My New Year Writing Resolutions for 2015

Big Ben

“Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” – Neil Gaiman

Well that’s another Christmas wrapped up. Like many people I will now make the usual boring and/or over-ambitious New Year resolutions concerning fitness, flossing, family, finance, etc. And most of those will be broken by about 4th January. Some a bit sooner than that.

On the writing front, however, it’s a good time to focus on what I really want to achieve in the coming year. I have to be honest and say that this time last year I had little idea of what I was going to write in 2014. I had just finished BASIC Boy and published it on Amazon, but none of the various ideas I had for a follow-up ever really came to life. BASIC Boy has sold no better than its predecessor, Falling Girl, which made me question whether I should keep writing in the supernatural YA genre. It’s a very crowded market (mind you, aren’t they all?) and I haven’t been able make any kind of impact in it.

So the first half of 2014 witnessed a sorry litany of false starts and frustrated navel gazing. It wasn’t until the summer that I hit upon the idea of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer and experienced the simultaneous joy and relief of seeing my writing spark into life again. At last I had a real project again, something I was truly enthusiastic about. I realised that writing for a younger age group was what I really wanted to do – for now at least.

Looking forward to 2015 … now of course what I want is for zillions of people to stumble upon Falling Girl and BASIC Boy, belatedly realising that they are in fact solid gold classics and proceeding to buy them by the truckload, thereby earning me enough money to give up the day job and pursue my writing passion full time.

However, back on Planet Earth, some more basic and achievable aims would be far more useful than daydreaming. So this is what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. Complete Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’ve recently finished the third draft, but I will do another spit-and-polish job on it. And then …
  2. Finally make a bloomin’ decision on whether to try to get a publisher or agent interested, or carry on along the self-publishing route. My instinct is the latter, but I really need to come up with some kind of coherent marketing plan, because as we all know it’s vanishingly rare for zillions of people to stumble upon your books on Amazon and buy them by the truckload just by chance. And so …
  3. Come up with a coherent marketing plan. I actually do have some ideas here, which might initially involve producing a pre-publication version of DCFS and giving it out free to lots of kids, possibly with the cooperation of my sons’ school. I hope thereby to gain some more useful feedback, and perhaps make further changes to the book as a result. (Note that my definition of ‘complete’ in #1 above is therefore somewhat elastic.)
  4. It also means sorting out the cover and blurb. I do already have a blurb, but not yet a cover.
  5. I also can’t quite get rid of the crazy notion of buying a load of cheap Frisbees and customising them with the DCFS logo (which doesn’t yet exist – there’s another objective) as a marketing giveaway. It’s probably just another of those bad marketing ideas I sometimes come up with, but I might just do it anyway.
  6. More sensibly … DCFS is not meant to be a standalone, so I need to produce a series plan. Initially this will comprise two further books, so three in total, but there could be more in the future.
  7. Outline the second and third books, and complete the first draft of book two by end February. Ideally I’d like the second book finished by the summer and the third book by the end of 2015; so that by this time next year I will have a short series.
  8. More generally, I want to do all I can to become a better writer. It’s an ongoing process. That means – among other things – reading widely and picking up tips and advice from a variety of sources, including some of the many excellent WordPress blogs on writing. And of course it means actually writing, as much and as regularly as I can. I should write some adult fiction as well as the DCFS series, maybe some short stories.
  9. Better networking and sharing with other writers, both online and off. I know a couple of other budding writers in my local area, and we’ve talked about setting up a writers’ group without ever quite getting around to it. Time is a scarce commodity, but maybe 2015 is the year to make it happen.
  10. Stop coming up with long lists of action points that I probably won’t achieve. Especially silly ones about Frisbees.

I hope you have a happy, peaceful, productive and fulfilling 2015.

 

All I want for Christmas

Book Christmas tree

Here’s a seasonal short story. Actually it’s a repeat – I first posted it last December but (1) this blog had far fewer followers then, so I figured more people might read it this time, and (2) to be honest I haven’t had a chance to write a new one, being stupidly busy in that traditional pre-Christmas way.

Anyway, I’ve just finished the third draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer so I’m happy about that. A lot more still to do though, and my thoughts are turning to 2015 and what my priorities are going to be. But in the meantime, I wish you a very happy Christmas.

And here’s the story ….

All I want for Christmas I

knew there was something wrong about Mr Nicholas the moment I saw him. What happened next on that bitter Friday, six days before Christmas, only confirmed it.

I needed the money. Presents to buy. So when I saw the yellowing card hanging limply inside the door of Nicholas Toys – Help Needed – Apply Within – I didn’t think twice. I must have passed that mean, murky little shop a hundred times without really noticing it. Now it seemed to have sprung to some kind of life, its stringy fairy lights twinkling through the driving sleet.

Shivering as I pushed through the door, I somehow expected dust and gloom inside, but instead I was greeted by glaring neon light beating down from the ceiling. A sharp smell prickled the back of my throat – plastic, cheap cinnamon-spiced air freshener, and lurking somewhere beneath a faint acrid stench that reminded me of leaking batteries. And it was so cloyingly hot I was already peeling off my scarf and coat when he shuffled through a half-hidden doorway.

He must have been the oldest person I’d ever seen. Hunched like a question mark, his face so creased his wrinkles cast shadows. But his pale blue eyes focussed on me with keen attention.

‘Er … Mr Nicholas? I’ve come about the job …?’

He smiled thinly. ‘When can you start?’ His voice was a parched, wheezing whisper, like dead leaves in the wind.

Why he needed me I don’t know. The shop was deserted for two hours. Until, just before midday, the customer walked in. She might have been twenty-five or forty years old, it was hard to tell. Her face was blank and candle-white; mottled makeup fringed the purple ghost of a black eye. She scurried around the shop like a hunted mouse. Eventually she appeared again at the counter and spoke in my general direction.

‘Have you got the any Dizzy Dolls?’ she intoned in a defeated voice. I thought – you’re kidding, right? Dizzy Dolls were this year’s must-have toy, a random craze that had emptied shelves and warehouses across the country. Of course, in that perverse sheep-like mentality of human nature, its very scarcity had only sharpened the population’s desire. If there had ever been any in this shop, they’d have been put right in the window, the price marked up and gone within hours. If not minutes.

But I just smiled. ‘I’m afraid not, madam. Have you tried online …?’

She snorted. OK, I thought, dumb question.

I flinched as Mr Nicholas suddenly spoke from right beside me. ‘Can I help you madam?’

‘I need a Dizzy Doll,’ she whined. ‘My eldest doesn’t want anything else. I just have to get one.’

‘Then it’s your lucky day madam!’ The proprietor grunted as he reached behind the counter and hauled up a lurid, oversized pink-and-purple monstrosity of a box. And to my amazement, poking out through the top was the perfectly-groomed peroxide head of a Dizzy Doll, regarding me balefully with its plastic stare.

The woman gasped. ‘Oh … oh awesome!’ Then she glanced warily at me. ‘Is it genuine?’

It’s not the freaking Mona Lisa, I nearly said. But Mr Nicholas got in first. ‘Of course, madam. But it’s the last one left, mind. I don’t need to tell you …’

‘Oh …’ She looked slyly away. ‘You know, I’ve seen them on special offer on ebay. Half price …’

It was a ridiculous lie. But Mr Nicholas’ smile widened. ‘I understand, madam. We’ll match that price. But there is something else …’ While I wondered if he’d lost his mind, he produced a pen and a sheet of paper with some writing I couldn’t read. ‘The total cost is on this contract, madam. Just your signature required. And then it’s yours.’

‘Oh really?’ The woman wrinkled her nose and took the paper. She studied it; then looked up sharply. ‘Is this supposed to be funny?’

The old man actually grinned, baring yellowish but surprisingly straight teeth. ‘No joke madam. Just sign and this Dizzy Doll is yours. Imagine your little girl’s face on Christmas morning!’ But as he leant on the counter with affected nonchalance, he was betrayed by his wide, ravenous eyes. A born salesman after all, then. But what was on that contract? Maybe it was double the normal price, or even more?

The woman eyed him. Then looked back at the door and made a slight motion to leave. But when she turned back, her face was like the old man’s, shining with a bright and nauseous lust. She shrugged and signed the paper on the counter. ‘You’re crazy,’ she muttered, before grabbing the box and half-jogging from the shop.

When I turned back to Mr Nicholas, he was bowed down as if exhausted – but I saw on his shadowed face a deep, dreamy smile. As if he’d just made the sale of the year.

‘What was the price?’ I asked.

He looked up slowly. ‘High,’ he said, and gave a dry chuckle. ‘And what about you, Peter?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What do you want? More than anything else?’

I tried to laugh. ‘I don’t have any kids. And I’m not really into toys myself …’

‘I deal in more than toys, Peter. A lot more. Sure, it’s one of my most … profitable areas. But I can get you anything. What do you want, Peter?’

‘Oh I, um …’ A volley of icy rain rattled the window pane and I glanced at the door. ‘Um … look, it’s lunch-time … do you mind if I take my break now …?’

He drew himself up; and for one insane moment I thought he might run across the shop and lock the door. I don’t know why I thought that. But he just nodded. ‘Of course. See you soon, Peter.’

Once outside, revived by the cold air, I tried to find her. I ran. But she’d gone.

I never went back to that shop.

Editing my manuscript: the wrestling phase …

Wrestling

Work continues on draft 3 of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’ve made the more significant changes recommended by the reviewers, and now I’m on to the full read-through, edit and polish. I can’t decide if this is one of my favourite or least favourite parts of the writing process. That might sound odd, so let me explain.

For the most part, I quite enjoy the process of hunting out mistakes, or finding a replacement word or phrase that works better. Or identifying a word, sentence or even paragraph that you suddenly realise isn’t really necessary and that can be cut without detracting at all from the book – in which case it probably enhances it. Or finally managing to resolve a less-than-totally-convincing plot development. Or finding a way of breathing more life into a character. Or shortening or re-ordering sentences to make the read or ‘scan’ more easily (especially since this is a children’s book).

Or realising you’ve started several consecutive sentences with the same word, like ‘or’.

So, often when I step back from an editing session, I can survey the (hopefully) observable improvement with some satisfaction, remembering the wise adage that ‘good writing is re-writing’. (Can’t remember who said that, and I’m not going to check because being too lazy to research is one of my biggest writing weaknesses, along with over-reliance on parentheses.)

On the other hand, editing sometimes seems too much like plain hard work, like wrestling with a giant slab of jelly (if you can imagine such a thing – or even want to, come to that): sticky, messy and faintly absurd. Thinking about it, I wonder if my worst moments come when one of two extremes occur. Either I come across a section of text that I’m so dissatisfied with that I virtually tear it to shreds and start again, all the time pondering gloomily on how on earth I came to write such gibberish in the first place. Or (there I go again) I arrive at the end of a page in which I’ve changed two words, fixed one typo and inserted a semi-colon; and I think, come on, was that really such an unimprovably* near-perfect piece of prose, or have I just missed loads of stuff?

(*Is that spelt correctly? Word doesn’t like it, but I do so I’m keeping it in.)

It’s most satisfying when I find enough things to fix and improve to make the whole exercise seem worthwhile, but not so many that it becomes a real slog and I wonder if I’m actually going backwards rather than forwards. But, this writing lark being what it is, both extremes will happen, along with every point in between, and we have to just do what we find needs doing.

I’m currently just over half-way through this process, and so far it’s gone pretty quickly, but I’m now entering the part of the book where I’d made the most changes following the reviewers’ commendations, so I expect to spot more mistakes, inconsistencies, repetitions and all the other things that will need hammering out. And, viewing things more positively, find those ways to make the good stuff even better.

Anyway … to give a flavour of what I’ve been up to, here is a sample of the edited first page of the book. It’s a screen capture with the ‘track changes’ in Word switched on and comments inserted. Actually these are functions I don’t routinely use, as I suspect the resulting migraine-inducing multi-coloured spaghetti of changes, deletions and insertions might drive me crazy, but I’ve used them here just for illustrative purposes.

This sample doesn’t show particularly extensive changes, but does demonstrate many of the things I tend to do during this stage of the editing. I’m probably going to review the first few pages at least twice more, the start of a book being especially important. If you have any thoughts at all, therefore, I’d be very pleased to hear them.