How Deconstructing My First Novel Helped Me Recover My Brain – Episode 2

The Title

The manuscript lay beside my laptop on the table below the big, ceiling-high window of the sitting room.  The window gave me an unobstructed view of the narrow patio at the back of the house, the raised garden overlooking the patio and the expanse of sky above the garden.  There had been talk of an Indian summer, but the sky was leaden again this morning.  I would sit there and type and edit over the coming days and weeks – and months, if necessary.  I began with the title page.

My novel was called The Olive Branch.  The title was derived from the headline of an article that appeared in a well-known daily newspaper back in 1975.  The headline read: ‘Olive Branch from Peking to Kremlin’.  The article spoke of an apparent amelioration in relations between the Republic of China and the USSR, and of a metaphorical olive branch being exchanged between the two powers.  It went on to warn of the threat that such a development could pose to the West.

I supposed now that the story was just some idle scaremongering to feed to the newspaper’s right-wing readers, like me.  And I was young enough and politically immature enough to be impressed by the story, to believe in the so-called threat and to be concerned by it.  I had wanted my novel to shatter the apathy to the threat that I seemed to see all around me, to act as a warning to the West – a red flag, if you like.  It would be set a few years in the future, and it would relate what could happen if the two Communist giants did combine and did collude to dominate the world.

But first I had needed somehow to work the title that I had chosen, and the story of the threat behind it, into the novel.  My original intention had been to reproduce the newspaper article, including its headline, at the very beginning, in front of a planned prologue.  I wrote to the newspaper concerned, but the Managing Editor wrote back, politely refusing permission for the reproduction of the story on the ground that in some eyes permission would constitute endorsement of the novel.  However, the man couldn’t have been more helpful otherwise.  He suggested a way round the problem for me, he said that the storyline was a very interesting one, and he wished me every success with my book; he even offered to get the book reviewed by the newspaper when it was published.  So I had decided to take up the man’s suggestion by incorporating ‘the sense of the news story’, together with the novel’s title, into the prologue.

The Dedication

Between the title page and the prologue, there was another page, in the centre of which I had typed the following dedication: ‘To Bill, for all his help.’

Bill, of course!  How could I forget Bill?  Bill and I had been friends since childhood.  We had lived practically next door to each other in Queensferry, had grown up together, had gone to the same schools, had shared the same boyhood adventures; we had even worked together during their last school holidays, having lied about our ages to get jobs in a nearby hotel.  After we left school, we drifted apart for a while.  I went to university, lasted only a year there, obtained my first real job, lived in Edinburgh and got married.  Like his father before him, Bill joined the Civil Service.  He, too, got married and lived in Edinburgh.  We met up by chance one day and went on to renew our friendship, with our wives in tow this time.  Then Bill and his wife, Marilyn, moved to the north of England – to Darlington, I seemed to recall, on a Civil Service posting – while my wife, Ann, and I moved over to Ann’s hometown in Fife.  That was when I began to write the novel and when Bill agreed to comment on it as it developed.  I posted each chapter or couple of chapters to Bill, and Bill replied with his observations a week or so later.  We kept up our regular, long-distance correspondence over many months, the four of us getting together occasionally during that period.

I looked out of the window at the greyness of the sky, remembering our correspondence.  I had been such an arrogant prat back then.  All I really wanted from Bill was his endorsement, his encouragement; to be told how clever I was and how good the writing was.  I neither wanted nor welcomed criticisms.  If I received any from Bill, I either ignored them or argued against them.  Poor Bill.  The man was such a saint, always willing to submit his careful, practical and helpful comments, almost apologetic when he did make criticisms, not flinching at the rebuffs, quietly persisting through the process.  When I thought about it now, the truth was that I didn’t deserve Bill’s input.

I looked away from the window and back to the manuscript.  Enough of this gloom, I said to himself.  There was a project to get on with, and I had barely begun.  I turned the page over.  The dedication to Bill would remain; it was well-deserved.

The Prologue

The prologue was in three parts.  I retyped the whole of it, pleased that it didn’t need any editing.



The following routine Intelligence Report was requested by the NATO Watchdog Committee on Sino-Soviet Relations after the appearance in several Western newspapers of unconfirmed stories concerning, amongst other things, the signing of a ‘non-aggression treaty’ between the two Communist powers:

‘Report No: 625J


Designation: Top Secret


1.  Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of Press reports (copies attached hereto), all of which indicate a normalisation in diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and China, and most of which hint at the recent signing of a non-aggression treaty aimed at the immediate withdrawal of forces from the long-disputed border areas.

2.  At the Committee’s direct request, every available intelligence resource was asked to investigate the above allegations.  These sources have now reported back, and their findings can be summarised as follows:-

a.  there have been no official confirmatory statements from either power;

b.  there have been no significant movements of either troops or tanks along the border areas referred to above;

c.  there has been no known exchange of diplomats between Peking and Moscow in recent months.

3.  It must be concluded from 2. above that the attached newspaper stories do not reflect the true state of Sino-Soviet relations as at this date, and it must be further stated that genuine co-existence between Russia and China is still not a feasible prospect, either in the short-term or in the long-term.

4.  Nevertheless, strict surveillance of Sino-Soviet relations will be maintained; any significant developments therein will, of course, be brought to the immediate attention of the Committee.’


In 1975, after a series of secret negotiations, the USSR and Red China allied, thus ending more than fifteen years of armed confrontation between the two Communist giants.  This union (later marked down in history as the Formidable Alliance) went unnoticed to the Western powers as a result of the secretive nature of its formation and of Russian and Chinese efforts to show to the rest of the world that hostilities continued to exist between the two nations.  Over the next five years, the combined Communist powers laid down, in fine detail, their plans for the invasion of Western Europe, this being the first step in a stupefying campaign aimed at world domination.  In direct contravention of previous SALT agreements, both nations, undercover, amassed vast stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons.  In addition, Russia, while seeming to baulk at successive SALT negotiations over the existence of the American Cruise missile, directed its scientists to take and develop the Tercom guidance system employed in the missile (for information on the Cruise missile, see the author’s Technical Note below); after four years, the Soviets devised their own guidance system, far more sophisticated than that of the Americans, with a maximum range of 3,500 miles and an astonishing accuracy of within five feet.  More openly, the Soviet Fleet was gradually strengthened and refined in preparation for the coming invasion.


It is now the early summer of 1980, and the combined Communist forces are poised for the initial assault.  In one fell swoop, more than 10,000 of the new Soviet missiles, each one carrying a high-explosive earth-penetrator warhead that can dig through fifteen feet of concrete, will rain down on the cities of Western Europe, destroying every important dock, airport, arms base, communications centre, factory complex and refinery, and bringing half a continent to a complete standstill within a matter of seconds.  The vast Russo-Chinese Fleet, for months strategically positioned around the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, will then close in for the kill, as will those forces of the Warsaw Pact strung out along the western borders of the Communist Bloc.


Clearly, the first part – the ‘Intelligence Report’ – was my attempt not only to capture ‘the sense’ of the original newspaper article, but also to convey the general apathy to any Communist threat that I had perceived.  I thought that it worked quite well.  But I wasn’t convinced about my way of incorporating the novel’s title into the report.  ‘Code Name: OLIVE BRANCH’, indeed!  It was so obscure that it would probably be missed by the large majority of the novel’s readers; it was too clever by half.

But that fault aside, I felt that, overall, the prologue successfully set the scene for the coming story, providing it with a substantial degree of credibility.  It seemed to me now that the premise of the novel was believable.  I noticed that much of the premise relied on further development of the Cruise missile, whose technology at that time was hi-tech and therefore little known or understood – which was why, presumably, I had introduced the technical note on the next page of the manuscript.

The Technical Note

I retyped the technical note, pleased again that I didn’t have to make any changes to it.


The American Cruise missile was first developed in 1975.  It is fairly light, weighing some 2,000 pounds, and not much bigger than a standard 21-foot torpedo.  It is powered by a simple turbo-fan engine, and it flies at a maximum speed of only 500 miles per hour, which would ordinarily make it easy prey for radar-directed ground-defence missiles or guns.  But what makes the Cruise missile so extraordinary, and therefore so deadly, is its guidance system: a revolutionary development called Tercom (short for Terrain Contour Matching).

Each missile carries in its body a tiny computer which has been fed with the relief maps and data of a pre-set course.  On launching, the missile follows this pre-set course, keeping at pre-selected heights above the ground (normally no higher than 300 feet and no lower than 50 feet).  In this way, the missile manages to hug the natural features – and even buildings – of the terrain over which it passes, thus avoiding detection by enemy radar, becoming lost in a confusion of local ground images.  Any deviation in the missile’s course is corrected in milliseconds by electronic impulses sent out by its computer.

At present, the Cruise missile has a maximum range of 2,300 miles.  Because of the inbuilt Tercom system, it can achieve an accuracy of up to 30 feet.  It can be launched from sea and air, as well as land, and it can be fitted with conventional, chemical or nuclear warheads.  It can be mass-produced quite cheaply, and it is all in all a truly fearsome weapon.

(The above note was compiled from information that was available in April 1977.)


The note had been pretty much copied word for word from another newspaper article, which this time had been printed in one of the Sunday broadsheets.  Looking at the date at the foot of the note, I remembered now that the article appeared well after I had begun to revise the manuscript.  It had come like manna from heaven, adding even more credibility to my story.

Click here to continue to Episode 3.