One Year On: Influences and cutting up frogs

A dear friend asked if the character who ‘disliked cutting up frogs at school’ was a reference to a reference to the biology lesson scene in ET.  That led to a long think about influences.

At one level, the answer is no.  I did not consciously use that phrase thinking of ET.  Molly is a nurse, not at all squeamish about the bloodier side of nursing.  Although, she likes her meat and fish not to remind her they came from living beings. For her, inflicting suffering is different. Molly subconsciously links the danger to her alien son Cory to cutting up frogs, in part because he reminds her a bit of one.  (Long limbed, hairless, loves the water…)

But there is a link.  With a deft touch, ET presents dissecting the frogs as cruel, and Cory is sometimes very confrontational about human cruelty in all its forms.  Cory is often seen as other, and as fair game, a means to an end.  I think the link was Cory’s appearance, not ET, but the subconscious is not straightforward.  It’s my view that ET confronts human frailty cruelty and power less than Our Child of the Stars does, but my friend’s question shows a counter-example.

Some references in Our Child of the Stars are deliberate, even knowing (‘Easter Eggs’).. Some I made and only later recognized the origins.  The Meteor for example I knew was a lift from Superman/ Smallville, although there are also major differences. And much of it swam into my head ready formed.

One of the most amusing things is the long list of influences, which are books and films I haven’t seen, or saw after the book was written.  After all, a helpless child turns out to have strange powers goes back to Hercules, if not before.

There is an increasing tendency to reduce a book to the author’s biography.  People do borrow from their lives and interests – there is a tapestry of these in my book – but often emotional truth rather than hard facts. And an author subjects it to the comic book transforming radiation of the imagination.

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One Year On: Is Our Child a Fantasy?

The British Fantasy Society just reviewed Our Child of the Stars warmly.  I wrote it in part as a love letter to science fiction, but also to fiction in general. I really want to bring in a broad audience, and certainly the audience has been broad, if not vast.

I spent a lot of time worrying about whether I would manage to alienate both SF readers and general readers.  But I had considered less the SF v fantasy argument.  The marvellous pair Sue Tingey and Juliet McKenna who blurbed my books, and in Juliet’s case reviewed it for SF magazine Interzone, are fantasy writers.

Many people like both, and most people accept the boundaries are a matter of opinion. Attempts to produce rigorous definitions flounder, in part because some things like time travel machines and faster than light travel are not currently believed possible but look ‘sciencey’ enough to pass.

Ray Bradbury’s books are full of things which include star ships, Mars colonies, and time travel.  Yet he claimed that all his work was fantasy except Fahrenheit 451.  I’m amused to see genre powerhouse Forbidden Planet list Our Child of the Stars as fantasy, and I can see their point.

I think some of our choices are based on the aesthetic.  Bradbury’s dreamy prose, and limited interest in the nuts and bolts, makes his work more like a fantasy.

Stories exist.  Genres are helpful, by hinting what the ground rules are, and when to shelve it.

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Launch Friday Sept 20th and Signing Sept 21st

Launch of the All Good Bookshop, Friday Sept 20th.  Gather from 5pm.  Also the launch of my book in paperback.  It is Blue Harbour Yard, three minutes from Wood Green Station.  BAB/snacks.  I wrote about why this new bookshop matters here.  Support independent bookshops!

I am also doing a signing at the ever-supportive Waterstones Enfield, from 12-2pm, Saturday 21st Sept.  Support Enfield’s only substantial bookshop!

You can order a copy from either and I will sign if you like…

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Paperback Writer 19th September

It’s a month till the UK launch of the paperback of Our Child of the Stars. (Thursday 19th Sept.) Anyone who wants one can pre-order it now from all good bookshops and the usual online retailers.

I’ve been blown away by the support and interest I’ve had from family, friends, and colleagues. I’ll take a little bit more of your patience if I can.

Pre-orders count towards the first week of sales, helpful for the charts. And also, not every shop will have it in, but most shops can order it.

The oddity of the way publishing works is that having devoted masses of effort to promoting the e-book, audio-book, and the hardback – despite the paperback being crucial to its commercial success – the paperback often gets less of a push. Although my publishers are doing some good things, which is more than some people get.

If you are on good terms with a bookshop or in a book group which might like it, let me know. The paperback has Readers Notes which I can share.

Word of mouth – or its shiny new friend, sharing on social media – really helps. If you feel moved to share the details I will be pushing out, I’d be grateful.

And the national press has been very generous to the book. In this anniversary of Woodstock and the Moon Landings, exactly why I decided to write about a childless American couple adopting an alien in 1969, remains a bit of a mystery. But most people who read it are not disappointed.

‘heartfelt, richly imaginative and gripping’ (SciFiNow)

‘sympathetic characterisation and fine storytelling’ (Guardian)

‘compelling… the same combination of science fiction and heart-tugging tenderness that Stephen King does so well.’ (Grazia)

‘An out of this world winner’ (Weekend Sport)

‘This strong and generous first novel wears its heart on its sleeve and embeds all the thrills and chills in credible human, and non-human, emotions.’ (Daily Mail)

‘A pleasing, big-hearted read’ (Financial Times)

‘Wholly fresh and intensely gripping’ (Interzone)

‘a wonderfully emotional, heart-warming journey of what it really means to be a parent’ (Los Angeles Times)

Thank you for listening.

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Why do I have to wait for the paperback?

 

A friend doesn’t understand the logic behind issuing the hardback, e-book, and paperback in the way publishers do.  She points to all the successful reviews and publicity at the start of the year, then says – will people remember that when the paperback comes out, say eight months later?

Here’s my thoughts.

The book trade is dealing with the effects of various changes

  • Discounting – supermarkets, Amazon, and discount specialists sell books at very low prices
  • The growth of the e-book (sales may have slowed a bit depending on who you believe – still massive)
  • Audiobooks are growing fast
  • Bookshops on the high street suffer the same pressures everyone else does – high rents and combating online retailers (who sometimes dodge taxes)
  • Book piracy, which is stealing.
  • And there is just more interesting content viewable at home than there was

A big publisher must try to juggle different markets.  For some genres, hardbacks are still more likely to be reviewed in print media, and there is a market for big beautiful object books. And the hardback is to some extent the flagship product physical bookshops try to sell. Yet, those who read e-books are likely to read early and to review online.

I’ve seen pundits argue we need to make people see buying physical books is ‘best’.  (Financially for authors, that’s a moot point.)  Most authors of physical books need buy-in from local shops to get visibility.

I’ve seen other pundits argue we should publish the paperback soon after the hardback, riding on its coattails to build a larger market in size for authors.  They argue a bigger push on paperbacks would allow middling authors to reach more readers and more sustainable income.

(Fun fact: With professional authors, on average their writing is only 20% of their household income- ALCS 2019)

I don’t have a simple answer for what strategy publishers should follow.  What I do propose is to let fans of the book know how they can help in the run-up to paperback publication.  Sub to my newsletter or follow me on Twitter etc!!

(Pix annie spratt, Unsplash)

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Second helpings: the marvel of sequels

Many great books have great sequels, some even surpassing the first book. Yet the debut author faced with a sequel faces some special issues.

The first book may have taken five years to write and a year to edit. The publisher will want to see the sequel within a year. Building on the audience is key – the book must build on what made fans of The First One like it, but not be a mere reheating. Certainly, it needs to be bigger, bolder… Widening it to reach new fans may annoy the existing ones. Fewer people will review the second, and they may have less compunction about being critical.

Sequels can be close or distant. Close sequels flow easily one to another. The Lord of the Rings was written as one book, divided into three by the publisher. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun follows the same protagonist through his quest with little gaps between books.  Or, sequels can be more distant.  Ursula Le Guin’s second Earthsea book, the Tombs of Atuan, starts in a different country with a different protagonist.  Ged, hero of the first book, turns up half-way through as a foreign prisoner.  In an extreme case, Adrian Selby asked to write another book in his Snakewood world chose to write one set two hundred years before, explaining the origins of a legendary figure in the first one.

Admiring Selby’s gall, there was never much choice for me.  People who wanted to read a sequel universally want to know what happens to Gene, Molly and Cory, in the very different situation facing them after the first book.  And I knew what that was, so I’m happily writing that.

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The rules of Write Club; or you want to write a novel

So you want to write a novel? I’ve been asked how several times in recent weeks, often from people who haven’t written more than a report since school. I’d written fiction but only stared defeated at the idea of writing a novel until 2012.  Here’s some thoughts.

Write to see if you can do it, and like doing it.

The curse of writing advice is how dogmatic and simplistic some of it is. Read around, and be cautious of This Is The Only Way.

Start writing. Write a dialogue between two people you know. Try short stories. Write description. Look at what things you write work and what don’t. Compare them to good authors you know well. Lots of authors keep a journal. Get a routine, whether every day, whenever you have a free hour, all Saturday. Don’t worry on day one what this writing is ‘for’.

Novels, short stories, plays, film scripts are different art-forms. They have some similarities and some differences. Writing twenty 5000 word short stories is not inherently ‘easier’ than writing one 100,000 word book. Writing well for children is no ‘easier’ than writing for adults. Write to find out what is the form for your story.

Read a lot. Read the sort of thing you like, the sort of thing you want to write, sometimes other things people praise which are not your thing, and non-fiction too. Occasionally you find a good writer who doesn’t read lots. But very rarely.

Some people try fan-fiction, which is taking a story you like and setting stories in that world. It is said to be a good exercise. Maybe try it but two firm DON’Ts. Don’t sell fanfic, and don’t submit it to agents (because copyright: most likely you do not have the right to use the characters). Use it for practice.

A NOVEL? Not surprisingly, if you want to write a novel, it’s a big job and takes a lot of time. I worked on Our Child of the Stars on and off for five years.

GENRE. Genre is a loose description, a set of promises to the reader. It helps people to market the book and to shelve it in the bookstore properly, so it has the best chance to reach its audience. Genre has conventions, and it is important to understand what they are now. For example, if you read a lot of science fiction published fifty years ago, the field has moved on. If you haven’t read Young Adult novels, you’re unlikely to write a good one.

The industry is very wary of cross-genre books because they can alienate both audiences and satisfy neither. But the conventions have plenty of stretch in them.

IDEAS. A good book is not ‘an idea’. ‘An idea’ can be a starting place, but for example, ‘orphan goes to wizard school’ is the idea for both A Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter – radically different books in character, world, story-line, philosophy, writing style and ending.

PLOT. Plot is the events you arrange in order to tell your story well. Lots of other story happens, you just don’t have to write it.

Even good ideas or worlds or research are most entertaining when used as a background to people. Interesting people that we care about, part of their world, driven by things they want, and who face obstacles and the limits of their abilities.

Hamlet is four hours long, yet it asks a few snappy questions. Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and usurped the throne. Will Hamlet do the right thing, and what is the cost? Hamlet would be a totally different play if Hamlet was a different person.

Writing gurus can be enormously dogmatic about how to structure a plot; also a Hollywood blockbuster, a literary novel and an art house film have different needs. But they are right that usually plot is about choices made by characters, a series of events following logically one from the other. They need to provoke emotional responses. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end – a setup, the struggles to resolve the issues, the climax. (That was the original writing guru, Aristotle by the way. He liked admirable people being brought down by their flaws. You don’t have to write that.)

Writing advice. Good advice explains the arguments. For example, ‘all adverbs are bad’ is terrible advice. ‘Adverbs are often a sign of weak or lazy writing, often they can and should be replaced with better dialogue, or stronger verbs in action. Just sometimes they are an option worth considering.’ is better advice.

Yes, there are books on writing, and some of them are useful. I recommend a few below. Some courses are useful and some writing groups. There is absolutely no way around writing, a lot; receiving criticism, some of which you won’t like; and rewriting. Turning your critical skills on other peoples’ work is also valuable. There are services which you can pay to evaluate your work.  (This is a service I am developing.)

No, your first draft is not as good as you can get it. Sorry. Yes, some feedback you get is wrong. Sorry.

PLAN OR NOT? Do you plan every stage of your book before you start writing (a plotter) or do you just start with a situation and free-write (a pantser as in writes by the seat of your pants). Many people shift between the two. For example, I start with strong ideas about the characters, setting, themes, their dilemmas, and where they might end up. I develop the characters and theme as I write, then do some hard re-plotting in the first redraft. A hard-line plotter probably ends up deviating from their plan. I like the discipline created by a firm narrative question (will Hamlet do the right thing?)

Don’t try writing a novel for the hope of fame and fortune. The statistics are blunt, whether you self-publish or traditionally publish. Do it to see if you enjoy it. Do it to see if you can.

On Writing, Stephen King
How to become a writer, Dorothea Brande (very old, very interesting)
How not to write a novel, Howard Mittlemark, Sandra Newman
Get Started in Writing Young Adult Fiction: Juliet Mushens. She is a well known agent. Ignore the title, 85% of this book applies to any novel and it explains modern publishing well too.

 

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Our Child of the Stars well and truly launched

I have been officially launched for three and a half weeks, or three and a half months if you count the e-book.

The most important things about your debut book being launched are

  • It’s truly great.
  • Except it isn’t every minute. It can be a real roller-coaster. Literally, a set-back can send you down, a good review soaring up, in the time it takes to cook a casserole.
  • You did it! Yay!
  • So you can finish the second one! Aaargh!  Tricky Second Album.
  • Be proud but also, stay humble. Just one of the paradoxes.
  • Try to enjoy its absurdities and unexpected felicities. Old friends getting in touch. Marvellous reviews in odd places.
  • Keep focused and working on the next project.
  • RATION SOCIAL MEDIA.
Hanglider against blue sku
Hang glider against blue sky

Some other thoughts

It has social cachet. People vaguely know it’s a good thing to have published a book.

People do say the weird things you are told they do.  Some are just awkwardness.  ‘You must have done a lot of research’ for example.

It’s worth remembering how individual responses to a book are.  Some people won’t like it, some will buy it but not read it for three months, some won’t finish it, and some who promised to review it won’t.  Everyone else’s life does not rotate around your book.

Nice surprise, publishing is full of people who like books and like talking about them.  It’s very concerned about the bottom line, but they do like books.

Covers really matter. You see booksellers decide to stock on a two sentence description and the cover.

Self-publishing still has a poor reputation out there.  Some people know some self-published books are good, but traditional publishing still has cachet.

I wouldn’t say ‘Nobody in publishing knows anything’ but they cannot predict clearly which books will soar and which won’t. In fact, the current traditional publishing model is to do lots of books that do OK or badly; lots of debuts which may not lead to solid book a year careers; and the cluster of high performers and surprising new hits which keep the show on the road.

There is a great glowing galaxy of book bloggers, and your publicist lines them up to write about the book, a great flood of reviews for about two weeks.  In my case, I got tons of splendid blog reviews and a couple that were a bit off, but people are entitled to their opinions.

I got positive reviews in the Guardian, Daily Mail, Weekend Sport, Grazia, Mature Times, Candis,My Weekly, and the Irish Independent.  In the SFF world, Interzone and SciFiNow were great.  Pleased to see the coverage in Financial Times and SFX.  So this is magnificent work by the term.

The good thing about my reviews is that the negatives largely cancel out. A few people don’t like Cory.  Many fall passionately in love with him.  All those people who found it gripping need to talk to the people who found it slow. Etc.

Then you run into distribution.  Truth is, bookshops can’t stock every new novel. Many, if you are lucky, have a single copy, placed spine out on a low shelf.  Being surname Co… puts you on the floor level in Waterstones New Fiction. You endlessly tell your friends, “order it – usually comes next day or so…  Don’t wander around town looking for a bookshop with thousands in a pile.”

The author thanks you for your support.  Honest. They’re just trying to remember why they agreed to write that article for publicity to that deadline.  And figuring out the next book.

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Write what you know – Our Child of the Stars

This article appeared in the Jan 2019 Enfield Dispatch under the headline Written in the stars.  My thanks to the editor.

***

How did I write Our Child of the Stars?  Did I stick to the old saying ‘Write what you know’?

I wrote a short story for Halloween.  A couple, Gene and Molly, and their strange but lovable son Cory.  It took me a day or two, and I was intrigued.  Obsessed.  There was tragedy in Molly’s past and violence in the family’s future. What an oddly likeable little boy he was.  Whole strands of the book come from single sentences in the story, like how Cory came into their dreams…

And it was clear the setting was rural New York and the timing was that great mythical decade, the Sixties.

‘Write what you know.’ I was brought up in Bristol.  It would have been easier to move the book to the urban England of my childhood and set it a little later.  The book would have been surprisingly different.

Yet the characters were very clear where they came from.

What I know, I hope, is people.  I have always been surrounded by strong, interesting women, which helped to write Molly, the main voice.  I know families, and bereavements, and arguments, and what it is to be a child, a sibling and a parent. I know what I care about, what I think of the world then and now, (war and peace, truth and lies), and what type of books I like.  I’m a kind of recovering science fiction and fantasy fan, I like some of it a lot, but always because of the people.

America fascinates me, because I was born there.  Research was talking to people, remembering stories from my parents, the books and films of the era, and of course, the internet.  And the wonderful soundtrack made music a character in the book.

I knew who to ask, intelligent readers of different ages, genders, tastes and nationalities who would give me robust feedback.  I learned what feedback is useful.

I wanted to try for an agent. A previous novel got nowhere but encouraged me.  It’s never been so easy to find what agents want.  This book interested three agents and one offered to represent me.  We didn’t know each other, he just liked the book.

‘It’s wonderful,’ he said, ‘but it needs more work…’

He sold it, and now it is in the world, and complete strangers love it.

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Updates for this book and the next for reviewers and bloggers

I’m enjoy reading reviews of Our Child of the Stars on Goodreads and Amazon, among other places.  It’s not done to respond to those directly, even if I wanted to.

I’m writing a second book, which will strongly appeal to those who liked the first one.  To stay in touch:

Ideally subscribe to my newsletter – which only goes out when I have real stuff to say.

Drop me an email, if you only want the most significant developments.  That goes on a secure list. (The newsletter is easier.)

Follow me on twitter

Follow me on the journey and comments welcome.

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