Writing updates

Good day.

I’m covering a number of different topics in this blogpost: updates on my writing projects, updates on me as an author, updates on applications to agents. And whatever else crosses my mind.

Writing projects updates

  • planetfall

Well, book one is published! I still owe a huge debt to the cover designer @moviessimple.

The feedback has been phenomenal, too, with really good reviews from customers on Twitter, the Facebook page I created for the book, and reviews on Amazon.

The reviews really help: every time I publicise the book with a genuine reader review, it helps sell another copy. Reader feedback is key to growing the buzz around the book. You read this kind of thing from other authors and artists, saying how grateful they feel to their readers or fans, and now I know from their point of view how it feels. I am indebted to the readers who have taken a risk with my book, and who have felt motivated to write a review. Thanks to each and every one of them.

planetfall book 2: Children of Fall is coming along well, when I have time to write (I’m now back in full time employment). I’m up to 70,000 pages, and finding that my early predictions are bearing out: this is going to be a big book. It will come in somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 words. A typical book is around 70,0000-100,000 words long. At the moment I’m not prepared to edit it to fit into a 100,000 word size. The story needs to live and explore its universe. Once I have a full first draft, I’ll see what’s needed and what’s extraneous and kill my darlings appropriately.

The story is getting good feedback from my writing circle, too, and they are nothing if not honestly critical. They’ll rip something to shreds if it’s not up to standard, as well they should. That’s what critique is for.

  • Robocop fanfic

Some longer time readers of my blog might remember that I wrote some fanfic last year while I was unemployed. What was supposed to be a 1000 word piece on Robocop turned into a ~35,000 word novella. It’s still very raw and unfinished, with half developed characters and some plot lines that just fizzle out. I’ve been thinking recently of resurrecting it and finishing it to a reasonable standard (not highly polished) and making it available as a free ebook download. Just for fun, you understand. More news as and when.

Updates on applications to agents

  • Backpackers

Before Christmas I undertook some significant rewrites of Backpackers, following some very positive feedback from agents. I’ve sent it to 23 agents so far. Of those, about 7 sent personal responses saying that they really liked it, but that their agency was listing different kinds of stories at the moment, or that as much as they liked it, they couldn’t see where it fit into the current market.

I met an agent in October last year, who confirmed that if agents give a personal response beyond a standard reply, that it means you’ve got something good.

Emboldened by these responses, I re-wrote part of Backpackers following a lengthy response from one particular agent. The re-writes were to make the story more commercially acceptable. The character Jack Wolf has been boosted from a bit part in one chapter to being one of the two loci of the story (the other being Cath). He now starts and ends the book, and the thrust of the narrative is about him trying to find the backpacker, Cath Pearson.  This meant re-writing the first 2 chapters almost entirely, a later chapter where Cath originally met Jack (now it’s her 2nd time, completely ditching the character John, and re-writing the final chapter.

I remember about two years ago a good friend, whose mother is a successful author, asked me how I would feel if I had to re-write a story to meet market expectations, and move it away from what I wanted it to be. My answer then was the same as my approach to the re-writes: The story I want is on my laptop’s hard drive saved in a previous version. No one can change that or take it away. What happens to it after that, to make it commercially acceptable, doesn’t matter. After all, a piece of writing only becomes a book when it forms a bridge between author and reader. And if the story needs to adapt so it reaches readers, then that’s fine by me.

So where am I now?

I sent the re-written Backpackers back to that most friendly agent. She kindly re-read it and wrote back saying she was still on a knife edge about whether she should pick it up or not. Ultimately, she went with market conditions: there just doesn’t appear to be the demand from sellers (not necessarily readers) for the story type in Backpackers, so she passed on it.

Obviously in one sense, that’s hugely disappointing: to be so close to the next step to publication, only to have it pulled away. But I was struck by her email: “You can write,” she said, “and please immediately send me anything else you write in future.”

I might not have hit the bullseye this time, but I have an open invitation to submit work in future. And that’s ultimately good news.

  • planetfall

Following the really positive response to planetfall from readers, I’m wondering if perhaps the book is a little better than I think it is (it’s my first novel and full of technical problems). So I am having a second round of sending it to agents. I only ever sent it to 10 agents anyway, and perhaps should have persevered a little more. planetfall never got the level of positive response that Backpackers has, but I did get personal emails from agents saying they liked it and that (beware, deja vu alert) that type of story is missing from the current market. Which worked against it, of course, because sellers weren’t looking for those kinds of stories…zzzzzz. Sounds familiar :-/

I have told agents that I’ve already published the book, and have pointed out the marketing I’ve undertaken, and the reader reviews that it’s gained. In that, I think I’ve changed my approach to agents. I am treating the submission query as a business pitch: here is some product, it has some traction with the market, there is a marketing profile around it, it has already sold a few copies. I’m not sure what response that approach will get, but I think it’s worth trying different approaches beyond the “Here’s my book, please like it!”* that I was using in my first round of submissions.  (*not actual text, professional authors, don’t worry.)

Updates on me, the author

You might have noticed the last few blogs having a slight change: confidence. I am no longer someone who writes books, I now consider myself an author. I hadn’t quite conceptualised it that way until I read a recent DIYMFA newsletter.

It’s a subtle shift in thinking to an outside, but I think inside it suggests quite a radical shift.

My self identity now includes an acceptance that I am an author. This is what I am, this is what I do, this is what I will continue to be.

That means that I will prioritise writing before other things, in the same way that for 40+hours per week I have to prioritise work because I am also a sustainable development professional. I love doing that kind of work, it helps make the world a better place and it pays for my food and home. If being an author could do that to a level where I could survive, I would take the chance. (I already took a huge chance in taking redundancy from a well paid job in 2011 so I can write constantly for a year and improve my writing skills. That risk, that chance, paid off. I made it into an opportunity, the fruits of which are outlined above.)

Because I now think of myself as an author, I’ve started thinking of doing things that I never previously considered. For instance, I will be going to the London Book Fair this year. So what? Anyone can go, you pay £30, you attend. But this is different. Previously I’d considered it was for industry professionals only. Now. Now I consider myself an industry professional, and that I deserve to be there. It’s the attitude change that’s important.

I’ve started running promotions as an author for planetfall, too. The recent competition I ran to give away copies of the book was successful, and got me good feedback. People have said they can’t wait for the sequel. There is a sense of expectation on me as an author, which means I need to respond by being an author who delivers.

Creating community

A few blogs ago I said I would write a blog about creating community, and how important it is as an author. I don’t have time to do that at the moment, so in the meantime the best thing I can do is point writers and authors to DIYMFA’s online resources for building community:

http://diymfa.com/category/community

And remember, the best community you can have is joining a writing circle where you regularly take your work and receive critical feedback on it. Re-writing with external feedback is crucial to improving our writing skills and the work we produce.

As ever, I’d love to hear what you’re up to with your writing. You can contact me on Twitter at @astrotomato or by email on astrotomato@gmail.com Just say “Hi astro” if you like.

A bientot,

astro x

The Next Big Thing Bloghop

This blog is part of the “next big thing bloghop”. It’s a self interview format, which anyone can use. Within the self interview, we amateur authors are supposed to also tip some up and coming authors’ blogs for other people to visit.

The point of course is so one writer can raise awareness of another writer and so on. (I’ll blog separately about building community soon. This is a key component of getting writing.)

 The interview

  • What is the title of your book?

It’s full title is planetfall: All Fall Down. I’m quite particular about “planetfall” being all in lowercase, although for convenience I write it with a capital P when I advertise the book. Why am I particular? It’s both a visual aesthetic thing and a quotation thing. If you look at “Planetfall”, the word looks unbalanced. There’s that capital P and it looks really heavy over on the left, with the thin t, f and ls afterwards. If you write “planetfall” you reduce the weight of the left hand, and also get a nice symmetry with the down stroke of the p and up stroke of the ls at the end. The other reason is because “planetfall” was a word I pulled from the middle of a sentence and realised was a useful double entendre for the story series.

  • Where did the idea for the book come from?

The idea for the book came from a writing exercise I set myself in 2007. I wanted to write a first person perspective piece that was full of restrained emotion and was no longer than one side of A4. That original piece was about a Mexican man who had been a soldier at the Alamo, or some other Mexico-American conflict in the 19th century. In the original exercise he was talking to his young son about what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a soldier.  He was also teaching his son to shave, but to leave his moustache as it was the “mark of a man”.

From there, I wondered what it would be like to be the son, and to look back on that moment. The poignancy of the following exercise intrigued me. Somehow that grew into an expansive idea about a soldier in the middle of an enormous war, and his humanity gradually breaking down.

  • What genre does your book fall under?

It’s scifi, and more specifically space opera.

  • Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I sent the book to several agencies, and had some very good feedback on it. A few wrote back and said they liked it, that it had a “big scifi feel” that was “missing from the current market”. Unfortunately this worked against it. Agents are conditioned by publishers and sellers to be risk averse. Sellers go to publishers asking for books similar to what sold well last season. Publishers go to agents looking for the next big thing that was like the last big thing. And so a market becomes risk averse.

Because planetfall is my first novel, and I essentially taught myself to write novels using it, I’m not as confident with the writing quality as maybe I should be (I certainly think my 2nd novel, Backpackers, has better writing, and planetfall book 2’s writing is better yet). I was always happy to self publish this novel, though I won’t be as happy if I end up self publishing Backpackers.

  • What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movies rendition?

The main character, Kate, is about 36 years old, with red hair. Maybe Jewel Staite, who played Kaylee in Firefly & Serenity, would be a good choice. Daoud needs to be someone with north African or Middle Eastern looks, who’s thin. I can’t think of anyone useful right now. I know I would want Chiwetel Ejiofor for the character Djembe, though.

  • How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Years. I think I finished my first draft in early 2011, which was 3.5 years after I started. I thought that was it, and it didn’t need any changes! I’d edited it as I went along, so I’d re-written, chopped out sections, included new bits and so on. But I soon learned why more experience authors talked about being on their second, third, fifth, tenth draft.

The breakthrough in having subsequent drafts was sending the manuscript to a well known scifi agent, John Jarrold. He was kind enough to write me a long email about what I’d submitted to him, even though the material wasn’t up to publication scratch, and I will forever think kindly of him for it. His feedback made me go back to the first draft and start making some improvements to meet what he said. And that made me think more and more and more…

  • Give a one-sentence synopsis of your novel

“Military Intelligence is called in to investigate the death of a scientist, but can they uncover a plot to make first contact and start a war before it’s too late?”

  • What other works would compare to your story?

I’m so out of touch with scifi that I have no idea. I spend most of my reading time on literary fiction or New Scientist. However, I would hope that people would recognise its influences, which I happily make apparent: Dan Simmons, Iain M. Banks, George Lucas, Ray Bradbury and Frank Herbert.

  • Who or What inspired you to write this book?

I had always wanted to write, and in my teens I wrote some horror short stories. I even won a school award. But I gave up. In my mid-30s I came across two thought exercises when going through some life coaching: (1) “Imagine you’re on your death bed. Who’s there, what do you want to tell them you did in life, how should they feel about your passing?” and (2) “Imagine you have to write your own obituary. What is it going to say?” As you can see, they’re very similar, and what they both have in common is making you think about your life from the end, looking back.

After thinking about those questions, I realised that one of the things I wanted to say was, “Yes, I wrote that novel I’d always wanted to write.” And that of course leads to the question, “When did I write it? When I was dying? Not possible. When I was old and infirm? Not likely. When I was bringing up kids? No time. Well, when? Ah, the best time is now.”

  • What else might pique the reader’s interest?

planetfall: All Fall Down is the start of a trilogy. The story in book 1 – that of a scientist dying, and General Kate Leland slowly discovering a plot to start a war – is a mash of cyberpunk, space opera, thriller, murder mystery and psychedelia. It features the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The main character is female, and there is a strong female minor character who plays a much larger role later on (and I have 6 books drafted out for her which I’ll never get round to writing!) I like writing about lead female characters. I think it comes from always playing the female character in computer games. Maybe it’s a repressed form of transvestisism. Female readers are getting back to me and saying they love Kate and Sophie, the supporting character.

Book 1, All Fall Down, is really more of a prequel, as the story I originally wanted to tell starts in book 2. But I couldn’t tell the story of book 2 without setting out the background story. All Fall Down goes quite odd in parts where it’s strongly influenced by William Gibson.

  • Who is your “Next Big Thing”?

Now it’s my time to tag writers that I feel could be “The Next Big Thing”.

There are three authors I want to push, though two have no significant online presence as far as I know. (And they’ll probably never see this, either, but please remember their names.) The third has a massive presence which is also very useful for writers.

Tara Basi – he writes dark science fiction, urban fantasy and satirical radio plays. He’s been a big influence on my writing in the last year, and I was fortunate enough to edit his book “Blocks” in early 2012.

Peng Shepherd – like Tara, I met Peng on a writing course at London’s City University. For me, she’s this generation’s Haruki Murakami. She has a ‘plain’ way of writing, that’s full of atmosphere and magical realism. She’s gone to study a Master of Fine Arts in New York, and is currently editing her first novel. She’ll be on best seller lists by 2025, I guarantee it. Read one of her stories: Free Cake.

Lucy V Hay – Lucy runs the writer and scriptwriter support site, Bang2Write. It’s chockful of useful articles, and her Twitter feed (@ Bang2write) is essential for up and coming authors and scriptwriters. She also has a book out, currently in German only as far as I can tell, called Bauchentscheidung. It’s Young Adult Fiction.

I hope you enjoyed this “Next Big Thing” blog. If you’re a writer and it’s helped you, then please copy the format and put your own answers in. Drop a link in my blog reply area so that I can have a read!

As usual, good luck with your own writing projects.

astro x