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.

Moon Zoom: Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer #2

Moon Zoom cover Amazon 1dec15

The saucer’s back – and it’s about to whisk Danny and Natalie off on another awesome adventure!

BOB – the super-computer with a personality as big as its brain – needs more Moon Zoom, the mineral that powers the saucer’s anti-grav drive.

The only problem is, it’s locked away in the top-secret Ganymede Institute. To get at it, Danny and his friend Nat will have to deal with flying scooters, obnoxious classmates and a big bad missile. Not to mention the sinister Captain Frost in hot pursuit.

And there’s only one place to get even more Moon Zoom (no prizes for guessing where). But when the saucer’s crew find themselves stranded, Danny realises that only an incredible act of bravery can save them …

Kindle edition now available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk – and FREE this weekend (5/6 December). Reviews / comments very welcome.

 

Short story: First Contact

First Contact front page

I’ve written a kind of short prequel to Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer to put on the book’s website and possibly use for publicity purposes. I enjoyed writing it; it’s the first short story I’ve produced for a while (probably more than a year – I’m not even completely sure how long it’s been) and I’ve missed them. Novels are so time-consuming, but I hope I can get back to doing some more short fiction before too long.

Well here it is: First Contact.

 

 

Tummies, helicopters, and why I’m a proud dad

tummy     helicopter

The other day my six-year-old son William proved he’s a real chip of the old block, by spontaneously coming up with a flash fiction piece. May I proudly present (spell-checked by me but otherwise all his own work), The Super Tummy:

The Super Tummy

Once upon a time, there was a super tummy. It could fly and scare things off. It was like the Tardis. People went in it to save their lives so it was good and it made many people happy.

He did it for years and years, and one day the King went in him and he was happy. They had fun together and a dalek came but the tummy saved them and they lived happily ever after.

Kind of surreal, right? I reckon there’s some deep metaphysical meaning in this piece, though superficially it might read like an especially deranged example of Doctor Who fan fiction.

But then, a couple of days later, he got together in with his ten-year-old brother George and produced the following collaboration, The Weird Helicopter. From this piece I learnt three things: first, George has been learning about adjectives and adverbs at school and encouraged to include as many as possible; second, William’s creative influence remains evident (he loves helicopters); and third, George was still mad at me after an earlier conversation (see if you can guess what that was about):

The Weird Helicopter

There once was a light helicopter that liked buzzing around rapidly. Then he would lovingly play with his friends (Ben, Leon & Sophie). However, one day when he was flying through the interesting forest to meet his wonderful friends, his annoying dad stopped him and he did his homework.

So my kids are writers! Well apart from my twelve-year-old daughter, who’s convinced that everything I do is embarrassing. Still, two out of three’s not bad.

 

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.

DCFS: Sample now available – and my close encounter with Fiverr

DCFS cover

Two developments on the Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer front:

As always, any comments on text and/or cover – good, bad or indifferent – are very welcome.

Re the cover, I wrote recently about my conflict concerning the do-it-yourself versus professional designer question. I did try fiverr but wasn’t too happy with the result. I went with a designer who had a pretty impressive portfolio, and I don’t doubt their ability. What I got back was fine from a general perspective I think, but wasn’t at all what I was looking for. I was honestly reasonably open-minded about what I would get back but, put simply, the result didn’t look like the cover of a children’s book to me. It looked more like a standard adult thriller/SF book.

I did provide the blurb and told them it was a children’s book. But I don’t blame the designer for this outcome. To begin with, frankly, what did I expect for $5? (Actually $10 because they also sourced the cover image which cost a bit extra, but that’s still cheap of course.) In fact, the better (and more in demand) the designer is, then theoretically the less of their time that $5 can buy. I can see that from their point of view the whole fiverr thing is a high volume, low margin game. They can’t think too long about each title, or spend much time on it. They will therefore bang out something standard and competent, as quickly as possible. And in many cases that’s probably fine.

I could have gone back to the designer to give feedback and ask for changes, but actually I thought the whole concept was wrong and so essentially I’d want them to start again from scratch, and I doubt that would fall within the remit of the $10 gig. It just wouldn’t be fair. So I’ve basically just written off the $10 to experience. It’s not much to lose.

If I used fiverr (or a similar service) again, I’d choose a designer (1) with demonstrable experience in children’s book covers in particular (though there don’t seem to be many of those on fiverr), and/or (2) will deliver two or more design concepts up-front rather than just one, which probably means (3) charging more than $5/$10 (which is fine – it’s only fair to pay an appropriate amount).

The problem is, my browsing on fiverr to date seems to show the vast majority of cover designers offering very similar things – same rock-bottom price, which therefore covers only one design concept, and very similar generic-looking adult fiction covers (again not surprising for the low price).

I imagine a truly successful author–designer collaboration is one that takes time to develop. The two get to know each other, their work, what they do, what they look for and what’s current in their market. There is a dialogue, some back-and-forth, a development of ideas. A process , in short, that’s far more likely to produce a mutually beneficial outcome than a $5 fiverr gig.

In the end, I did have an idea for a cover, and I ended up doing it in PowerPoint – which I’d never considered using for covers before (and which a professional designer probably wouldn’t be seen dead anywhere near), but was actually quite easy. It also allowed for the text effect I wanted.

Anyway – as I said, any feedback would be very welcome.