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 …

 

Challenging Children: Long words or short?

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As a writer of children’s books, I’m always concerned about whether my prose is pitched at about the right level for its intended readership. You know: are any of the words too long, sentence construction too complex, cultural references above their heads, subject matter too ‘adult’?

This is compounded by the fact that reading ability varies so much. Well it does for adults too, of course, but when your target audience is as narrow as 8-12-year-olds or thereabouts then you don’t have to be especially off-target to miss it. If the bull’s-eye is an averagely competent ten-year-old reader, then your book may be beyond a struggling eight-year-old (at least without adult help), yet also not testing enough for a high-flying near-teen. (Then again, advanced seven-year-olds and some young teens might still be within range.)

For this reason (as for so many others) the sharp eyes of beta-readers and editors are invaluable. Then again, I’m a firm believer that kids shouldn’t be patronised, and that there’s also scope to stretch them a little. Indeed, surely that’s part of the value of reading. If they never come across new words, for instance, how will their vocabulary grow?

An example: an editor of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer picked up on the word ‘sumptuous’, used to describe an especially spectacular starry sky beheld by Danny one night. Would your younger readers know what that means, they wondered?  Might a simpler word be used in its place?

I should emphasise that I did take that editor’s advice probably 90% of the time; and even when I didn’t, I always thought carefully before rejecting it. I’m certainly not suggesting they were wrong to ask the question. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. But ultimately, the author themselves has to make the decision. The editor’s opinions are always to be respected (you’d be wasting both their time and yours if you didn’t) but they are never the last word.

In the end, sumptuous stayed. I love that word. It’s so, well … sumptuous. An extravagant, opulent, overflowing kind of word; but crucially, for me it was the very best one for the job in that particular sentence.  Another place, another time, I might have agreed with the editor and changed it.

Of course, as I said above, it’s a matter of balance. Too many new, long or challenging words might discourage the young reader. The prose should be accessible; and after all it’s there to tell the story, not get in the way, jump up and down and shout, ‘look at me, aren’t I clever!’. Too many pauses to consult the dictionary are bound to obstruct the reading experience and prevent the child’s full immersion in the adventure.

It’s a similar thing with sentences. I tend to keep them short and simple more often than not. But the odd longer, more complex sentence is no bad thing, and the variety should serve to make the text more interesting – and, yes, challenging. In that sense, it’s little different from adult fiction.

If the young reader gains in knowledge and ability through your book, that’s a wonderful thing. I’d love to think that some kid, somewhere, might one day say, ‘Dad, thanks, that dinner was sumptuous!‘, just because they read Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer.

 

Annoying! – or, Does it ever end?

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So I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’m sitting with the paperback of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer in my hands, and I’m reading it to my six-year-old son (who’s already suffered an earlier draft so knows the story, but wants to hear it again which is nice).

The problem is, I have mixed feelings when reading the ‘final’ version of any of my work. I’ve come across too many problems, mistakes or typos in the past, blatant errors that I’ve somehow seen straight through in the previous gazillion times I’ve painstakingly gone through the flipping thing.

Even if I don’t see actual mistakes, I feel my fingers twitching when I read a particular word, phrase or sentence and think, ‘hmm, maybe that would read slightly better if …’. Once you’re conditioned to constantly edit your work, it’s hard to stop.

But anyway, today’s reading was going pretty well. No typos at least. And then on page 18 I come across the following sentence:

He decided not to mention the tree-talking Captain Frost to Mum – she had enough to worry about.

Nothing much wrong with that, right? Wrong. Danny first meets Captain Frost a few pages earlier. The problem is that he doesn’t know her name yet. He doesn’t actually learn she’s called Captain Frost until a few pages later.

And I know how this error happened: in an earlier draft, the first encounter between Danny and the Captain was somewhat longer and they learnt each others’ names. For various reasons, that scene was re-written and their conversation became a lot shorter. But I missed this particular reference to the Captain’s name between that scene and the next time the two characters meet.

So I guess you’d call it an error of perspective or context, or something like that. Anyway, it’s a mistake. Perhaps a fairly subtle one – and I take some comfort from the fact that none of the other people who’ve reviewed the book so far have pointed it out. But now I’ve noticed it I’ve just got to fix it.

Of course I can correct and upload the Kindle version pretty quickly and easily. As for the paperback – well there are already a few copies printed that have the mistake in perpetuity. There’s nothing I can do about that. (Maybe they’ll be valuable one day when I’m famous, right …?) But I can create a new printer file and ensure all new copies from now on are fixed. At least it’s on POD so it’s not like hundreds or thousands have been printed.

It’s got me thinking, though. How can I get better at spotting mistakes like these earlier? Is it just a case of going through it again and again and again? Maybe I should have paid for a final professional proofread as well as the earlier copy-edit, but I had to draw the line on spending somewhere. Oh well, it could be worse … and actually might be, as I’ve yet to re-read the rest of the book! There might well be more to come. So I’ll hold back on creating the new versions of the text for now.

What’s the worst (or most frustrating) error you’ve spotted in something you’ve written?

How carefully do you proofread your blog posts?

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OK, not the most thrilling of questions, but I’m interested nonetheless. I’m always a little conflicted over this. One part of me thinks: look, I’m a writer, writing is my craft, I should aim to make everything I produce of the highest possible quality, whether it’s a novel, a short story or a 500-word post.

But then the demon (or is it an angel?) on my other shoulder whispers: nah, don’t stress so much. It’s a blog. It’s supposed to be spontaneous, human, real. It’s supposed to convey something of your personality (though I’m not sure what some of my posts reveal about that). What does the odd typo, cliché or misplaced apostrophe really matter? Most people won’t judge you for the odd mistake.

In the end I guess I lean more towards the first point of view, but take something from the second too. I do think it shows some respect to readers to take a least reasonable care. I redraft my posts at least a couple of times, then do a last scan/proofread before uploading. And after all, I am supposed to be in the habit of spotting and correcting errors. If I produce a sprawling, incoherent splurge of a post, what does that say about me and my attitude to my work?

On the other hand, a blog post isn’t the final draft a book before publication, nor a competition entry, nor a query letter to an agent. It doesn’t really hurt if it’s not 100% perfect, and I don’t really believe most people expect it to be. Therefore I don’t proofread everything to the nth degree. (Though I am anal about apostrophes – can’t stand it if they’re wrong.)

However if I spot an error after posting, I usually can’t bear to let it be. A recent example, in my post Your pulse in the pages: music to inspire your writing, I originally wrote that:

… good fiction can infer of kind of immortality upon its subjects.

As soon as the post went live, that word infer leapt out and poked me in the eye.  It was of course the wrong word – it should have been confer. (Or at least I’m fairly sure it should be – now I’m starting to doubt myself, so if anyone wants to correct me, feel free!) So I changed it (and then encountered WordPress’s occasional annoying habit of mucking up the formatting when you try to edit posts, but that’s another story). A touch obsessive perhaps, but it wasn’t correct and, knowing that, I wanted it to be right.

P.S. I absolutely know I will have made at least one error in this post. It’s just inevitable.

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.

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?