First draft blues

waste paper

The trouble with dishing out advice is that you kind of feel you should practice what you preach. If you’ve visited this blog before you may have read my exhortation to ‘whack out’ the first draft of a book. It won’t be great, in fact it will probably be a mess, but you’ve got to start somewhere and that first draft just has to get written.

Well I still believe that, but I’m currently about halfway (I think) through the first draft of the sequel to Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’m planning a three-book (initially) series, and I’ve started work on the second book even though the first isn’t yet finished. (The first book has gone through four drafts, but I’m now getting more feedback and going for a fifth, figuring that the book can only get better as a result, I hope.)

And it’s been a bit of a struggle. I love writing but at times it’s a bit more love–hate. I find the first draft the toughest one. Sure, re-drafting and editing is hard work too, but it’s somehow easier for me when there’s something to work with already there, even if some of the changes are pretty extensive and often involve adding whole new chunks as well as excising others.

Perhaps that’s the point: the first draft is the rawest, purest act of creation, of creating something from nothing; and that process of wresting words, sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, plots, characters, from brain to screen can seem painfully difficult at times. It always seems to demand more of me than any other part of the writing process.

It also takes persistence, especially when you can clearly see the flaws in what you’re producing. Because although I know the first draft is inevitably going to fall short, that knowledge makes it harder to plough on. At least in the re-drafting/editing I can see how the book is improving, and it’s immensely satisfying to see that happening. But when I’ve spent an hour hammering down a chunk of prose for the first time, and then look back and realise it’s a bit ‘meh’, that can be more than a little de-motivating.

This can lead me to break my own rules about splurging it all out and worrying about quality in the second draft. I do find myself back-tracking a bit at times and making some minor alterations, as well as fixing some of the more annoying typos. (If I type ‘starts’ instead of ‘stars’, or ‘this’ instead of ‘his’, many more times I swear I may cut my hands off.) But then rules should sometimes be broken. I don’t see the point in writing total garbage. (Partial garbage, sure.) My first drafts are always going to be somewhat dodgy, because I know if I tried to fix everything at once I’d never get anywhere, but I need to see something good in what I’m producing.

What makes it even worse for me is that the Danny Chaucer books, being children’s / middle-grade level, aren’t very long. The first book is around 30,000 words, and for the second I’m aiming for about the same. How long can it take to write a 30,000-word book? I’ve written longer (BASIC Boy is twice that length), and adult novels are typically much longer. I really admire anyone who writes a decent 80–100,000 word novel. That takes some effort.

But I’m forging ahead, slowly but surely – though slower than I’d like and not entirely sure of myself. Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t keep going with something I completely hate. I’ve chosen to write, and I’ve chosen to write this book at this time, so I shouldn’t keep belly-aching about it. No-one’s holding a gun to my head. Actually that would be pretty motivating, but in its absence I keep reminding myself of a few things when it comes to first drafts, to help me keep going:

  1. It’s just got to be done. I bet a lot of would-be writers fall at this first hurdle, and that’s a shame.
  2. All writers’ first drafts are dodgy, even the really famous and successful ones. It’s part of the process.
  3. If you can already see some of the faults, then that’s great. You can’t fix them if you can’t see them. (And if you can’t see them, don’t worry, you will – or otherwise someone else will show you if you ask.)
  4. Find you own method and pace. You might be a ‘slap down the words as quickly as possible and fix the problems later’ type; or need to spend more time to get more right first time. Both are fine if they work for you. And your approach might evolve over time, or vary between projects. Just don’t get too bogged down – get it finished.
  5. Finally, remember that you’ve got plenty of time, and subsequent drafts, to improve the work, And there will be plenty of good to improve, not just faults to rectify. The first draft is the necessary – if often difficult – first step along the road to a book you can be proud of.

So with the above in mind, I should probably stop writing this and go back to writing DCFS2.

Help! My book’s getting bigger …

heavy book

The third daft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer is proceeding – well, I want to say at light speed but that would be exaggerating somewhat. Let’s just say it’s proceeding. As a result I’ve been posting here less frequently – the old story of more writing equals less blogging.

Anyway I’ve fixed the main issues that were highlighted in the recent critiques / beta-reads. I say fixed. I’ve done something about them, but further time and review will hopefully establish how successful I’ve been. In particular I’ve cut down on the over-expository dialogue and ensured that the principal villain doesn’t just mysteriously disappear from the action two-thirds of the way through the action. And, speaking of action, there was the small matter of making sure there actually is some in the last third.

Having done the above, I’m now going to read through the whole thing again, start to finish, and probably make more (hopefully more minor) changes as a result. Less radical surgery and more of a spit-and-polish. (That’s the idea anyway.) (Probably including the removal of excessive parentheses, which as you can see I’m rather prone to.)

However, one slightly surprising thing has already become apparent: the book’s got longer. You know the general rule that, as you redraft and edit a manuscript, it inevitably gets shorter as the flab is removed? The unnecessary scene, the superfluous character, those pesky adjectives and adverbs clogging up your silken prose? You might even say that ever-reducing word count is proof positive that your manuscript is heading in the right direction, i.e. soaring up to fiction heaven rather than being dragged down to the other place by its own ponderous weight.

Well in that case Danny’s flying saucer is dropping like a stone towards the underworld. Because whereas draft 2 weighed in at just under 27,000 words, draft 3 has so far rocketed to near 30,000. In other words, about a 10% increase. So what the flipping heck is going on? Have I gone start raving bonkers and forgotten how to edit? Do I entertain the delusion that my prose is so completely dazzling it cannot be touched?

I think the reason lies in the nature of the problems that draft 2 had. As I’ve mentioned, one of its major faults – probably it’s most fundamental one – was the premature exit of the villainous Captain Frost. The result of which was a distinct shortage of plot in the supposed-to-be-climatic section of the book.

So Danny and his friend Natalie voyaged into space and saw lots of amazing things. Lots of numbers and stats were thrown around to illustrate the vastness of the cosmos. But beyond that not much, like, happened. I mean, flying into outer space is quite an exciting event in itself (have you ever done it? Me neither), but in my book it became too much of a science lesson and less of a story. I needed to keep the wonder but add at least a dash of action to the mix as well.

Therefore, the obvious solution: Captain Frost joins the voyage. Which means more dialogue, extra happenings, a bit more back story. I also have to explain how, having seen and experienced the flying saucer, the bad Captain is not ultimately able to carry forward her dastardly plans for it. Hence I have to solve a problem that I’d previously sought to avoid entirely by cutting her out before she’d ever even seen the saucer – which was a cop-out, I now confess, on a galactic scale.

Of course, as I go through the next read-through, I probably will find the odd thing that needs re-writing, simplifying or cutting out. As a result, I believe draft 3 will end up a little bit shorter than it is now. But it will almost certainly still be longer than draft 2.

I also like to think that, DCFS being my third book, I’ve learnt to write more economically than I used to. The first draft of my first book, Falling Girl, was a lot flabbier, cursed with unnecessary exposition and surplus characters. These are things I was looking to avoid in DCFS right from the start of the first draft. I made a conscious effort not to write too much. So, compared to my earlier books, there was less to cut out. Of course I made other mistakes to make up for it …

Which all goes to show that, as with all writing ‘rules’, the ‘edit makes shorter’ dictum does not always apply. It depends what kind of changes are being made, and it all comes down to doing – after careful consideration and listening to good advice – what needs to be done for that particular book, even if looks like a particular ‘rule’ needs to be broken (or at least slightly bent). (And there I go with the parentheses again …)

 

Why I designed my own book covers – and still wonder if I’ve done the right thing …

messy paint

Do you design your covers, or pay for someone else to do it? The advice available on this (as with most things) varies a lot. Some will say you should always use a professional designer; you won’t do a good enough job yourself, and you’ll just end up with the dreaded ‘self-published look’.

I have some sympathy with that view. You could say it’s slightly delusional and even kind of demeaning to designers, to believe that I can knock out a cover as good as an actual, real designer could produce. After all, graphic design and typography are real skills, just like writing – and, like writing, experience and practice makes you better. Someone who’s designed dozens of covers is bound to be better at it than me, aren’t they?

And I think most of us can agree on one thing: the cover is important. Along with the blurb, it’s one of the few things that potential buyers see before they buy (or not). So why compromise?

Well, the main reason is obvious: cost. It’s tempting to save the money by doing it yourself. It’s possible to spend hundreds of dollars or pounds on a cover; some top designers may charge even more. However, you can also spend a lot less, for example by using Fiverr to source a low-cost design. I’ve yet to try this myself, but I’ve heard good things. Then again, I wonder if there’s an element of ‘you get what you pay for’.

My own feeling is that producing your own cover is a bit like doing home improvement or DIY. I’m not a professional architect, builder, electrician or plumber, and there’s a lot of what they can do that I wouldn’t even attempt. But there are things I can do with minimal risk of disaster or death. I can wire a plug, fill small cracks, sand and paint, all in relative safety and producing acceptably good results. I learnt to do those things, followed some simple rules, and have done them enough to attain a reasonable level of competence. I know my limitations, and provided I stay within them then I’m probably OK.

With both Falling Girl and BASIC Boy, I had good ideas of what I wanted the covers to look like. Furthermore my ideas were quite simple, not requiring expensive professional graphics software or a high level of design expertise. They were concepts that I was reasonably sure I could execute to an acceptable standard, and so was comfortable having a go. Now, I’m fairly happy with the results. I don’t think they scream ‘look at me, I’m so self-published!’ (or maybe they do? If I’m deluding myself, I hope someone will put me right. The covers are below.)

Anyway … from the research I’ve done, I would say it might be worth having a stab at your own cover if one or more of the following apply to you:

  • You really can’t afford to pay even a low-end design price.
  • You have a very good idea what you want to do – and it’s not too ambitious.
  • You are aware of, and stick to, basic layout and typography good practice. If you don’t know what they are, there are a lot of resources and advice (much of it for free) available online. See for example my references below.

I won’t go too much into ‘good design practice guidelines here’ – but, I will share just a few that I’ve used as guidance for my designs of my two covers:

  1. Try to use a simple, striking image, rather than over-complex, over-busy design.
  2. If you use your own image, ensure it’s good quality; if you use a downloaded stock image or photo, make sure it’s not an over-used one.
  3. Use contrasting covers.
  4. Use an asymmetrical design.
  5. Don’t use a common text font like Times or Arial – rather, use a less common, display font (many of which can be downloaded for free) (Comic Sans? Don’t even think about it … unless your book’s an ironic meditation on the evils of Comic Sans – and even then I’d think twice.)
  6. Space the text out, rather than squash it up, for an easier-to-read and more professional look. (Sorry about the technical typographic jargon … you can just tell I’m an expert!)
  7. Your overall design must reflect the book’s genre / subject well – and as the market is today, not twenty or thirty years ago.

No doubt there are many other ‘rules’ too – and some are in the books listed at the bottom of this post – but the above seemed the most important to me.

Points 1 to 4 are about making your cover stand out – bearing in mind it must catch the eye even at thumbnail size (as it will appear on an Amazon search results screen for example).

Points 5 and 6 are about the typography looking professional and easy-to-read.

Point 7 involves having a good working knowledge of the genre and market. What do the covers of other, similar books look like? You want yours to stand out – but not look so different that the casual browser won’t recognise the kind of book it is.

With my two covers, I tried to follow the above guidelines – but a couple of weeks ago I decided to refresh the designs. In particular I noticed that they weren’t very good on point 6, i.e. the text was a little ‘squashed’. So I opened it up a little for Falling Girl:

Before:

fg-cover-24mar14

After:

FG cover Oct14

It’s subtle I grant you, but a little better I hope.

I did the same for BASIC Boy – but, more noticeably, also blew up the ‘demented ghostly space invader’, making it more ‘in yer face’:

Before:

bb-cover-april-14

After:

BB cover Oct 14

But, for goodness sake, if you think that (1) either cover sucks or (2) the ‘before’ is better than the ‘after’ in either case, please tell me. I’m a self-published author: I can take criticism, in fact I expect it. (On the other hand, if you like the covers, that would be nice to know too.)

For my current project, Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, however, I’ve yet to find much inspiration re the cover – and the one vague idea I have had so far I’m not sure I’d be able to execute very well. So that may well lead to my first foray into Fiverr. Mind you, I’m not even yet sure whether I’m going to self-publish or to propel myself into the gruelling agent/publisher-query marathon. If the latter, it’s probably not worth spending time or money on a cover at this stage.

Do you design your own covers? How do you think you did? Any experience of using designers, on Fiverr or elsewhere? Comments welcome as ever.

Footnotes

In Make A Killing On Kindle. Michael Alvear is very much of the ‘you must get a professional cover design’ school of thought. He has no time for do-it-yourself – he thinks your efforts will inevitably suck. I don’t necessarily agree, but looking at some of the covers of self-published titles on Amazon, I can see where he’s coming from.

On the other hand, both Derek Murphy in Book Marketing is Dead and Rayne Hall in Why Does My Book Not Sell? allow for the possibility of decent self-produced covers and give some useful design tips.

 

BASIC Boy and Falling Girl: free this weekend – with new covers

BB cover Oct 14       FG cover Oct14

Last night I got a call from the New York Times. ‘Christopher!’ barked the stressed journalist. ‘Your books are selling so fast, they’re breaking all records! Seriously, we’re thinking of taking them off the best-seller list, just to give everyone else a chance! For crying out loud, stop writing such excessively successful books!!!’

Partly because the above isn’t true, but mostly because I’m an incredibly kind and good-hearted human being – and also, both are ghost stories and it’s nearly Halloween – the Kindle editions of my two novels BASIC Boy and Falling Girl are free on Amazon this weekend, starting tomorrow (Friday 24th October) up to and including Sunday (26th October). Links to US and UK Amazon are at the bottom of this post.

(If you’re reading this after 26th October, don’t despair because (1) Falling Girl is always free on this website anyway, in PDF form, and (2) both books are very reasonably priced. And also available in slightly less reasonably priced paperback form.)

And … after reading some advice on cover design, I’ve slightly revised the cover of both books. I’ve also been giving some thought to the ‘do-it-yourself versus pay someone else’ conundrum. But that’s the subject of a future post.

Amazon links for BASIC Boy:

US: http://www.amazon.com/BASIC-Boy-Digital-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B00FLNLUYG/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1387582153

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/BASIC-Boy-Digital-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B00FLNLUYG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384117495&sr=8-1&keywords=basic+boy

Amazon links for Falling Girl:

US: http://www.amazon.com/Falling-Girl-Ghost-Christopher-Peter-ebook/dp/B0095862M8/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1387582752&sr=1-3&keywords=falling+girl

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Falling-Girl-A-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B0095862M8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384117617&sr=8-1&keywords=falling+girl

Reading: speed or slow?

slowreading1251

Have you heard of the slow reading movement? I hadn’t until I came across this article recently. It was in the Wall Street Journal and you need to subscribe or log in to read the whole thing, but here’s a quote:

Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn’t make it through a book anymore.

“I wasn’t reading fiction the way I used to,” said Meg Williams , a 31-year-old marketing manager for an annual arts festival who started the slow reading club. “I was really sad I’d lost the thing I used to really, really enjoy.”

Apparently there are ‘slow reading clubs’ popping up all over the place quite, er, quickly. And there’s something pleasingly counter-cultural about the whole thing. In these days of reduced attention spans, changing reading habits on electronic devices, blizzards of tweets and sound bites, not to mention the ever-increasing time pressure more and more people find themselves under, the idea of immersing yourself in a good book in quiet companionship with like-minded souls is more than a little appealing. Isn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable, after all? Are we sometimes putting too much pressure on ourselves to read too much, too quickly? So that something that’s supposed to reduce our stress levels actually starts to have the opposite effect?

Funnily enough, a few months back I started on a book about speed-reading – which (just to demonstrate how fickle I can be) also struck me as a thoroughly good idea. After all, writing swallows up huge chunks of time, but us writers are also meant to keep reading too – and since writers generally love books that’s no great hardship, except that too takes yet more time. So the promise of doubling or tripling my reading speed, of being able to devour book after book and still have precious writing (and oh yeah, day job, relationships, food, sleep, etc.) time to spare, is an alluring concept.

However, I never finished the speed reading book (I struggled to find the time – yeah, I know: irony overload) and now I seem to have mislaid it. Ho hum.

So should I be reading fast or slow? I guess it depends on what I’m reading. If it’s non-fiction – if it’s for basically cramming facts into my brain as quickly as possible – then a way of doing that more quickly seems to make a ton of sense. But fiction? That’s more for pleasure. And if I’m reading something really good, lovingly crafted, I’d like to linger over it a bit more. Only if I’m reading something I’m not really enjoying – but still want or need to finish for some reason – would I want to speed up too much.

Bottom line, then, is it depends. I guess I don’t want to worry too much about how slow or quick I’m reading. I’m reluctant to put pressure on myself either way. I need to dig up that speed reading book, finish it and see if it equips me with something useful. But I hope it’s something I’ll be able to switch on or off as the occasion demands. I’d really hate it to rob me of the ability to linger over a good book.

Because when I’m reading a good story, I’m going to try not to dash on to the next page or the end of the chapter too fast. Fiction is made to be enjoyed and appreciated. Who knows, I may even join one of those slow reading clubs one day … but I’m in no hurry.

 

Improving my book: manuscript critique vs beta readers

eye-magnifying-glass-book

I wrote last week that I’d finished the second draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, and that my next priority to get some outside input – people who can help me clarify what’s good about it (hopefully something), what could be improved … and what stinks. For me, this step is absolutely critical.

For one thing, I’m reading the book aloud to my two sons. The other thing I’m doing is getting another adult to review the manuscript. I know of two common ways to accomplish this. First, find someone (or more than one person) to be a beta reader. Or, second, to pay for a manuscript critique. I’ve chosen the second option. Why?

Well, there are several reasons:

  1. By choosing an established, reputable literary consultancy (I’m using The Writer’s Workshop) you know you’re getting someone who knows that they’re doing, an experienced editor and/or author who’s been there, done that. WW use a pool of published authors, from which they select the most suitable to review your manuscript.
  2. I’ve used WW before and I’ve always been impressed with the results. You get a pretty detailed report (typically about 8-10 pages) which identifies problem areas, along with suggestions for improvement. There’s always some very perceptive stuff in there. There is usually also some encouraging feedback about those things that do seem to be working.
  3. The report can also give advice on where to go next with the book, post-revisions. My first two books are self-published, and I totally buy in to the ideals of indy publishing. But it’s unavoidably true that most books sell very few copies – and most of the biggest success stories there have tended to be in certain genres. DCFS is a children’s book, and I believe that’s an especially difficult market to succeed in with self-publishing. (If anyone has any views or experience about that, I’d be very interested to hear it.)

I have no doubt whatsoever that Falling Girl and BASIC Boy were much the better for having been critiqued in this way, and for me then implementing the majority of the reports’ recommendations.

Just to clarify one point, however: the critique is not a line-by-line edit, nor a proofread. The WW report is an assessment of the books a whole, including the plot, characterisation, dialogue and general writing quality. If you need a copy-edit or a proofread, that’s a separate thing – and, in my view, a second draft is much too early for that. There’s no point in proofreading something that’s bound to be at least partially, if not extensively re-written.

The most obvious drawback of the critique is the cost, which is dependent on the length of the manuscript. Fortunately DCFS, being a children’s book, is relatively short – the second draft is just under 27,000 words. For that, the WW critique cost just under £300 (i.e. around $500).

For some, of course, spending that might not be an option. You might also take the approach that, if you view self-publishing as a business, how likely are you to earn back the money? Well, if my first two books are anything to go by … probably not.

But then, I don’t view my writing as a business. I’d love it to be, but so far at least I haven’t had the sales to make that a reality. Instead, I see it more as my hobby. Some people have fairly expensive hobbies. They might renovate old cars, play golf or tennis or join a gym; I do less expensive things like running and cycling, and spend the money on improving my writing instead. That way I can justify spending money on things like this.

Of course, I don’t want to waste money, and apart from the critique my costs are minimal. I publish on Amazon, doing layout and design myself. I also do my own proofreading (wisely or not, I’m not completely sure). So manuscript critiques, so far at least, have been my only major expense. I see improving my writing as the area where paying for outside help adds the most value.

Asking for beta readers to review the book would, of course, avoid this expense. But I haven’t gone down that route, at least not this time, for three reasons:

  1. Finding the right beta reader might not be quick or straightforward. Anyone’s opinions are valuable – but some probably more so than others for this purpose. I’d want an experienced editor who knows a lot about about writing for children. In reality, it’s hard to avoid having to pay for that kind of expertise, along with the time and effort involved.
  2. Time. People are busy, writers certainly not excepted. It might take a beta reader some considerable time to get round to doing their review.
  3. If you don’t pay money, there’s bound to be a reciprocal element – i.e. someone reviews your manuscript, and you review theirs. That’s fine, and in many ways I’d like to be able to do that. But at the moment, I’d find it very hard to find the time.

If you can live with and/or mitigate the above drawbacks, then I can see that beta readers would be a good option. Especially if you already have one or two that you know and trust. But for now, for me, for this particular project, the paid critique seemed the better way to go.

Now the question is – will I be brave enough to reveal the feedback (warts and all) on this blog? Of course I will! [crosses fingers …]

 

Draft 2, here we go …

Flying saucer

Last time I wrote about my new project, a children’s book provisionally titled Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. The 27,000ish word first draft was finished a few weeks ago. I churned it out pretty quickly – as I’ve mentioned before I’m a bit of a first draft bodger. I had a rough plan but to be honest a lot of it took shape as the words hit the screen.

After that was finished I deliberately left it a couple of weeks. Then I held my nose and started to review what I’d written. This is a tricky time, because that first draft is – how should I put it politely? – a mixed bag. Or a pile of steaming horse manure, if you’re less generous. Bursting with typos naturally, but there will also be problems with plot and pacing, uneven and underdeveloped characterisation, poor sentence construction, too many adverbs, and more than the odd cliché. (Probably also too many parentheses – I’m a terror for that.)

The purpose of the first draft review is to find all those nasty little (and big) issues, to painstakingly (and painfully) document them. And to resist making any changes at all while I’m doing it. It hurts, let me tell you. But it’s a necessary step before I try to rush in and fix everything.

I keep positive in two ways. First: along with the wrinkles, hopefully I will also see a lot that’s good, or potentially good, in the first draft. Things that will be kept, or can be improved and enhanced, as well as things that need to fundamentally changed or cut out altogether. I should glimpse that good book that’s fighting to get out – and my first draft review will be the first step towards its freedom. Second: having written two books before, I know from experience that this really works, that the book will get better as I review and redraft. Something much better will emerge at the other end. Losing the dross is just part of that process. It can’t be avoided.

If you’re interested, here is my completed first draft review of DCFS. I don’t expect anyone to read all of this – indeed, much of it won’t mean anything if you haven’t read the book yourself. But anyway there are three sections:

  • A chapter-by-chapter plot synopsis
  • A list of characters and their main traits
  • Notes on what I think is good, bad and indifferent, along with ideas for improvement – generally, and chapter by chapter.

What this shows is that there’s a lot of work ahead in the second draft. The good thing is that I think the basic structure and plot is fundamentally OK. That’s a relief, because that’s often the hardest thing to fix without virtually a complete re-write. There’s lots to put right though. And one of my main conclusions is that I think there are too many characters (a common problem in my first drafts as it happens) and I could lose one of them. And swap the genders of two more! Well sometime you need to be radical …

Now I feel ready to dive into the second draft proper. I aim to take about 2-3 weeks for that.

And then? That’s when I feel ready to show it to someone else. Someone who will give that vital, fresh perspective and tell me what’s really wrong with it – everything I’ve missed. All good fun!

Wish me luck …