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.

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 …]

 

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 7 of 7

Here it is … the final chapter of my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story: Falling Girl – part 7 . (Also includes some background information on castles.)

The previous six instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this book, whether you’ve managed to read all of it or only part. As all writers know, constructive feedback (along with practice, practice, practice) is the best way to improve. So thank you in advance for any feedback you can give.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …

Falling Girl: A Ghost Story – part 6 of 7

I’m serialising my novel Falling Girl: A Ghost Story on this website. Each part is free to download. These two chapters form the penultimate instalment: Falling Girl – part 6

Next week, part 7, will be the very last chapter.

Previous instalments can be found on the Falling Girl page.

FG front5

“This castle is haunted. It really is. There are ghosts in the walls and towers, the passages and the dark rooms, the secret places away from the warmth and sunshine, where it’s cold and clammy and … lonely.”

When eleven-year-old Ellie Black runs into Pentrillis Castle, she’s desperate to escape her depressing family life. Her parents have split up, Dad is Mr Angry, and her new step-brother is obnoxious beyond belief.

At first, it’s much better inside the castle. The sun shines (even when it’s still raining outside), there’s fabulous chocolate cake, and she meets a friendly story-teller and two cool new friends. (There’s also a scary bit in the chapel, but she was probably just imagining things, right?)

But the story-teller has a dark and unsettling tale to tell, of tragedy … and something menacing in the shadows.

And there’s some very odd things about those new friends.

And where did that awful scream come from?

But the worst part is when Ellie realises that there’s nowhere to hide from the ghost of Pentrillis Castle …