Your pulse in the pages: music to inspire your writing

Bastille

Do you find it helpful to listen to music whilst writing? I know some people do I tend not to as it doesn’t always help me concentrate, unless I’m doing something particularly monotonous that only requires half my brain. Particularly if the song has lyrics, I find myself listening to them rather than focussing all my mental energy on trying to squeeze something creative from my reluctant brain.

However I’ve recently come across a track with very interesting lyrics. It’s called Poet, from CD2 of Bastille’s double album All This Bad Blood. (I’ve got into Bastille big time recently and am in grave danger of wearing out the CD.) The song is about a slightly obsessive writer and the object of his affections. Take a look at the excerpt below:

I have written you down Now you will live forever And all the world will read you And you will live forever In eyes not yet created On tongues that are not born I have written you down Now you will live forever … Your body lies upon the sheet, Of paper and words so sweet. I can’t say the words, so I wrote you into my verse. Now you’ll live through the ages, I can feel your pulse in the pages.

OK, on one level it’s a bit creepy (the first lines of the song, not reproduced above, are: Obsession it takes control / Obsession it eats me whole … I prefer to believe this is a sweet shy guy. It would spoil the poetic ambience somewhat if he turned out to be a serial killer.

But as a hymn to the power of the written word, it’s pretty good: In eyes not yet created / On tongues that are not born / I have written you down /  Now you will live forever …  a reflection on the fact that good fiction can confer of kind of immortality upon its subjects.

And, even better: Now you’ll live through the ages / I can feel your pulse in the pages … as a writer I want my characters to live and breathe, to be real. To ‘jump off the page’ as the saying goes. Can you feel their pulse in the pages? If you can write a character like that, you‘ve created something truly special.

Why I’ve decided on hybrid publishing

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.41.33 PM

I’ve been neglecting this blog big time recently, being far too busy with life in general but more specifically with putting the finishing touches to Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer and completing the first draft of its sequel. But I’m resolved to blog more regularly from now on. Writing’s a solitary business at times and there’s such a great community on WordPress that’s well worth keeping in touch with.

Anyway – back to the main point of this post. When I posted my writing resolutions for 2015, high on the list (after completing DCFS) was to finally decide on whether to continue down the self-publishing route or to hurl myself into the purgatory of query letters, agents and slush piles hoping to win one of those vanishingly rare traditional publishing lottery tickets.

Both options have their pros and cons of course. For me, the biggest problem with self-publishing is that your book will almost certainly be lost in the crowd. And traditional / conventional publishing, despite the unbelievably high bar confronting prospective new entrants (unless you happen to be a You Tube sensation or random celebrity who may or may not be able to string three words together), is perhaps not a great deal better. Put bluntly, most books don’t sell very well, however they’re published. There are exceptions of course, but they represent a tiny percentage of the tidal wave of new titles published every year.

The fact that I’ve sold very few books so far hasn’t stopped me, mainly because I love writing for its own sake. However, I love it so much that I’d like to spend a lot more time doing it, and that’s not really possible unless I start getting a decent income from it.

So is there a middle way? Some way to improve your chances of success – to help you make your books as professional as possible and to have more chance of selling it? There is much talk of hybrid or partner publishing, and these terms tend to mean different things to different people. All I can tell you about is what I’ve decided to do, and why.

DCFS will be published by a company called Albury Books. They are not a conventional publisher but neither do they publish anything and everything that comes their way. DCFS had to be accepted in order to carry their imprint. I have no doubt that their selection criteria were nowhere near as rigorous as a conventional publisher’s has to be when confronted with a tottering pile of hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts and a budget that probably allows them to take on perhaps one of them. But the fact that Albury do have minimum standards was reassuring.

I also liked their website, the fact that they have a children’s book programme, and the appearance of the books they were selling. The covers looked quite professional, for instance. That is not the case with all hybrid publishers’ websites I’ve seen, some of which looked quite amateurish and were jam-packed with covers that absolutely screamed ‘self-published!’ and not in a good way.

I know what you might be thinking at this point. I know because I’d probably be thinking it myself: isn’t hybrid just a polite word for vanity? Ah yes, the dreaded vanity press, exploiting authors’ dreams, taking their money for over-priced services and giving poor value in return. Have I fallen into that trap?

Well, for me, paid publishing services are not a dirty word (or words) necessarily. Design, editing, distribution, marketing … these things, especially if done properly, all cost time and money. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who secures a conventional publishing deal, they won’t come for free (and even then, much is still expected of the author, especially on the marketing side). Sure, a self-publishing author can do much or even all of it themselves – but to what standard, and how successfully? Let’s be honest. Amazon is full of books that aren’t very good, or have lousy covers, or sell few or no copies. There are also many that are very good, look amazing and/or sell in decent quantities, but they are the exception especially on the sales.

So I have concluded that if I want to do things better, going it alone is not the best option. I need some help, and yes that’s going to cost me something. To some extent, how much it costs is up to me. Albury do not sell fixed-price packages or require you to buy services you don’t need. I have got the cover designed through them (see above) – they were OK with my own design but I decided to go professional this time, and I’m pleased with the result. They did require, as a condition of acceptance for publication, that a copy-edit of the text was done by a specialist children’s editor – but they did not insist that this was sourced through them. I could have gone out and found my own copy-editor. (The edit was a good thing, by the way – I’ve never had one before, and I’m certain the book is better for it.)

There are some things I’m still doing myself, and therefore not paying for, because I’m confident I can do them to a good standard. This includes the text layout and the set-up on Amazon. Albury will be handling the set-up in other distribution channels, on their own website and in POD. The standard of the POD printing of their books, by the way, is definitely a cut above what I’ve experienced with Amazon’s, and therefore I won’t be setting up this book in Create Space.

I have to sign a contract, but I get to keep a high percentage of the royalties. The percentage is higher than Amazon’s and certainly miles better than those of a typical conventional publishing contract.

But of course, a high percentage of diddly squat is still diddly squat. The idea is to sell some books. Which brings me on to marketing and publicity services. These are available through Albury but they cost, and I’m still evaluating the options here. Two things I know: there are no guarantees when it comes to sales, and even if I pay for some services the onus is still on me. If I don’t believe in the book, I can’t expect anyone else to. I’ll post more about the marketing another time.

If you have any views or comments on any of this, I’d be pleased to hear them. Thanks.

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.

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.

 

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.

PD James: 10 tips for writing novels

PD James tips

A few days ago, upon hearing of the death of the novelist PD James, I blogged about how inspiring I found aspects of her writing career and her approach to the craft. I also found a link to this: her ten tips for writing novels.

I have mixed feelings about such lists of rules, tips or whatever you want to call them. On the one hand I’m always interested in hearing what others have to say on a subject of such importance to me – and especially when the opinions are of a writer I admire. On the other hand, you have to take such guidance as just that: read it, mull it over, and apply it (or not) according to what works for you. The rules are rarely (if ever) unbreakable.

To be fair to James, she more or less admits this in her tip #3 (Find your own routine):

‘I think all we writers are different. It’s interesting, isn’t it, how different we are?’

There are two other tips, however, that I want to pick out. The first is because I agree with it so much – #5 (Read, write and don’t daydream!) – and I quote it in full:

‘To write well, I advise people to read widely. See how people who are successful and good get their results, but don’t copy them. And then you’ve got to write! We learn to write by writing, not by just facing an empty page and dreaming of the wonderful success we are going to have. I don’t think it matters much what you use as practice, it might be a short story, it might be the beginning of a novel, or it might just be something for the local magazine, but you must write and try and improve your writing all the time. Don’t think about it or talk about it, get the words down.’

Amen to that.

The other I one I’ve picked because, although I think I broadly agree with it, I can see that some might not. It’s the very first one (which might indicate its importance to James) – ‘You must be born to write’ – and again I quote in full:

‘You can’t teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don’t think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible.

Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can’t make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly.’

I don’t know how that strikes you, but to me it makes sense. I would never want to discourage anyone from writing – far from it (see #5 above) – but it probably is the case that some have more innate talent than others. Like James, I don’t think I could ever get very far as musician – or a football player, or a dancer, or a hundred other things – because I have something between limited and zero natural gifting for those things. The best I might become, with much hard graft and good teaching, would be an enthusiastic amateur able to give enjoyment to myself and maybe some others. And that’s great. But if I ever entertained serious dreams of playing for the London Philharmonic, turning out for Manchester United or pirouetting for the Bolshoi Ballet, then I fear I’d be in for a disappointment.

(I am not claiming to possess a massive talent for writing; but I am at least pretty sure that I’m not as bad at it as I am at most other things!)

Of course this is an over-simplification. There are many factors that contribute to how successful a writer might become, and almost as many ways that ‘success’ might be defined. And also we’re probably all unreliable judges of how much ‘talent’ we might have. If we have a passion to write then that’s what we should do, and in so doing we will do justice to whatever talent we do possess.

I wonder what you think of James’s tips, and in particular on the role of natural gifting in our progress as writers?

 

PD James: an inspirational writer

PD James

British novelist Phyllis Dorothy James died in Oxford today – 27th November – aged 94. Many tributes have already been paid to the ‘Queen of crime fiction’; for my part, I find many aspects of her writing journey extraordinarily inspiring. Let me share why.

For one thing, her fame as a writer arrived late in her life. Very late actually.

From her school days she knew she wanted to be a writer. But her family’s financial troubles forced her to leave school at 16 and find a job as a filing clerk. Also, her mother was committed to an asylum when James was 14, leaving her to look after the house and her siblings. All in all, not the easiest of early lives, and one that forced her to put her writing dream on hold.

In fact it wasn’t until the mid-1950s, while in her mid-thirties, that she really began writing, composing parts of her first novel while on her work commute. But she didn’t make a serious start on that first novel until she was 40, while continuing to work full time and bring up a family. That novel was eventually published in 1962. There then followed a series of others (the second published just one year later) and so developed a modestly successful writing career with a small but loyal following.

And then, in 1980, with the publication of her eighth book she began to experience best-selling international success and acclaim:

‘Monday, I was ticking along as usual, and by Friday I was a millionaire.’

So, to re-cap:

  • She had to put her writing dream on hold for many years – about twenty in fact.
  • When she finally started, she was in her thirties and facing the time pressures of work and family.
  • Her first novel took several years to complete. (I would guess she went through all the false starts, setbacks, and the steep learning curve of all rookie writers.)
  • She was in her early forties before she was published.
  • And she was sixty before she achieved significant commercial success – so probably forty or fifty years after she’d first thought about writing, more than twenty years after she finally started, and nearly twenty years after first being published. A success for sure, but not what you’d call an overnight one.

Now if that’s not an object lesson in persistence and patience, I don’t know what is. But there’s more. Her husband, traumatised by his experiences in the Second World War, was eventually placed in an institution, leaving James to bring up their two daughters alone. Then In 1964 he died following an overdose of drugs and alcohol. So no sooner had she finally achieved her dream of being a published writer than life lobbed another grenade in her direction. But she carried on working and writing.

Of course, the publishing world has changed massively since James first ventured into it, and is changing still. No doubt some things about her career would have been different had she been born fifty, sixty or seventy years later. Perhaps also she was fortunate in at least two ways. First, and most obviously, she did achieve success in the end. Yet I feel sure that would have happened anyway, even if she started out today, even if by a different route – her talent and dedication would have all but assured it. Maybe it would have happened more quickly, maybe not.

Her second stroke of luck was her long life. Hitting the big time in your sixties isn’t so bad if your still have three more decades to enjoy it, and enough time to pen more than twenty books. She acknowledged as much herself, once saying:

‘I am lucky to have written as many books as I have. It has been a joy.’

Yet some might say that, by modern standards, twenty-ish books in a thirty-year-plus writing career is an unexceptional output. These days there is pressure to write almost with a production-line mentality: keep publishing, get your work out there, get noticed. The trade-off is that quality can easily suffer.

But James saw her writing as a craft. She wanted to get it right. Her books were known for being well-researched and well-written. She rejected the notion that crime novels were not ‘proper literature’. Perhaps if more writers were so fixated on quality, they would make more progress in the long run. In our fast-moving digital age, where we can all too easily be panicked into believing that tomorrow is too late (and even today might be), too much is thrown out into the world too quickly. The world needs better books, not just more of them. (Arguably it doesn’t need more of them at all …)

Speaking of research, here again is another way that James turned what might have been a negative into a positive. For many years her writing and her day job had to co-exist, as it still does for most writers. But she used her experience in hospitals, in psychiatric clinics, and in the criminal policy section of the Home Office in her books. In one memorable quote, she described seeing someone being fed through a tube during her time as a nurse:

‘I remember thinking, ‘that would be an easy way to kill someone.’’

That duly became the method she used to dispatch a character in a later book.

I admit I’m not into crime fiction especially, but James did range beyond that at times, for example in the dystopian novel The Children of Men, and the recent Austen tribute / Pride and Prejudice sequel / murder mystery Death Comes To Pemberley.

Finally, a few more pearls of wisdom and inspiration from the great lady …

Talking of her regret about waiting until she was 40 before writing her first novel:

‘I realized that there was never going to be a convenient time to start that first novel … If I didn’t make time, find the motivation, I would be a failed writer and that would be absolutely appalling for me.’

Her characters often died brutal deaths. But she admitted it could be hard to get under the skin of a killer:

‘When I am writing about a killer, I am that killer. I am in his mind, which is probably why I don’t have sadistic mass murderers as characters.’

She wrote all her novels by hand and then dictated the words onto tape for a secretary to produce the first draft – but she found that approach had certain advantages:

‘Dictating is quite useful … because you can hear the dialogue, hear the structure of the sentences, the very subtle and peculiar usage that is English prose.’

While she loved writing, she admitted it didn’t always come easily to her:

‘There are moments when I’m rather reluctant to get started; the sort of day when even cleaning the stove seems an agreeable thing to be doing rather than start writing. But on the whole it is a labour of love.’

… and just to prove it, she said last year she was working on another book. Which just goes to show you’re never too old to start writing – or to stop!

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 …)

 

It’s Judgement Day (gulp) …

judgment day

And the verdicts are in. As I wrote recently, I submitted the second draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer for a Writer’s Workshop critique. In addition, my esteemed fellow blogger Bookgirl very kindly volunteered to do a beta read. And thirdly, the most demanding examination of all: my two sons (aged ten and six) have been the semi-willing recipients of bedtime excerpts, at least when I’ve been able to get them both together at the same time and stop them punching each other.

So what did they all say, I hear you shout?

Well, to take the third review first … George and William seem to quite like it. They laugh at most of the bits that are supposed to be funny. They ask questions – sometimes a lot. (‘How big is a light year, Daddy?’ ‘That was two pages ago … OK, let’s go back …’ [three minutes later] ‘how big is a light year, Daddy? [sigh].)

They also haven’t had to ask what too many words mean, which is probably good – but I like it that there’s a few they haven’t immediately understood. It’s good to expand their vocabulary a bit, right?

And even when they start fidgeting and kicking each other ‘playfully’, they immediately snap back to attention when I threaten to stop reading. (‘One more page please!’) They do seem to take it all in, even when they appear not to be – a curious gift all my kids share. Now it’s perfectly true that, when it comes to postponing lights-off time, the boys will employ all sorts of subterfuge. However, whenever they glimpse the flash of cold light on nail scissors, for example, they will usually – vey suddenly – be overcome by complete and total exhaustion and beg for bedtime. So at the very least I can claim that my boys prefer Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer to having their nails cut.

The boys’ interest and enthusiasm is their best feedback. But in the course of reading the book out loud, I’ve also given myself another perspective on the quality of prose in the book, including its suitability for the target age range. As a result, come the third draft, some sentences will be re-written – typically to become shorter and simpler – to improve clarity and flow, and some extraneous or ill-fitting words will be canned.

Turning now to the feedback from the adult experts – well, it’s always fascinating to get someone else’s take on your work, particularly when you can be confident they know what they’re talking about. There was much encouragement from both the Writer’s Workshop reviewer and from Bookgirl, and nice things were said about many aspects of DCFS, for which I’m grateful. But, more importantly, they hit on a number of areas requiring attention, and that’s always the most valuable feedback.

I’ve briefly summarised the main points of feedback in the table below, along with my own observations (you might need to click on it to view properly):

DCFS review summary

Now obviously the details of this won’t mean much to you unless you’re one of the small band of people (the WW reviewer, Bookgirl, George and William) who’ve actually read the manuscript, or had it read to them. But bear with me …

Although all of the above points are valid and require attention, there were three in particular that jumped out as being the most fundamental issues with the book:

  • # 3: Credibility of dialogue. This related to my tendency to use a number of passages of dialogue, mostly between Danny’s parents, to furnish plot exposition. Nothing wrong with doing that, except that in places it seemed forced and therefore less than totally credible.
  • # 5: Not enough action in the climatic chapters set in outer space. Instead, a lot of numbers were thrown around here, to emphasise the vastness of space – e.g. how big is a light year, the distance of the nearest star to Earth, etc. I wanted DCFS to have some educational content, but it also needs to be an exciting and entertaining story. The way I’ve written these two chapters, they’ve become too much of a science lesson and not enough of a story.
  • # 6: The villain, Captain Frost, basically disappears well before the end, and her eventual fate is referred to only in passing in the final chapter. She therefore plays no part in the book’s climax. This is closely linked to # 5 – because if Captain Frost was with Danny and his friend Nat inside the saucer in outer space in the climatic two chapters, there would be a whole lot more action and interest. (So can you see what the solution might be …?)

In my next posts I’m going to look at the above issues in more detail, as I believe they’re representative of some fairly common problems in manuscripts, particularly early drafts. And also I’ll discuss how I’m proposing to put them right. For now, though, I’d make two interesting observations.

First, both WW and Bookgirl picked up on #5 and #6. If you get two beta readers both say the same thing about your manuscript, you’d better take notice.

Second, if I’m being honest … none of the above – #3, 5 or 6 – really surprised me very much when they were pointed out. Sometimes you have a hunch about things that don’t quite work. It nags at you. Really, I knew that some of the exchanges between Danny’s parents were probably a bit contrived. I did worry there were too many numbers being sprayed around in space, in lieu of real action. And Captain Frost’s early departure did not strike me as ideal – it was, in hindsight, a major plot weakness. Why work hard to build a credible villain, only to let them bow out with a whimper two-thirds of the way through the book?

So if, deep down, I knew these were problems, why hadn’t I fixed them in the second draft? It’s not because I’m an idiot. Well, not only because of that. It’s also because sometimes these things only really dawn on you as you’re working through the manuscript, often while you’re thinking about something else. And sometimes they hang around, tapping you insistently on the shoulder until you finally take notice. Or you do something about them, but maybe not enough, or not the right thing to really fix them.

There are other things, too, you might worry about that turn out to be OK. For example, I wondered if I’d pitched the book’s readability at the right kind of level. It is, after all, aimed at a younger age group than I’ve written for before. But I’m pleased to say that the reviewers seemed to think that, generally, it was about right. That’s not to say that more fine-tuning isn’t required, that there aren’t some words or sentences that need tweaking, as I’ve mentioned above. But I’m pretty happy now that this isn’t a major area of concern.

I should add that, of course, the reviews also picked up things I hadn’t spotted or considered at all. That, again, is the beauty of the fresh pair of eyes.

Now all I have to do is act on all this excellent advice, roll up my sleeves and get stuck in to draft number three …

Do you come across similar issues to these in your writing? What has been your experience of critiques and reviews?