Friday, May 29, 2009

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Laser Bolts

On Friday I looked out my office window and noticed a bank of dark clouds rolling in over the hills. Seeing as I'd ridden my bike that day, I thought I might sneak off at 4.45 to try and get to my car before the rain came (note of explanation, most days of the week I drive to a quiet street near the city and ride my bike the rest of the way, saving parking fees and giving me at least a modicum of exercise). I trudged downstairs with my backpack and two heavy bags of market shopping, which I placed as carefully as I could on each handlebar. Then I set off on a slightly wobbly journey to my car, about fifteen minutes away. I could smell the rain by that stage, and the light was fading fast, but I was pretty confident I'd get to the car in time.

I was *sort of* right. As I turned the corner the first drops came. No matter, in seconds I would have the bike thrown in the back of the old laser, and I'd be driving off, listening to the rain flick specks of rust off the roof.

Problem was, there was no car. Just a damp piece of road where I parked that morning.

There's nothing quite like that sick feeling. Strangely, I found myself riding in a loop around the local streets, thinking I might have parked in a different spot without realising it. In the end I had to admit the sorry truth. Somebody had actually been silly enough to steal the laser. It had finally happened.

At this point the deluge hit. I found myself wobbling up the main road, sheets of rain making halos around the headlights in front, water dripping from my shopping, my helmet and my nose. I tried to ring Pip but she must have been away from her phone, and I didn't want to keep trying because the phone got very wet very quickly, and I thought this probably wouldn't do it a lot of good.

Finally I got through to her, and she picked me up from a nearby shopping centre. After reporting it to the police we went home and I checked the insurance. Thankfully it was covered for theft.

As a kind of creepy afterthought - this morning when I came into work I had one of those spam emails where the subject line is generated by a computer. It came from the UK, and it said "Your car's under arrest".

*twilight zone music*

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Some Thursday Fun

Dear Mr. Tolkien,

Thank you for submitting a query for your children's novel, "The Hobbit". I regret to inform you that while the proposal shows merit, this agency may not be the best fit for your work.

If I might venture some feedback, your query letter needs to be improved if future submissions are to be met with success. Although well written, with some of the strongest grammar this agency has ever seen, your outline of the dilemma facing the main protagonist failed to engage me on an emotional level. You also spent far too much time talking about your professorship and expertise in Norse mythology and foreign languages. What has that got to do with anything? Tell me about your book!

On to the sample pages you supplied. From what I can see, most of your first chapter is taken up with back-story concerning "hobbits" and their unusual living arrangements. Indeed - by the end of this first chapter, the story still hasn't started. Might I suggest commencing at a different point in the narrative? Your best bet would be to open with Bilbo in the grip of the Trolls, and gradually, as the tale progresses, present the back-story of how he came to be there. This will grab your young reader's attention from the start, enticing them to read further while moving the story along at a much quicker pace.

As for the main protagonist - is it likely that children will relate to a fifty-something man with hairy feet who lives in a pit? Might I suggest making Bilbo younger and perhaps a tad less hairy? How about having him as a young tear-away living in his parent's attic, perhaps escaping one night by tying his bed-sheets together, that sort of thing. This demonstration of a rebellious attitude and a desire for personal empowerment will far better capture the imagination of a young reader than a middle-aged man running off without a pocket-handkerchief. Trust me.

This might be a good place to mention the apparent gender imbalance in the work. There would appear to be just a slight deficiency of female characters in the story. To put this another way, there are none - zilch - zero. There are men with hairy feet, men with long beards, men with pipes, men who can see in the dark - there are even men who can turn into bears. There are men of every size, shape and smoking habit imaginable, but the closest you come to a female character is the inclusion of several slightly effeminate elves. This just won't cut it in today's publishing world. If you want to attract a female audience, you must include strong female role-models. My suggestion would be to make the wizard a woman. Gandalina has a nice ring to it. But lose the beard.

A final comment - the conclusion of your story is far from satisfactory. Having brought Bilbo across miles of uncharted wilderness and ever-present danger, someone else kills the dragon! I can already hear the wails of your young readers, devastated at such a radical deviation from accepted norms of children's literature. I for one will not subject them to such a trial.

I wish you all the very best for your future submissions. Remember, publication is a highly subjective business, and one person's trash may indeed be another person's gold.

Yours Sincerely,

Herbert T. Agent.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


I've now been using Online Writer's Workshop for a week, and I have to report - I love it. This is exactly what I've needed, and the benefits are flowing thick and fast.

So far I've only posted the first chapter of Ghost, and I've had five reviews - all very positive and all extremely helpful. All five readers "get" what I'm trying to do with the story and the world, which was one of my main concerns. They've also commented favourably on the plot, so I'm feeling a lot more confident about the direction this latest draft is taking.

Hopefully by the end of the week I can have chapter 2 and 3 posted too - but I'm giving them both substantial rewrites, not only to fit in with the new direction of the first chapter, but also to sharpen up the style a little, and make the story a bit more focused.

I've also enjoyed reading other people's submissions and writing a few reviews. Generally the quality is really good, and now and again I've struck an absolute gold nugget - chapters of books that will almost certainly end up in print. To have people of that calibre read my own stuff and make comments is very valuable.

I'd really like to start posting chapters of Weight of Souls too, but it's far from ready. I haven't done much on it in the last week, but I think it's at the 5000 word mark. On the bus last week I read over it (on my spanking new laptop) and I absolutely loved it - the relationship between the two main characters has gelled in a way I didn't expect, and I'm starting to feel like it may go somewhere. I still only have a vague notion of the overall plot, and it feels strange to be writing without a clear outline, but it never hurts to try something new.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Endeavour Runs Aground ..... Again.

In an earlier post I excitedly reported I had signed up for a voyage aboard the Endeavour Replica - following in the steps of my hero, the great Jimmy Cook. Alas, yesterday I received a letter to say that all voyages for the year have been cancelled. It would appear the economic situation has reduced the number of keen sailors to a trickle - and I'll have to put my dreams of following Cook on hold for at least another year.

There is light at the end of the shipwreck. The trip was to be my 40th birthday present - and now that the (hefty) deposit is coming back to me, I had the opportunity to choose something else. So .... I thought long and hard (for about thirty seconds) and decided to get a laptop. Some of the keys on my last one are so worn the letters are almost gone - and it has more food in it than our fridge. Definitely time for a replacement.

So, last night I trundled along to the local Officeworks and picked up a Dell, which happens to be four times as powerful as our current desktop, has a new version of Word, and has Vista - which I notice has all kinds of new funky error messages when it crashes. Progress.

It's not as good as the sea breeze in your face, but at least I'll be a bit more portable with my writing.

I foresee it will get good use.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Happy Happy Joy

Today I discovered the Online Writer's Workshop. I think Deborah Kalin mentioned it in her blog at some point in the distant past, but I'd filed it away in some obscure draw in my brain, and only decided this afternoon to google it and see what it had to offer.

Really glad I did. People post manuscript excerpts to the site and critique each other, you can't post your own work until you critique four others (unless you're a brand new member, then you get a freebee) so people are fairly keen to write reviews. If the submissions I looked at are any indication the standards are very high - it's not a fan-fiction type thing.

So, this evening I posted chapter 1 of Ghost, with one of the ideas for a plot change I'd been chewing over. It's great if I can add this kind of review alongside the valuable feedback I've had from friends - every comment helps. I guess it's also a good thing that the reviewers don't know you from Adam's left foot - they can say whatever they like (and probably will).

I just need to make sure I don't spend half my workday logged on, something I could easily have done today.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


This morning I've been working on three separate books. I'm certain that in the world of writer's advice this is listed as a bad idea, but there you go. In my mind it's better than the state of dormancy I've found myself in these last few weeks, trying to work out what to do with that pesky Ghost of Ping-Ling.

Speaking of which, on Thursday I decided to bite the bullet and send off a few queries. I already had a query letter ready, and it didn't take long to finish off the synopsis I've been tinkering with for the last few months. By Thursday night I'd fired off five queries to some of the US based agents whose blogs I follow.

How confident did I feel? Not very. The fog that's descended since the assessor's report has drained a lot of my confidence, especially as I've (to date) been unable to come up with a solution to the problems identified that I'm actually happy with. The manuscript I queried was the same that I sent to the assessor, and if the plot problems identified were genuine the agents were certain to pick them up pretty quickly.

By Saturday morning I had received three 'thanks but no thanks' form rejection letters. I printed them out and put them in a folder, something I read somewhere is the right thing to do with rejection letters (short of sticking them up on your wall). How do I feel about this? Well, I would be a bare faced liar if I said it didn't disappoint me, particularly as a couple of the agents were the ones I felt most confident with. But by the same token, it's given me a totally different perspective on the querying process. I've been reading countless agent's and publisher's blogs for months now, and I considered that I was becoming quite an expert on the concept of a query letter. But when you actually sit down and write one and send it off, then get a rejection, it makes you just that much keener to read the advice yet again, and work out whether there's anything you missed. I think that's why I sent off the queries, I needed to taste the experience for real - and I certainly did.

So, now I'm writing three books at once, in between receiving form rejection letters. What are these three books? The first is (of course) the Ghost of Ping-Ling. I'm trying yet another angle on the plot, and so far it hasn't made me throw my hands in the air and swear, which to me is a real positive. I intend to keep tinkering with it until it falls into place, although I don't think I'm going to pour quite as much time into it as I have done over the last few months, at least not for a while.

The second books is called the Weight of Souls. I had the idea for it in my head for about six months, but I wasn't sure it would work. In the last few days I've written nearly five thousand words, and I have to confess I'm surprised at the way it has flowed, and how the idea seems to work really well. I'm only a chapter or so into it, so it could yet fall into a deep ditch, but for the moment I'm happy beavering away and seeing what happens. The other thing that's different about this book is it's an adult fantasy, which I haven't attempted to write before.

The third book has no name at this time, but its one of my older stories that predates the Ghost of Ping-Ling. I haven't spent so much time writing the book itself, but I've spent a lot of time world-building as well as thinking about the characters and the plot, and this morning I wrote the first 100 words.

All in all, it's busy, and it's exciting, and it's challenging, and whether anything comes out of it or not, I'm loving every moment.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Querying Vs. Britain's Got Talent

Seeing as I don't live in a cave, I've now heard of Susan Boyle. I've even watched her audition on YouTube, and enjoyed a tingling sensation watching her blow away the rather smug looking judges (not to mention the two muppets behind the curtain, who make the guys on our local version look almost intelligent).

Having seen only two BGT auditions, Paul Potts and Susan Boyle, I decided to try and dig up some of the less successful audition clips that I knew must be floating around in the ether. It didn't take long to find this, and it is truly a thing of beauty....

As funny as this is, my hat goes off to that guy for having the balls to appear in front of so many people. Even if I had the ability to make butterflies come out of my bottom I don't think I'd ever have the guts to go on stage like that.

Seeing as I'm sending off queries for my manuscript right now, I also couldn't help noticing the similarities between BGT and the querying process. On the show a performer steps out into the lights with exactly one minute to impress the judges. They start their act, desperately hoping to impress, knowing the longer they can keep the judges watching the better. But when the judge has had enough, the buzzer goes, and the performer walks off with their head in their hands.

Then you have an email query. You write your pitch, hoping to dazzle, and hoping the agent will read the whole thing and not give up part way through. If they read the first sentence and hate it you're finished. There's no buzzer, just a simple click and the sending of a form-letter rejection. But if they get to the end and like it - well, then it's just a simple matter of getting them to like your book.

And after it all, if you're really lucky, you end up as the literary equivalent of Susan Boyle, rather than the unfortunate man in the video above.