Writing update

A short blog this time with updates on my various writing projects:

 

  • Planetfall: the first book in the trilogy has been available since January 2013. It’s had over 300 paperback sales or downloads. A few agents have expressed some interest in it, but have been dissuaded because it doesn’t fit current market trends. However – recently an online publisher asked to see the full manuscript after reading the first three chapter. More news as and when.
  • Planetfall: book 2, Children of Fall, is going well. I’m about halfway through writing it. It’s already at 100,000 words, which is the length of book 1, and Backpackers – ie, a full novel’s length. The final book will probably be 200,000 words, and I am currently wondering whether I should release it in two halves, and then combine into one book. I have a few months to consider what to do, as I’m taking time out to work on a short, secret project (see below).
  • Backpackers: this has had some interest from agents, and was almost picked up by one. However each cited Fifty Shades of Grey as having changed the market, and publishers wanting more books along those lines. I’ve self published the book for a short time to gauge interest. So far it’s selling badly, which is a shame, as it’s a better book than Planetfall 😀 Oh well. I shall leave it for sale until June, and then take it down. I may re-write Chapter Three, which I think is its weakest link at the moment.
  • Secret project: Not much to say, other than I’m trying to write a novella or a short novel (somewhere between 65,000-75,000 words) in three months. All I’ll say is Jack Wolf from Backpackers makes a guest appearance.
  • Robocop fanfic: on hold. I’m sad about this, as the film is coming out soon, and I’d hoped to cynically cash in on the publicity to grow my readership. The secret project has to take precedence though.

 

Hope your writing is going well. As usual, I’d love to hear what you’re working on.

 

astro x

Free Robocop fan fiction

Howdy groovers,

on this week’s blog I’m giving away part one of a Robocop fan fiction story I wrote last year.

Go to my store to download A Dollar Badly Spent, Part One: Bixby’s Story.

Hope you enjoy it. If there’s any interest I’ll publish the second part in a couple of months’ time.

astro, x

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

Customer reviews for Planetfall

Tonight I put out the call: “Have you read Planetfall? What did you think?”

Two readers came back with comments, one on Twitter and one on the book’s Facebook page.  Here’s what they had to say:

The first review was on Twitter, and straight to the point!

Planetfall is bloody brilliant

Planetfall first customer review

Phew! It’s always good to know that a reader likes your book. But what about the other readers? Here’s some more feedback, this one from one of the lucky competition winners:

Competition winner's review of planetfall

Competition winner’s review of planetfall

As you can read, they “loved it” and thought it was “great writing”. This is the point where my head starts to explode. But fear not dear reader – hopefully soon there’ll be a magazine review which totally demolishes it to bring balance back!

I probed a little with this competition winner, to find our what they specifically liked. They mentioned the main character and the pacing of the book:

Strong female protagonist

What was your favourite part of Planetfall?

I’m relieved that the main character, Kate, has come across so well. I put a lot of effort into writing Kate, and it was very important to me to have a strong female protagonist; science fiction is often lacking in these.

One of the early criticisms of initial drafts of the book was its slow start: the opening chapter was slow and cinematic and atmospheric. But of course readers need a hook and action. I’m really happy that the reader has said that they “loved right from the first page there was action”.

The comments about Kate are reflected by another reader who compared the book to Iain M. Banks’ work. The first comment comes from their experience part way through the book:

Customer feedback6

Then a little further in in which they compare it to Iain M. Banks (nice! thanks):

Customer feedback5

And finally after finishing the book:

Tweets about planetfall

A series of tweets about planetfall

That final comment is great, “More please” and chimes with the reader further above who asked for more.

After five years of writing the book – and indeed, as the first book I ever wrote – this is a huge relief. I remember when I finished the first draft, and somewhere on Twitter is a tweet proclaiming it. And now I’ve had my first reader reviews I feel like I’ve finally completed a journey with it from decision to write, developing as a writer, finishing the book, having initial drafts proof read, making amendments, beefing up certain characters, re-writing the opening chapters endlessly… The end of a journey, and a happy one at that.

If you’ve read Planetfall: All Fall Down and have a review, I’d love to hear it – good, bad, indifferent, I don’t mind. Please let me know what you thought of it.

astro x

Competition winners

A few weeks ago I ran my first ever competition to promote Planetfall: All Fall Down. I put up two signed copies of the book.

Not to be falsely humble, but as a self published author with no commercial backing or significant public profile , I knew that there was a risk no one would enter.

I am, therefore, hugely pleased to say that I had four entries to the competition to win the two books. And because I was so relieved, and because the number of entries was just a couple more than the number of books available, I’ve decided to award all entrants with a signed copy.

So congratulations to:

  • Martin in Neath
  • Paul in Huddersfield
  • Carolyn in Leicester, and
  • Holly in Chingford.

They’ve all won a signed copy of the paperback, which *cough cough* is available from Lulu through my store with a 15% discount for the next few weeks. Well done to all of them.

The correct answers to the quiz questions were:

1. All Fall Down is set on a desert planet, where there are important minerals in the sand. Which famous science fiction book (and later film) was set on a desert planet devoid of water and full of giant worms? – DUNE by FRANK HERBERT

2. All Fall Down is available in paperback and as an e-book. Which platform/website is each available from? (Hint: check my Store.) – KINDLE and LULU.COM

3. The final question is actually just a question from you: what was your book of 2012? I’ll collate the competition entries and produce a list of favourite books from you all. There’s no right or wrong answer, I’m just looking to share reading tips!

The books recommended by our lucky winners are:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Walking Home by Simon Armitage

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson, and

Will We Ever Speak Dolphin? by Mick O’Hare

I hope the winners enjoy the book!

astro x

How to self publish

I recently published my first novel on Kindle and paperback. And between 2010 and early 2012 I published two shorter books, Ayla’s Journey (a dark and surreal illustrated children’s book) and Dark Things (short dystopian stories, some of them flash fiction). This experience has led me to giving advice to other authors about self publishing, which I thought would be useful sharing with a wider audience. So here we go – an Idiot’s Guide to Self Publishing.

Part one – Preparing your text

1. Make sure you have a complete text you want to publish. By complete, I mean it’s been properly proof read for spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, punctuation and formatting. There are a number of ways of achieving this. Read it yourself in different formats: I recommend printing it, going somewhere different to your usual writing environment, taking a red pen with you, and running the nib of the pen over the paper as you read. You will pick up different problems to reading on the screen (which if you only edit on paper, you must also do). Then ask someone else to read it. You should be doing this anyway – texts that want to be published are as much a product of the writer’s imagination as they are of the reader’s. So have a couple of friends read the text, and ask them to circle all of those errors, as well as give critical feedback on the story, its characters, those all important opening paragraphs, page and couple of pages, and how satisfying the conclusion is.

We’re not quite finished with the text. A few little prescriptive things:

a) Font. You might have a favourite font that you use. But is it readable once printed? If you’re going to publish as an ebook only this isn’t so important, because you can change the font on your device. But if you’re publishing to paper you need to choose your font. There’s a good guide to choosing fonts on the self-pub.net website. I would avoid Times New Roman (it looks amateurish in print), and stick to a font like Book Antiqua or Bookman Old Style (note the hint in the font title).

b) Page layout. For this section we need to pick up a book and open it to the first chapter. I’d like you to look at how paragraphs are laid out. Note that the first paragraph of a section is aligned with the page margin, while subsequent paragraphs are indented, like this:

First paragraph in line with margin.

Subsequent paragraphs start indented.

This is industry standard, and you must also follow it. This might mean re-formatting your entire book. Sorry, it’s necessary if you want to be taken seriously.

c) Section breaks. Some writers like to put an asterisk or other symbol between sections within a chapter. The standard is to use a single line break. It’s up to you. Most texts will look better with a single line break, unless your text is in a particular style (like a Gothic horror) and the symbol adds something to the atmosphere.

d) Font size and line spacing. Tricky. On ebooks you can adjust it on the device, so there’s not much to worry about. In a print book there’s only one way to tell if your print size and line spacing look good on paper: print and be damned. That means going right through this process, ordering a copy of your book and seeing how it looks. For guidance, I’d advise 1.5 line spacing and a font size of around 11. However you should also check the typesetting information in printed books you own, which sometimes describe the font and size.

2. Still here? Now you need a cover design. Some people are lucky enough to know artists and designers who they can ask to create book covers. There are also freelance book cover designers (find them through internet search engines).

If you’re creating an ebook, you will need your cover image prepared.

If you’re publishing on paper only, you can use the self publishing site to create a book cover.

3. We’re still in preparation mode aren’t we? So let’s go back to your book text because there’s a few things it needs: legal information, acknowledgements, copyright notice, contact information and page numbers.

a) For the legal information, simply copy the text from the front of an already printed book. I advise slightly amending any wording that isn’t about legal things to make it your own, but as a minimum you want to say something like: “Copyright © Your Name 2013 The right of Your Name to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her/him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.”

b) Acknowledgements are those thank yous that you want to give to whoever helped you write the book or encouraged you along the way. You don’t have to put them in. You might have noticed that they’re sometimes at the end of the book (my preference) instead of the start. It’s up to you if you include them.

c) Copyright information. You’ve already shown your copyright in the legal information. Now you need to say how and when your text can be copied, re-distributed, transmitted and so on. You’ll find this in the legal information text in the front of most books. Like I said, I recommend just copying the text from a book – you should notice that they’re pretty standard paragraphs across different publishing houses.

d) Contact information: these days being a self-published author is all about building an audience, and that means people need to be able to contact you. You don’t have to, of course, it’s simply advised. There are a number of ways to achieve this. Set up an email account specifically for your writing (do not use your own email address), set up a Twitter account, Google+ or Facebook page, or create a blog which has feedback options.

e) Page numbers. If you’re not sure how to insert these into your document, you can either click on the Help option inside your word processor, or in most word processors, you can use a drop down menu called something like “Insert” or “Edit”, and then an option like “Fields” or “Special”. In OpenOffice go Insert > Fields, and in Microsoft Word go Insert > Page Numbers. These instructions work for PCs; I don’t know much about Macs, sorry.

4. We’re still in preparation mode. We’ve done a lot to the text and the contents, and we’ve started thinking about the cover. You might have made a lot of changes. If so, rest your text for a week or so, come back to it with fresh eyes, and read it through again with a red pen. Self publishing is all about polishing and polishing and polishing. Now make a cup of tea, you deserve it.

Part two – Registering with self publishing sites

1. This is probably the bit most want to know about. You’ve heard of other people self publishing, but you’re not sure how you do it yourself. Let’s manage your expectations right now: this is going to take a while. You can save your progress and come back to it, if you’re pressed for time. Just be prepared for this to be easy, even while it’s time consuming and laborious.

2. We’re going to use Amazon as our self publishing site. Once you’re up to speed with using Amazon, you can use other sites, like Lulu or Nook or Google Books. So, go here https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/signin and create a user profile. This site is called “Kindle Direct Publishing” or KDP. It’s going to be your central resource for getting an ebook out.

3. Now you need to set up a different user profile on a different site for the print version of your book, so go here: https://www.createspace.com/ This is called CreateSpace. If you have a central Amazon account, you should find that the KDP and CreateSpace accounts are automatically linked together.

4. Later, you can register on Lulu.com for print and ebook if you want. I prefer Lulu for printed books, because the book creation process is a little easier to use. But for the moment, let’s concentrate on the Amazon facilities.

5. Go back to Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP. Once you’ve registered, you should see a screen like this:

Image

To start the process of publishing your ebook, click on that yellow button “Add new title”.

Step three – Creating your ebook

1. Click on that button! You’re taken to a page which is headed by Your book, and then there’s probably a box underneath about enrolling your book in something called KDP Select. Ignore this for now, you can come back to it later.

2. Start filling in the details for your book. That’s how easy it is: you’re just filling in boxes. But now comes a tricky part. You’ve been asked for a Description. This is the short paragraph that people will read when your ebook is listed on Amazon, which should grab their attention. Rather than spending hours trying to think what to write, go to a successful book’s page, say Life of Pi, read the text, and adapt the style to suit your own book.

For example, the Life of Pi text says this:

One boy, one boat, one tiger …After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, a solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orang-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary and best-loved works of fiction in recent years.

To adapt this for your book, break it down into the elements, and include your own book’s details. So let’s assume you’ve written a book about a family at war over several generations.

One family, three generations, one deadly secret. [See how we get a quick description with very short elements.]

When Arthur graduates from college he expects a bright future. [Now we have a male lead, and we have something to gain and lose: a bright future.]

But his attempts to leave behind his working class background bring him into conflict with his parents. His struggle to move on with his life brings out a secret hidden by his grandparents, which threatens to tear apart the entire family. [Now we have a problem establishing, conflict, and a hint at the consequences.]

Spanning three generations, Arthur’s Kitchen Sink explores the tensions at the heart of every family and how love can tear us apart.

Anyway, you get the idea. Use the hook, give us the context and then create the conflict and what’s at stake for your character. Then finally place the book in its genre: scifi, fantasy, literary fiction, thriller, etc.

3. When you get to section 2. Verify Your Publishing Rights, you should click the following:

a) This is not a public domain work… Most authors will use this option. It means the work is yours and belongs to you.

b) This is a public domain work… If you’ve taken works that are out of copyright you have to choose this option. For example, some people collect old versions of The Brothers Grimm stories originally published in the 1800s and now out of copyright, and publish them as collections.

4. Now you need to upload your book cover. Fortunately we covered this in Part one – Preparation, and you have a file ready. Make sure it’s saved as a .jpg. Once you’ve uploaded your image, you should see it appear on the page behind the upload box. Now just click the little [x] in the top corner to get rid of the upload box.

5. Upload your book file! You can upload a .doc, but I recommend something first. Open your word processor and then open your book file. Now we’re going to save it as a different file format. If you’re not used to doing this, it’s really easy, and here’s the step by step guide:

a) Open your file

b) Click on the File menu

c) Click Save As (note: do not click “Save”, you must click “Save as”).

d) Now you have the save window on your screen. Look near the bottom and just below your file’s title is an option saying “Save file as type:”. Click on the little arrow on this box.

e) Go through the file formats and click on HTML or HTM. Now click SAVE.

f) When you upload your book, look for the .html version. It makes the file conversion a but easier for KDP.

6. Now you’ve uploaded your book you can preview it online. Finished? Almost there. Click Save & Continue.

7. Now we’re into pricing. This requires a little bit of thought.

a) Click Worldwide rights.

b) Choose the 70% royalty rate if the book is your original creation. If it’s a collection of other out-of-copyright works, then click the 35% royalty rate.

c) Choose your prices. KDP gives you minimum prices. It’s up to you what you choose, but some advice first. If you have no audience, no public profile, no previously published works or reputation, setting a price at book store levels will work against you. Try setting a price of USD $3.50, and click the boxes for the other territories saying “Set price automatically based on US price.”

8. Done that? At the bottom is a little box you need to check saying you’ve read the Terms and Conditions. Click it and press Save & Publish.

9. Well done! You think you’ve published your book. Not quite. First Amazon needs to check that you’re not publishing porn or anything illegal. If all is well, within 24 hours you’ll receive an email telling you that your book is now available for sale. You’re a published author! Brilliant. That’s the end, right. Right? Well, it could be. Or it could be time for…

Step four – Marketing your book

1. First we need to understand “marketing”. If you think it means “advertising” you need to read this. If you know what it means properly you can skip forward.

2. Marketing is about making your product visible, attractive, interesting, desirable and of forming a connection with your potential audience and purchaser. Advertising is a part of that, of course. If it helps, imagine you’re in a physical market, surrounded by market stalls, each selling foods and clothes and consumer goods. There are hundreds of them. How do you know which stalls even exist? Which stall do you choose? Do you even know what you’re there to buy? Now consider it from the market stall holder’s point of view. You’re selling clothes, but everyone else is selling similar clothes. How do you make yours stand out? Even worse, your stall is stuck down in a corner behind 100 other stalls. This is where marketing comes in.

3. First you need people to be aware of your product. We do through that different forms of advertising. This can mean using Twitter, Google+ or Facebook, or through more advanced measures like having our books reviewed in magazines or by well known new book blogs.

4. So people have followed the direction signs and are looking at your stall (your book). Now you need to create and maintain their interest. This is where the product description and the cover image help. People are a sucker for a pretty picture. That’s not cynical, it’s just true. Many decisions to buy a book are based on the cover. But they also want a book that’s suitable for them. If it says “scifi” on the cover, you’ll hook the scifi fans and lose the romantic fiction fans. That’s fine. Know your audience and market to them. The book description you put into KDP when you were creating your book helps here. What else helps? Well they’re on your page, and they’ll want to read reviews to see what other people though. Never underestimate the power of social recommendation. It is not acceptable to write your own reviews. But you do need 1 or 2 to start you. Go back to the friends who read your book and ask them to write a quick review.

5. By the way, we’re following the classic marketing model called AIDA here. It would be worth your while reading the Wikipedia page about it.

6. You have their awareness, you’ve grabbed their interest, and you’ve created some desire. Now you need them to commit and buy. Price is important here. Your readers need to feel they’re not risking too much money for what is still an unknown quantity. But you don’t want to appear cheap either. That’s why we’ve set the book at USD$3, above minimum but not greedy. I’m no marketing expert, so from here on in I advise using a search engine to look up ideas on marketing your self published book.

7. A final comment. Be prepared for the amount of work marketing needs. You need a presence on Twitter where you’ll find a large community of indie authors. You need to advertise it constantly – one tweet on Twitter won’t do it. One post on Google+ won’t don’t do it. It needs several per day over the course of several months. It needs time and commitment if you want it to sell.

That’s it. Well done, you’re finally a published author. You’ve taken your first step into a wider world. I promised to include details on CreateSpace and publishing to printed books. That information will appear here in the next couple of weeks when I have some spare time, so check back in early February.

If you have any tips to share or want this blog post updated with extra information, then please leave a comment below, and I’ll look into editing and improving it.

Debut novel launches on Kindle and paperback

Today is a proud day! Today I finally published my debut novel All Fall Down, the first book in the planetfall series.

I started this book (originally just called “planetfall”) in September 2007, and finished the final final final final final final draft in August 2012.

Writing my first novel has been one of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences of my life. Let’s not beat around the bush: it is hard to write a novel. If it looks easy to anyone, if it looks like it’s just scribbling a few words down when inspiration strikes, then I can only suggest looking harder.

Writing a novel is hard work. At every sentence on every page in every chapter across the whole book, you have to bear in mind how it affects every other sentence on every other page in every other chapter across the whole book. You have to invent people and their lives and hopes and contradictions and life histories and families and let them live inside you and interact with each other. There are rooms to describe, worlds to invent, references to embed, colours and sounds and smells to be aware of. And all of this – for most of us who write – against the background of going to a normal day job, shopping, cleaning the house, trying to have a life, pay the bills and keep up with our own reading and watching movies and so on.

There are harder things, to be sure. Bringing up children is no doubt harder and more rewarding. But that’s not to dismiss the dedication needed to create a book and the world and people and stories inside it. It is akin to a child being created. And like all children, it must at some point be let go to fend for itself.

And so to my debut novel. Planetfall: All Fall Down, my first novel, is now available on Kindle and paperback. There are links in my store, or follow one of the links in the text above.

Good luck with your own writing projects. And if you have a minute available, please visit the Kindle page and “like” the book, even if you don’t download it. I’m told if it reaches 50 likes, that it will be promoted on Amazon’s new books email to thousands of customers. Thank you.

Creating the planetfall universe

In my last blog post I gave an outline of how planetfall came about – its genesis as a short story, as a writing exercise, and then its evolution as my own writing skills improved: the story of a Marine stretching to 200 pages, edited down to 35 pages, grown again to 75 pages, abandoned for a few years while I wrote a sub-plot, the realisation that the sub-plot was a book in its own right, and the eventual return to that Marine.

But how do you write a sci-fi book set one thousand years in the future, stretching across two books-worth of material (even if half of that has now been deleted)?

Some authors literally make it up as they go along. Or so they say. I often wonder how they develop complex characterisation and a realistic environment by making it up as they go along. I can’t believe there isn’t a little bit of planning in there.

My approach with planetfall started off like this – make it up as you go along. And I quickly realised that wouldn’t work. To make a universe realistic from the first page, the first paragraph, sentence – the first word – it has to seem lived in. It has to feel realistic to the reader. It has to feel like there’s an internal logic, even if the reader hasn’t yet discovered it.

I spent time developing a one thousand year history for planetfall. It starts from around 2050, covers humanity’s first foray to the edge of our solar system, and then its spread out into the galaxy. The major socio-political events are mapped out, the great technological turning points are described, and the artistic periods are mapped and named. Half-page to full-page mini stories, in the style of Wikipedia, exist to describe specific events that form the backdrop to certain characters. For example, Daoud, the Administrator of the Fall Colony, has several pages of character development. His story concerns a trip to Jupiter, and subsequent arguments with the shadowy Cadre which runs society.

For much of planetfall it should seem like references to the broader social universe are consistent – technology, feelings, cultures should all go to a common reference point, regardless of what the characters’ views are on them.

Sometimes there are points in planetfall where I realised there was a hole in history – where the story needed to reference cultural norms or events of the past which I hadn’t written. At those points I had to make decisions – do I make a throwaway reference and hope I don’t need to use it again, or do I take time out to flesh out the universe’s history?

In some cases – the trip Kiran takes out of system – I used throwaway references. The great thing with a galaxy of planets and stars is that you don’t have to return to them. With others – like the AIs and their levels and complexity – I had to sit down and figure out what they were, their characters and relationships.

The most important aspect of pre-writing development, however, is concerned with the characters. Characters in books need to be consistent (even if they are unpredictable, their unpredictable nature is at least predictable) so that the reader can form a relationship with them. In planetfall there are biographies for Daoud, Kate Leland and Sophie Argus, and lesser biographies for Win Ho-Yung, Djembe Cygnate and Doctor Currie – the six principal human actors of the story. Only one character has no developed character biography – Verigua, and that simply because the character wrote itself, and it essentially has no background. Kate, Win and Djembe also have drawings associated with them, which detail my initial thoughts on their view to life – are they people who look backward, who look forward, or who are happy in the moment?

For all the character development I carried out, characters still have their own life in the same way that sometimes new cultural reference points, historical events or places need to come into being to suit the story as it’s written. Djembe was the biggest surprise here.

I do not particularly like the character of Djembe. For many months I fought against the character and tried to make him less straight-backed and rigid and systematic. In the end I gave in and let the character write itself, and the writing became much easier. A salutory lesson in writing characters – they have their own life, they find their own place in the story, and regardless how much character development and universe creation I carried out,  the interaction between characters and environment always brought about story elements that I could never have predicted. Djembe’s antagonistic relationship with Verigua is one of them; Sophie’s fate is another (she had a different fate planned for her which I had to scrap when the story turned a different way).

There’s a common thread coming out here – sometimes the story writes itself, but only, I think, when the author has a deep understanding of it. I’m not sure if non-writers believe this. In many, many places of planetfall I do not feel I was in conscious control of the writing. Many times I would sit in a coffee shop (usually Costa Coffee in Crouch End) and simply read the story at the pace my hand was writing it. It was as new to me as a reader picking up the book for the first time. This is an amazing feeling, and I presume what people are referring to when they talk of their ‘muse’. When the story elements combine so well and are so embedded in the psyche that their immanence flows directly to creation of the story, bypassing the conscious mind and flowing straight from mind to hand.

This doesn’t happen without development and planning. And it also doesn’t happen without letting go of the story and characters and letting them interact on their own terms.

Some places in planetfall are completely planned – the sequence with Djembe and Verigua in the corridor was very carefully planned and measured and drawn – while others flow from letting go of the story – pretty much all of Verigua’s sections (bar the one just mentioned) and the events in the very last chapter (a complete surprise to me, and I almost did a little wee with excitement at one point when it went all 50s sci-fi B-movie on  me). However all of it exists within a framework, a story board I developed right at the start, which in around 20 frames tells the main story points from start to end: arrival on Fall, the trip to the surface, Kate’s travel through darkness, the arrival in the sky.

I guess the realisation I’ve come to is that I have a preferred writing style. I like to know what the universe is like before I find the story within it. Making up the universe is fun as you can put whatever you like in, and then the story can write itself, within a broad and flexible framework, over the top of it. And that broad and flexible framework has to provide enough room, space and air for the story to create itself, to write itself into being.