How to help any new author

There are five easy things you can do to help an author that require no specific training or equipment.

Please buy and read the book! The main thing the author wants is for you to enjoy it.

Feel free to buy it as a print book, an e-book, or an audio-book. A smart author wants all readers.

If you like it, please, please talk about it – online and face to face.  Personal recommendations count.  If you’re a social media person, you know what to do.  You can help authors you like.

Please think about rating and reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads.  It’s easy – giving a star rating takes less than a minute.  Reviews do help readers decide; also, more reviews make the book more visible online.  A review never has to be an English Literature essay.  A few quick lines would be great.

Libraries and charity shops serve the broader purpose of promoting literacy. Most authors use them and encourage them.

Here are five things NOT to do when an author has a book out

Please don’t worry if you haven’t time or energy.

Don’t send bad reviews.  They’ve seen it.  You’re rubbing their face in it.

Don’t tell them their book is not being stocked in any particular shop. No shop can stock more than a minority of titles, and 99% of the time there is nothing the author can do.

Don’t be rude to booksellers or anyone else; don’t move their books in the shop.

Forget to buy it.

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More about Our Child of the Stars

A lost child, the family who try to protect him and the secret that refuses to stay hidden . . .

Molly and Gene Myers were happy, until tragedy blighted their hopes of children. During the years of darkness and despair, they each put their marriage in jeopardy, but now they are starting to rebuild their fragile bond.

This is the year of Woodstock and the moon landings; war is raging in Vietnam and the superpowers are threatening each other with annihilation.

Then the Meteor crashes into Amber Grove, devastating the small New England town – and changing their lives for ever. Molly, a nurse, caught up in the thick of the disaster, is given care of a desperately ill patient rescued from the wreckage: a sick boy with a remarkable appearance, an orphan who needs a mother.

And soon the whole world will be looking for him.

Cory’s arrival has changed everything. And the Myers will do anything to keep him safe.

A remarkable story of warmth, tenacity and generosity of spirit, set against the backdrop of a fast-changing, terrifying decade.

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I Will Write You A Short Story

Authorsforfamilies.org is a group of literary people mostly from the US who got together on Facebook, to support immigrant children separated from their families.

Ripping children away from their families in tears and locking them up in cages, and no-one speaking the kids’ languages… and no paperwork… no easy way to connect a kid and their parents … we have this crazy idea that this is a Very Bad Thing. ***

So, we are fundraising to help, and we’re doing an auction.  There are lots of books, critiques, and advice things to bid on.

I’ve offered to write you a new, original short story.  Yes YOU, if you bid the most.  Cool, huh?

Here are the details.

It will be a story for age 16 + but without excessive sex and gore.  It will be between 1000 and 10000 words.  It will probably have some science fiction or fantasy take, but probably not vampires, werewolves, or zombies.  At the moment, I try to write things which end with hope.

It will take how long it takes.  I’d be surprised if I didn’t get you a draft within a couple of months, but what I will promise is fortnightly updates.

When I send you a draft, I’ll listen carefully to comments, but I won’t be planning a major rewrite.   I have a book deadline.

Will you like it?  I hope so, but there’s no realistic way I can write this unless we’re grown-ups, and accept that you might not.  I’d have to grill you about your taste for hours, and it would still be incredibly difficult to produce something you liked.  It may annoy you.  I hope not, but let’s accept the possibility.

We speak by email.  You give me four prompts.

  1. A name
  2. An object
  3. Something about style or setting or genre
  4. A line (poem, song, book, play) or a visual image but not of the object

I will try to use three of these, and it may be central or tangential, literal or figurative.

Of course, it’s fine to throw in some personal comments ‘Stories with aliens in give me hives’ and I may listen to those.

My decision as to whether I have delivered to you a story within the above parameters is final and no refunds will be given.

OK legal bit, as it has my name on it I keep the copyright and will publish it on my website.  The story will always be used with the line ‘Written for [you] after their kind donation to support Authors For Families.’  Unless you want to remain anonymous. You can put it on your website and send it to people in your Christmas letter, and we should talk about anything else you want to do with it.

It will come to you in British English, or a sort of weird hybrid I write when I set things in America.

An odd collection of my stuff is here.  I hope you enjoy it.

Bid early, bid often.

***You don’t think it is a Very Bad Thing?  Convo over, mate.  Educate yourself.

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Writing process: like a demented Muppet

Kermit types fast
Kermit types fast

I noticed this exchange on Twitter (26 Feb 2018)

Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller

I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman

Here’s the point about writing advice.  I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.

Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’  That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time.  To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days.  (Think about it every day if you can.)

Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing.  Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods.  Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet.  Which is right?

I think it depends how you put words together.  Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker.  They write slowly – add a comma here?  Oooh, tricky!   What comes out is serviceable.  Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.

I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse.  I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again.  I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working.  To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating.  It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet.  I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.

When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.

Plot or pants?  Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants?   See the two esteemed figures above.  Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing.  Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.

I’m more King than Aldiss.   However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous.  People don’t forgive poor endings.  Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book.  Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there.  I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.

What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end?  Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle?  Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies?  Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?

Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’   Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one.  I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.

I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan.  I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan.  Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan.  But the plan is the servant not the master.

Is any of this useful or got any thoughts?  Let me know!  This article was a suggestion from a newsletter follower, so subscribe and ask!

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Covers, Edits, Delays

I have some updates coming, but my lovely subscribers will get them first.

I have seen a first draft of the cover art and I love it so much, I am seeking legal advice as to whether I can marry it.  That’s led to Serious Thoughts about Covers.

I’ve got some hot thoughts on Why Does This Take So Flipping Long?  The quick answer is, it does, and if Our Child of the Stars is going to take a bit longer than a typical debut, then it’s with good reason.  Which I explain.

I’ve had my Important Notes off my editor, Jo Fletcher.  Notes are the editorial changes she wants, and this work is underway.  I might write sometime about what this sort of editing is about.  It’s not line or copy-editing, which is fixing semi-colons, tenses, and noticing characters’ eye colour changes.

Yes, this is coming.  Stay tuned to this channel.

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Why is Our Child of the Stars based in the 1960s?

Smartphones.  The first novel I completed was a modern adventure with teen protagonists, and I was fed up with smartphones.

No, that’s not a problem, they’d Google.  No, they’d message each other.  No, they have time to text the Mayor that they’re in danger.  No, you can’t use signal problems or running out of battery AGAIN. 

I would’ve gotten away with it – if it wasn’t for those pesky smartphones…

In Our Child of the Stars, it’s true that law enforcement with modern tech would mess with the plot.  But that’s fixable.

Stories come to me, and the setting and period is one of the things that come unbidden.  Sometimes, I need take a step back and challenge my subconscious for being boring or obvious.  This kept feeling like a period piece.

The original short story was written after reading Ray Bradbury, a writer who is nostalgic even when writing about the future.

We mythologise the past, and the Sixties in particular.  It was another country, and they did things differently there.  The novel is posed at that point of high idealism souring, at a time when the wave of change was reaching into further corners.

To write about the past is not to be backward looking.  The book is first and foremost about family. It isn’t a preachy book, but I knew that it would touch on difference – sex, race and sexuality.  It’s about the morality of violence – peace and war, and the dishonesty and power of the state.  The Sixties was a time when all those issues were in ferment, even in out of the way places like Amber Grove.  Arguments exploded and if you look at the news, the pieces haven’t landed yet. Our Child of the Stars does have a nostalgic streak, but also it might make people think, could we have done better?  Can we now do better?  It remembers what we gained as well as what we lost.

Why small town America?  Biggest, it would be easier to hide Cory.  And, I didn’t want to write about radicals in a big city, but peaceniks living in a small town.  Inclusion mattered to me, which is why there are honest, decent people, friends of Gene and Molly, who support the Vietnam war, however reluctantly.  That was part of the tragedy of that conflict.

A book needs a soundtrack.  I write to music.  I knew whose records Gene and Molly are listening to in the original story.  The more I listened to the classics of the era, particularly the folk-protest tradition, the more music became important. It quickly became central to Gene’s character, and the framing of the tale.

There were so many good reasons to go with when I did.  But, also, smartphones.

 

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Books I would love to have written

A few years back, I sat down and wrote, unprompted and off the top of my head, in five minutes, the books I wished I had written.   Are these favourites?   They are certainly not perfect, there are cogent criticisms of each of them.  If I had written them, they would have had different faults.  But these were the books that came to mind, without perusing lists of the canon.

  • Northern Lights – (Philip Pullman)
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, and The Left Hand of Darkness – (Ursula K Le Guin)
  • Player of Games – (Iain M Banks)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale – (Margaret Atwood)
  • The Persian Boy, and The King Must Die – (Mary Renault)
  • 1984 and Animal Farm – (George Orwell)
  • Easter – (Michael Arditti)
  • The Sparrow – (Maria Doria Russell)

Revisiting this list recently I added

  • The Girl with all the Gifts – (M R Carey)
  • The Ocean at the End of the Lane – (Neil Gaiman)
  • The Name of the Rose – (Umberto Eco)
  • Binti – Nnedi Okorafor

Commentary on this

  • These immerse you in their world with complete authority
  • Nearly all have great characters you care about.
  • They do tend to address issues however obliquely
  • The only ‘contemporary novel’ is Easter, a satire.  Well, an everything.
  • None of the thrillers, spy fiction, or detective stories make it in.

It is interesting that writers I really rate and recommend do not have a single work that leaps out.

To take some examples, Saki, Borges, Ray Bradbury, Angela Carter I think of as short story writers.  No P G Woodhouse book or story is strikingly better than the next one.

Remember this list is books where I thought, I wish I had written this.  That’s not ‘fave read’ (many are), or ‘most impressed by’.

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