You Will Always Be Creative

WRITERS' RUMPUS

This post really resonates with me this month, so I’m sharing it again.

Recently, an old friend wrote to say that he feared his days as a writer were nearly done. It wasn’t only that for the first time in many years he was not participating in NaNoWriMo. Reflecting over the year that was ending, he realized that “Other than a few short stories, this has been a year without writing.” He’d done some blogging, plus editing and compiling of past work, but compared with previous years, this one was unproductive. He wrote, “I know for most writers there’s a point when you shut down and you stop writing. I have so much more I want to accomplish. I wonder if the shutdown is in progress, and how much time I have.”

I realized that others might want–or need–to read my response to his fears. So here it is…

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Commonly Confused Commas

WRITERS' RUMPUS

Writers of all ages struggle with proper comma usage. As a writer myself, I agree that plot, characters, and word choice are infinitely more important than grammar. But if those elements form the layers of a cake, grammar forms the frosting.

unnamed-5Consider for a moment that your manuscript has all those qualities and more, but commas are placed without rhyme or reason. Will publishers be inclined to interpret and decode your submission? If your work is especially compelling, perhaps. But in most cases, no. So crack your knuckles and roll up your sleeves. Let’s review ten useful comma rules using examples from some of my favorite books.

RULE #1:

Coordinating conjunctions are the FANBOYS of grammar: FOR, AND, NOR, BUT, OR, YET, and SO. When they connect two complete sentences (independent clauses) into a single sentence, insert a comma before the FANBOYS.

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From Holes, by Louis Sachar (p.95): It had been three days since the laundry was…

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Danny Chaucer and the author who’s a glutton for punishment

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Last week I announced the third and latest instalment of the Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer series – Mars Mission – now published as a Kindle edition.

Every published (whether self or traditionally) writer will surely be familiar with the heady mix of trepidation, exhilaration and relief that accompanies the release of their precious baby into the big bad world. It’s the culmination of so much hard work, occasional (or frequent?) bouts of frustration and self-doubt – but hopefully also of some enjoyment.

Why do we do it? It can’t be for the money! Like many others I do hold out the hope that one distant sunlit day I might make enough from my books to be able to write full-time, but I also recognize the odds stacked against me in the regard. Simply put, I love writing and I always will. For me to a large degree it remains its own reward.

Mars Mission is my fifth novel (it gives me a buzz just to reflect on that – who’d have thought it?) and in some ways the business of writing has become perhaps a little easier; or at least I’m more confident of the process and the fact that (lazy as I am) I do after all have the motivation and the ability to finish the job. But that’s not to say, of course, that I find it exactly easy. It’s still proper hard work and it takes time and a certain psychological resilience and persistence (or just sheer bloody mindedness) to be able to keep chipping away at my lumpen prose and finally, slowly, transform it into something fit for publication (I hope).

To that end I need help. Writing is such a solitary pursuit most of the time, but I’ve found it vital to get my manuscripts reviewed by someone else. Some use beta readers, but I always pay for a critique from an established author / editor with experience in my genre (in this case, middle grade children’s fiction). The results of this are always fascinating and hugely valuable. Now I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’d love it if, just once, one day, once of those critiques simply turned out to be: “It’s perfect! It’s brilliant! You’re a genius! The world will buy this book by the truck-load!” But that’s not reality – it wouldn’t be true or helpful.

With Mars Mission, for instance, the critique uncovered one of the book’s central problems, related to the fact that it was the third title in the Danny Chaucer series. This is the first series I’ve attempted, and I’ve realised there are some particular issues and pitfalls to be aware of, as well as opportunities. In some ways things become a little more straightforward in a series: you get to know your characters better, you have a ready-made background and template to work from. It’s interesting to have the opportunity to explore themes and characters in more details and move forward a more detailed story arc, to flesh out a whole new world.

However, one particular issue I had was how much about what happened in the two previous books to include in Mars Mission. I’ve always been mindful of the dangers of the dreaded Info Dump: great slabs of excessive background information weighing down the hapless reader, breaking up the narrative and slowing the pace. There are ways of feeding it in more gradually of course, but how, when and how much? The problem with a series is, you don’t know how many readers will have previously read the earlier books, or how long ago. They might come into a series at any point.

(Also, I don’t want new readers to believe they know the earlier books so well they don’t feel they want or need to go back and read them too!)

I have to admit that with Mars Mission I erred on the side of caution and tended to include too little (beyond a very short prologue) about the earlier books. But worse, it wasn’t just what had happened before that I over-skimped on, but also the characters themselves. The reviewer pointed out that I hardly bothered to describe them, or give away enough about their backgrounds, history or even appearance, and so in general (and with one of them especially) they were sketched rather too thinly. I think that, without really meaning to, I simply expected the reader to be as familiar with the characters as I was. That was a fundamental error and I felt pretty bad about it. As a fiction writer, it’s vitally important that your characters are well drawn, believable and relatable. To present anaemic cardboard cut-outs to the reader is one of the worst sins you can commit, in my opinion.

Furthermore, in a series the characters must be allowed to move on, to change and develop. It would be pretty strange if they didn’t. The three Danny Chaucer stories so far have taken place within a very short time period – over just a few weeks – so no-one has aged very much! Even so, their adventures and their interactions together are bound to have some effect on them. One character in particular does move on quite significantly in a very short space of time, but I needed to show some development in all of them.

Phew! Well I worked very hard on the next draft to put all that right. I made sure I assumed nothing about how well the reader would know the characters: they were each introduced fully, and more key memories of their earlier adventures were woven into the narrative. In so doing I strove to maintain the right balance, to avoid too much ‘info dump’ or dragging down the plot of the current story. I hope I succeeded.

Incidentally, as well as manuscript critiques (which I’ve always strongly believed in), with the Danny Chaucer books I’ve also used a professional cover designer, and had the last two professionally proofread too. Covers are just so important … and I was getting fed up with spotting so many typos after publication (you can’t beat a fresh pair of eyes – one or two errors always seem to slip through anyway, but far fewer than before).

Anyway, I could write for much longer about this, but enough for now. I’m aware of how little I’ve blogged during the past year or so, and that’s because I made a conscious decision to focus my limited time on Mars Mission and other writing projects (including the odd short story). Of course blogging is also writing and I do enjoy it, but I had to prioritise and blogging came second.

As for what happens next … well I’m going to be working more on marketing Mars Mission and the rest of the Danny Chaucer series – I don’t think any author who wants to sell any books can afford to neglect that. I’ll be trying a few things and I’ll let you know if I make any breakthroughs or have anything profound to share! Well, it’s possible …

 

Mars Mission: Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer 3

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Kindle edition published on Amazon 14th December

‘No-one really likes their kids being dragged off to alien worlds by mega-intelligent super-computers in galactically advanced flying saucers. Especially if they’re late home for tea.’

Danny Chaucer leaves his house one morning expecting a nice normal day out with his friends Nat and Sandy, not to mention BOB the hyper-intelligent but annoyingly smug cockney computer. (If you can call a trip on a flying saucer a normal day out, that is.)

But things quickly take a turn for the worse. For a start, why is creepy Captain Frost plotting with oily bully Chad Wilson? Of course Frosty-knickers is still after the saucer – but what exactly is her plan? And is Sandy up to something as well?

Then before long DISC’s crew are racing across the solar system on a stupidly dangerous mission. What with killer radiation, poisonous air, a monster dust-storm, a slightly depressed Martian rover and an unexpectedly troublesome hologram, it soon becomes clear that being late home for tea could be the least of Danny’s problems …

The third book in the Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer series is available now as a Kindle edition from Amazon (links: UK / US) and coming soon (January 2017) in paperback/ hardback.

9 Things That Cost Your Book 5 Stars – Guest Blog Post By An Amazon Top Reviewer

Useful advice here, a lot of which boils down to the usual importance of editing and proofreading (but no less worth repeating for that) along with some good points about characters and characterisation.

The editor who critiqued my first novel, Falling Girl, urged me to drop a couple of the ‘spare’ characters, and although that seemed drastic at the time it was definitely the right thing to do. Now I always look critically at all my characters, asking questions like: what are they doing in this book? What’s interesting or distinctive about them, and how does that come out in different parts of the story? (Remembering to ‘show’ more and ‘tell’ less wherever possible.) And are they even needed? If I like them that much, I can try to find a home for them in another story …

Dan Alatorre - AUTHOR

head shot your humble host

Meerkat agreed to do a follow up post about stuff we writer types can do to avoid getting a less than stellar review from a reviewer.

Here are some of the top pet peeves. (Emphasis added by me)

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There are lots of reasons why I love a book and I usually see something great in all books even if they’re not my favourite genres, but there are definite reasons why I don’t like a book and if these crop up, it feels as if the book still needs editing – and it’s hard for me to give it 5 stars.

1 – Spelling errors, grammar errors, typos, etc.

I know these are perhaps the least important for some people to check and I don’t mind the very odd typo (I’m guilty of them myself) but if every page of a book has typos and…

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Revision: Making a Mess Less Complicated

Useful advice here. My own approach is to kind of mix things up a bit more than this, but all these elements do need attention and it can be helpful to break down the process in this or a similar way. The important things is to find an approach that works best for you, and that may vary from book to book (it has for me at least).

A Writer's Path

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by S.E. Jones

There’s a lot you can fix in a first draft. It’s why they’re first drafts. You can focus on character, world building, plot, inner cohesion, the writing, the flow, the pacing–the list goes on and on.

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How to Handle Writer Jealousy

Good, helpful post. I have to admit to feeling jealous at times. Not so much of more successful and talented writers than myself, mind you. For example, I’m envious of Frances Hardinge for winning the Costa Prize for The Lie Tree last year – but having read the book, I also have to admit she’s a seriously good writer, the kind of author in fact that I need to read more of to help improve my own craft, and the book fully deserves the accolades and attendant sales it has earnt.

No, I’m more jealous of the ‘celebrity’ authors, those people famous for something completely different but who decided to write a book (often a children’s book) for the hell of it, and of course land a publishing contract right away simply because of who they are, not because – OK I’ll stop there because I could rant a lot longer but I won’t. Suffice to say – what can I learn from this type of ‘celebrity’ author?

The chances are they aren’t any more talented at writing than I am, and most often probably less so. (I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant, but we all know how much time and effort it takes to become a better writer, and most of these celebrities simply haven’t put in that hard graft – they don’t need to.) My conclusion is that I simply have to try to ignore them. They are a fact of the publishing world and probably always will be., and it doesn’t affect my own chances or goals in the slightest – unless I let it by allowing it to discourage me.

It also depends how I measure ‘success’. Is it sales and money, or is it the pleasure and satisfaction that comes from writing and doing the best you can?

A Writer's Path

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by Kate M. Colby

We’ve all been there.

Your classmate’s story is praised in workshop, while yours is torn apart.

“Poorly written” romances dominate best-seller lists, while your science fiction novel languishes in Amazon’s 2,000,000 ranking spot.

The author you follow on Instagram posts their third cover reveal this year, while you struggle to finish your manuscript.

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