A good day to publish a sci-fi book?

Stormtrooper     Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 1.41.33 PM

Well, Star Wars Day seemed a good a day as any. Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer is now available on Amazon (links: UK, US), initially as a Kindle edition only, hopefully to gain a few reviews and help with the marketing. The paperback edition, along with availability in other channels including the iBook Store, will follow in the coming weeks.

So … after all those drafts, all that re-writing, my third novel has finally seen the light of day. It’s always a special moment. Not that I will pause long to savour it – there’s still so much to do, not least the second book in the series which is currently still stuck in first draft. And the third, not yet beyond outline form. And … a writer’s work is never done. Sometimes I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into – but it’s worth it.

 

 

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.

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?

 

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 …]

 

Now for the scary bit …

The scream detail

Last week I finished the second draft of my children’s book Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer. I’ve previously written how I went about whipping the unkempt mess of the first draft into the slightly less unkempt mess of the second. Now that’s done, it’s time for … the scary bit. (Cue diabolical laugher.)

Up until now, the book has been my secret, inside my head and on a screen that only I’ve seen. All of it – good, bad and indifferent – has been my own special baby. I’ve tried to make it as good as I can, and in reviewing the first draft I genuinely attempted to be as objective and dispassionate as I could about identifying its flaws and areas for improvement, and implementing them. And over the course of writing two novels and absorbing the advice, wisdom and experience of many others (including some of you good people), I believe I know quite a bit about what to look out for and how to make writing better.

My baby has grown and matured. It’s now a teenager – which means (and with apologies to any teenagers reading this, because this obviously doesn’t apply to you) it’s got spots, is frequently confused, has highs and lows; and is generally at that awkward stage of being halfway grown up and knowing a lot more than before, but not as much as it thinks it does …

So I’ve now taken this project just about as far as I can by working completely on my own. Now I need someone else’s input. The second draft is surely better than the first, and (unlike the first) it’s something I feel I can show to someone else without them laughing in my face and then slapping me around the face with it. (Which, let’s be clear, I don’t want when it’s on a laptop.)

But it still has a way to go. There are still things wrong with it, big and small, things that I can’t see because I’ve looked at them too hard and too long. There are still ways it can be improved, things that haven’t occurred to me because I’ve been thinking about it too long and can’t easily step back and look at it as a whole.

I need fresh eyes; and they need to be the eyes of someone I can trust. Someone that will have a completely new and fresh angle on the book, who has expertise and insight. Ideally a market expert. So, for DCFS at this point, that means two things.

First: well, who better to get feedback from than the real experts on children’s books – children? My eldest son is ten, putting him slap-bang in the middle of the target age range. His reading ability is average for his age, and he’s a somewhat reluctant reader. Which makes him a pretty much perfect guinea pig. My youngest is six, meaning he’d struggle to read the book on his own, but I’ll read it to both of them.

Reading out loud is an excellent way of checking how well the prose flows. I did read out some chunks to myself when writing, but to be honest I feel like a bit of a nutcase if I talk to myself too much. Reading the whole thing out loud again to a (hopefully) listening audience will be a good thing.

But just as important – if not more so – is whether the story really engages them. I recently read Neil Gaiman’s excellent Coraline to the two of them, and they hung on every word. When I stopped at the end of each chapter, they begged me to read one more page from the next before finishing. (And I’m pretty sure that wasn’t only to delay going to bed …) If I can get anything like the same reaction from DCFS, I’ll know I’ve got something good.

I’m not expecting a great deal of feedback from them, but any that I can get will be gold dust. The best feedback will be how much it holds their attention. However, I fear my kids are unlikely to deliver a full, detailed critique of concept, plot structure, characterisation or the over-use or otherwise of adverbs. They will know if they like it or not, but not precisely why.

So for a more forensic analysis, I’m paying for a manuscript critique. Next time I’ll talk more about that, and why I’m taking that route instead of asking for beta readers. But for now, it’s goodbye to blogging and hello to the bedtime story … good night!