Chapter 26 is making happy snappy leaps towards tidy. AND if this isn’t an actual extract from Chapter 26, then I am lying to you when I say that this is an actual extract from Chapter 26…
‘Derek comes and Derek goes. Where does he go? Nobody knows. But we all have our deep suspicions about his favourite kind of positions, and how far he delves into fictional adventures on the uppermost shelves. Oh, Derek, you’ll live forever! God knows you’ll live forever! Come rain or shine, you’ll do just fine, you conqueror of weather!’
17 February 2019: Just a quick update to share that Chapter 26 is now shaped into shape, and three final chapters are coming well into focus…
The poetry happens.
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