The Best Kind of Questions

One of the things that is a definite balm to the soul of a writer of children’s books is those moments where you get feedback that lets you know that you have reached a child’s imagination.

I was lucky enough to be approached by a teacher friend who has some students reading my first book, A Ghost Called Dog and they had some questions about the backstory of the dog prior to his becoming deceased.

I was more than happy to answer them and I am sharing them here in case you enjoy the answers too as children ask the best questions.

I should warn you that there are some spoilers here so you may want to read the book first if you want to get the story completely unprepared but otherwise I hope you enjoy.

 

To Mrs Allen’s students,

I was very happy to receive your questions that Mrs Allen passed on, and I will do my best to answer them shortly, but if you would allow me the time I would like to spend a moment preparing you for the answers.

I suspect that humans have been telling stories since there have been humans.  Since the days we first huddled round fires in the dark and started to talk to each other. Stories are one of the ways we make sense of the world around us and they have a special kind of magic of their own. A good story will fire your imaginations but in the retelling it takes on a life of its own. Whether by accident or design a story will always change in the telling, even the book you have read is different to how the story first appeared in my head.

I tell you this not to say my book is good or special, but to say that I am truly grateful that you cared enough to ask these questions. I will do my best to answer them from the world which I have created but please remember that if you don’t like my answers, you can always make up your own.

Keep doing that and maybe you’ll write you own books one day.

Why aren’t there more ghost dogs?

There are very few ghosts in the world at all and even fewer ghost animals. Usually, something bad has to happen to someone to make their spirit need to linger with the living. For animals this is rare because animals are consumed with animal things like food, and head scratches but not so much with complex human things like mathematics or history. However, there is a sacred tree in Abby and Chris’s garden which is a link to the Land of Fairy and powerful magic. When Abby and Chris awaken a spirit by playing in the sacred tree, magic seeps back into the world and calls the spirits of animals that were buried nearby into the world. The ghosts in this book are unique as far as I know.

How did the dog die? Did it get hurt?

These are really good questions. This is a writer’s way of stalling for time, but the honest answer is that I don’t know but there is a reason for this. Even if Chris had asked Dog how he died (and I don’t know why he didn’t), I’m not sure woof would explain the answer. However, we do know that there were a series of pets buried in the garden that came back as ghosts thanks to magic, and I like to think they were all much loved family pets who reached a good age and then died of natural causes. Why else would they be buried in the garden?

Why doesn’t the dog have a ghost collar? Why isn’t the dog with its ghost owner?

As I said, I don’t know for certain what happened to Dog but I believe his owner is still alive as dogs live much shorter lives on average than humans, and Dog was only brought back by the stray powerful magic that seeped into the garden. A collar is a human thing to denote ownership of a pet, but you can’t own the spirit of something and so when the magic brought back the spirit of Dog, his ghost came back as an animal without a collar.

I hope this answers your questions, or at least gives you something to think about.
Gavin

 

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Let The Story Find You

The start of the year can be difficult for some. Not everyone enjoys the holiday season and once January rolls into view we still have a couple of months of cold weather (in the northern hemisphere anyway), dark nights and according to the now annual news story the supposed saddest day of the year.

However, as someone who blogs about the NFL I get the excitement of the playoffs to carry me through January and into the NFL off-season that started in February. I am intending to write a few more off-season NFL posts this year, but I don’t cover the league in detail during this time so my schedule is undeniably easier. This enables me to get various bits of writing admin done and I can also pick up the pace on whatever book I’m currently working on.

I have been dutifully working my way through the first draft of the next book in my current series all through the NFL season (a savvy marketer might have a title for said series by book two…) and it is feeling good so far, but that’s likely because I haven’t got to the serious part of editing yet.

There are a couple of things that I have picked up from other writers over the years that I want to quickly run through before I steer this post to some kind of conclusion, or at least write enough for the title to make some sense.

Firstly, I’m a big believer in the first draft’s job being to exist, all it needs to do is get you from beginning to end. Then the serious work of redrafts, polishing and improving the story until it actually works can begin.

The second things is that I also like the idea of classifying writers into gardeners and architects, which I picked up from George R R Martin. A writer who is an architect plans out everything before they write while the gardeners discover things as their writing grows. One of the reasons that I like it is whilst the idea feels true, there is some give in the analogy as thanks to time spent in my own garden and years of watching Grand Designs I’m very much aware that not all architects have everything as planned out before building begins as you might think and you definitely need some kind of plan if you hope to not have an overgrown mess for a garden. I think my partner and I have just about managed that in our garden, but I think there are probably elements of both in most writer’s approaches, it is a matter of which approach they favour.

Personally, I think of myself as a semi-organised gardener when it comes to writing. My book ideas usually has an overall arc or theme, some key moments I want to hit and perhaps  a plot plan that I base on something John Truby called The Seven Key Steps of Story Structure in his book The Anatomy of Story which is something I use to help me work through a problem if I have lost my thread or if I need to tighten the focus of part of the thing I am writing.

However, how I really find my way is to write. I’ve become more comfortable with this as I’ve finished more books, both thanks to repetition but also as I refine my process. I now have a better idea of when I need to stop editing digitally and read on paper (the change in format really helps your brain see the words you have written anew), how long I need leave a draft before I go back to it, and increasingly the timing of talking to my editor versus setting the ball rolling for production. I’m still working on judging the occasions where I have written a full explanation of how something works so that I am happy it makes sense, but knowing when I need to remove it from the actual book as it doesn’t truly serve the story to make a reader go through every single step with me.

These past two months since the new year has been spent still trying to get from beginning to end of a first draft. I restarted my novel after a bit of a break over Christmas, and the little and often approach has allowed me time to realise that part of the overall plot actually belongs in the next book rather than in the one I’m currently writing, balancing out the two books that I have planned to finish the series. At least that is what I am thinking at the moment, but as you might have picked up from this post, plans can very easily change through the process of writing and while for some writers this discovery might be made over pages of notes or a complex web of cards, I realised the big move of plot whilst cleaning out my rabbits. Repetitive manual tasks are great for this kind of clear your head and the answer will come moments. Running is another favourite time for my mind to roam and come up with suggestions because I find that a lot of the inspiration part of the creative process occurs away from the keyboard. It is still important not to wait for inspiration to strike before you start to write. For me writing is a craft that benefits tremendously from regular practise. There is always work you can be doing to hone your craft, just make sure that when the flash of inspiration strikes you make a note of what it is there and then.

This is what I mean by let the story find you.

If for instance, you are working on a book and find yourself say over a dozen chapters in and beginning to worry about how big this first draft might get. Well that is going to float round in your brain whether you want it to or not but if you leave it floating round rather than chasing a solution, then inspiration might just strike when you least expect it. Of course, the important thing with writing is the work, but I do think there is an important balance to be struck between creative problem solving, honing your craft through regular writing, repeated drafts, and finally constructive feedback from people you trust.

So if you are stuck, keep writing your words as you don’t want to get out the habit of writing, but don’t worry too much about what you put on the page initially as it can always be fixed later and make sure you give yourself plenty of time in the kind of states where ideas come to you. Be it in the shower, running, or doing household chores. It doesn’t matter what works for you just as long as it does. You might be surprised what you can achieve if you let the story come to you.

Why do you write like you’re running out of time?

Here was are in 2019 and I was supposed to have a summary of 2018 already posted for you, but life got in the way so I’m going try to fold that into my first post of the new year as I talk about what it was like to be in the room where it happened. Now, that’s a second Hamilton reference in this post already so no prizes for guessing what I saw last week. Now, I won’t win any prizes for originality or foresight if I tell you that Hamilton is brilliant so rather than rehashing what others have written I’ll talk you through my thoughts as I look back on the last year, including some bits of pieces that hit me at the show and after.

So, where to begin? Always an important question for a writer to answer. When you last heard from this plucky scribe you either were reading about my Halloween trip to see The Dresden Dolls, or you got an insight to how December was treating me and some thoughts on books that I’d been reading from my newsletter.

What’s that you say? You didn’t know I had newsletter? Well indeed I do. It comes out roughly once a month, covering what I’ve been up to, thoughts on mostly books but films and other things get in as well and that’s where you’ll get early warning of things I’m scheming up. You can sign-up at https://tinyletter.com/Gavin_Writes and I’d love to hear from you or for you to share it with the writer or reader in your life.

So looking back it’s been an up and down year, much like most of life. The stories that I could spin you about health, love, death and illness, but they’re not all mine to tell. Some of them might creep into something because a as writer life’s events have a habit of slipping into stories one way or another, but if I’m doing it right it will be in ways that services the story and won’t be recognisable. The early advice to a writer is always to write what you know, but I don’t believe that should be the limit and as long as you do your research and start with good intentions then I don’t think you can too far wrong.

It has been a good year for seeing and doing though.

I managed to complete my fourth year of blogging about the NFL and have completed the regular season on my fifth.

I published my second book, a sequel to A Ghost Called Dog, entitled The Price of Magic, that picks up four years later from the original events in Ghost and carries on the story arc. I have also made a good start on the third book, but there’s a long way to go before I start to think about publishing it. There’s plenty more to do with the first two in terms of sales before I know how to publish the third, but I’m thinking about it. Right now I’m making lists and jotting down ideas, but you’ll be hearing from me.

I’ve kept this blog ticking over with posts about the second book and a couple of events I have been to. I plan on doing the same next year as it’s nice to keep the writing hand in when book research takes over, plus it’s always handy to try new things. I managed to see two bands I never thought I’d see last year, writing up my experience of both The Dresden Dolls and The Gaslight Anthem.

I perhaps should have written up my experiences with the band I’m in, called Diceratops, who got through to the finals of the Metal 2 the Masses Leicester competition and so although I didn’t get to play Bloodstock, we got to play at the De Montford Hall in Leicester, and network with some very cool musicians. I got a new phone last year that seems to help no end taking decent pictures (so much its even helping me learn what I need to work on with my digital SLR) so here are a few of my favourite photos from the competition. We are entering again this year, and perhaps it will be third year lucky to get to the festival.

I’m not good enough at lists to be able to say with absolute certainty what my favourite things were of last year other than book, which was undoubtedly Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite authors. I wrote about it in a newsletters so feel free to follow the link there to take a look.

I also got to see a few shows in 2018, including Matilda and Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger at The Curve in Leicester, and both parts of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child where I was suitably nerdy.

I also got to start the year seeing Hamilton as I previously said. My partner and I really wanted to see it, even before various family members saw it (some of them multiple times) and so off we went last week. I had become pretty obsessed by the soundtrack in the last couple of months. I’m still not good at learning whole songs, but various lines and bits jump out to me. Whilst I don’t exactly relate to all the experiences of the ten-dollar Founding Father without a farther, but the title of this post comes from Non-Stop and I certainly know why I write like I’m running out of time. Mostly because I am, which is probably the kind of thing a therapist would want to interrogate me about. It certainly might explain me trying to do all the things I can, but back to the musical. I might actually just be belatedly falling in love with Lin-Manuel Miranda having discovered his previous musical In The Heights through getting the digital copy of Hamilton:The Revolution. I’ll be getting the full book from my friendly local book shop as I didn’t fancy hauling it back on the tube and nursing it under my seat at the show.

‘I will send a fully armed battalion
To remind you of my love!’

I’m pretty familiar with the soundtrack, but it was great to see Hamilton performed so you can correct all the lines you’ve wrongly attributed by voice and it’s pretty amazing to see how it is staged. I’ve always had a soft spot for King George in the play and he was suitably fantastic, but then so was everyone. I missed the doubling up of parts before reading the programme, but the nearest thing the whole show has to a misstep is having to suspend disbelief for an adult playing a nine-year-old son. However, I was taken away by the story and had new record set for number of times the second half made me cry. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say the senselessness of duelling over honour is really jarring to a modern ear.

‘Look around, look around, at how
lucky we are to be alive right now.’

Stepping back out into the world was also a jar but I’ll take a lot of memories with me, including the cheers at:

‘Immigrants: We get the job done.’

It feels like we are living in tumultuous times right now. A cursory glance at the news will generate a litany of things to sap the mind and spirit, so it’s been nice to take stock and remind myself of what I achieved and the things that lift the spirit. Art should challenge and throw a mirror to the world, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be entertained and cheered by it at the same time. There is space for different types and I hope to produce more in the coming years, including some more things for this site ahead of the next book.

So, as ever, to all the things!

The Book is Here, Now What?

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You see all the time news stories about the pace of modern life and I am as bad as anyone for being focused on the next thing and so I sailed through the official release date for The Price of Magic with my head full of blogs that need writing, updates to the website for the new book, the newsletter I’m planning, marketing, and whatever else is going on.

This post was meant to be written and go up at the weekend but life got in the way. Well, part of that is the best laid plan of mice and men oft go astray, but equally I’m working on a post for my American Football blog and as a writer what I really want to do is create and I have a new book to write, which I have started.

We all have these competing pressures in our life. Not just the I’d really like to do X if I could find the time, but I need to get the washing up done and wash the clothes over the weekend and this could get to be a really long list but I’m sure you get the point.

I am not very good at stopping to take a moment. There’s always the next project, something else that needs doing either for work or for home. Even with cutting back I still get caught out and before you know it, my book has officially been released for over a week.

The thing is, I am proud of having another book out but my mind is on to what’s next.

That’s just the way I am wired.

And then you get a message from your friend overseas that their book has arrived.

That’s when it hits. When you’re an independent author the moment of validation isn’t on publication because you have invested in that moment yourself. Yes you wrote a book, had it edited, gone through the typeset and cover design etc. but you are the initiator, no one said we’re going to publish your novel and then takes it away to get it done. I had to make this happen with the help of a lot of people.

That is how it works for me anyway. I have spent enough time on a meditation stool to be pretty aware of how my monkey brain leaps around and that is where most of my writing ideas come from, because at any moment something around me whether I’m researching for a book, listening to a podcast, or just going about my day – my brain will suddenly announce here’s a solution to that story problem, hey this might make a story, you idiot you were working on the wrong blog.

However, if these moments are to go from a quick note on my phone, or a line or two in the ideas folder on my memory stick, to a blog post, short story, or a book, it takes focussed work. However, for people to see that work then other things have to take place.

As a self-publishing author I don’t have one of the large publishing houses doing things for me.

I have companies that I work with, that offer services and I have to work out which options to go for and agree plans and let them do their tasks whilst I do things to support the project.

If I lose track of this and don’t do what I am supposed to then I can spend all the time in the world researching and writing the next book, but maybe no one gets to see it as if I can’t make this book a bigger success than the last one then at what point do I stop investing into these projects?

It is not a sexy writing moment. It is the hard excel spreadsheets and tax returns that running a creative business entails. At the moment I’m not trying to sustain my life with writing, but I am serious about turning this into a venture that at least supports itself and eventually makes a profit.

But in a way this does aid the creative process as it gives me bench marks, it’s a different type of validation but at the end of the day anyone who writes does so to get read. There are many different models on how to do that and it has been an endless discussion for as long as there has been art – why should I pay for this?

There are also many different answers and right now I’m not going into difficult area of justifying art, but I will go into why I want to keep doing this. It’s a simple answer really.

I want to be a better writer.

This makes me a better writer.

I think we have made a better book this time. I think I wrote a better book and went through the process with more knowledge which let me make new and interesting mistakes.

Mistakes are how you learn things. That’s pretty much what science is. Finding out what you got wrong, correcting and then testing the new thing. Then someone comes along and tries to repeat your experiment and finds the mistake you hadn’t even thought of.

I have improved my process but I also know how I want to change things next time. That goes for the practical aspects for writing and editing a novel. I want to put a better book in front of my beta readers and my editor. I want to be able to do this for myself and whilst you can’t skip the editing and proof reading process – I would like to make them easier.

I am already writing book three. There is some more research to do, but I have put together notes and ideas, already spoken to people and realised that I need to do some more blacksmith/armourer research.

That’s all the fun stuff. I also have a tax return that I’d like to do before January this time, marking to do, the mythical newsletter to finish setting up and get going. There’s always something more but also, there’s things going on that I need to pay attention to.

And then, like a ringing meditation bell someone lets you know they’ve ordered your book, and you pause for a second basking for a moment that yes I did do that, and then it is on to the next thing.

To all the things.

As Publication Nears

The most important piece of news I have for you is that not only has everything been signed off ready for press, but that the order is in and I’m now simply waiting for the books to show up. This whole project will suddenly feel much more real when I can finally hold a copy of the finished book in my hand. I’ll also try to stop worrying about missing anything in the text.

I am continuing to work on a marketing plan, which doesn’t sound very glamorous but when you are self-publishing it is very important as you need to get your book into as many hands as possible because at the end of the day, if people don’t buy enough copies of The Price of Magic then that limits or possibly even stops the next book from happening. I am finally moving from making notes to making plans for the next book. There are scenes slowing beginning to form in my mind, including one of the final scene of the whole arc (I think that will be a fourth book in this series but it’s early so don’t quote me), and I’m having some really helpful conversations about how to make what will happen to two important children as authentic as I can within the context of a magical adventure. I hope to do them justice but none of it will matter if I can’t find a way to get the next book published.

I imagine there is always tension for a writer between doing justice to what is coming out, versus the exciting new adventure that is the next book. Particularly when you are in the fun early stages of a new project when the problems haven’t set in yet. I’m certainly looking forward to some creative writing in my future.

However, as ever I have to balance this against not only the marketing and hopefully events for the launch and publication of my book, but work and blogs and this would be a juggling act even if I didn’t have a nasty habit of throwing myself into various projects or creative outlets like the band I’m in.

Still, it certainly stops things from getting boring and there is a definite motivating factor in getting admin work done when the prize is some precious creative writing space. I’m actually going to start the next book in the coming days although there is still more research to do. However, on top of that, I am also in the middle of setting up a newsletter. This will be a slightly less formal way of me keeping you up to date than the blog/FB page so look out for a sign up coming soon and hopefully we can shape a fun back and forth that entertains if nothing else.

As ever, to all the things!

A Month is a Short Time in Publishing

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There is something reassuring that as much as technology and society seems to be speeding up the world around us, that writing and publishing still work on a slower time scale because until someone can come up with an algorithm smart enough to edit and understand natural languages, the editing and layout of stories is still something people have to do, at least for now.

Sure computers have sped the process up massively and I can use an application to compare files to make sure only the changes I have marked up have been carried out, but at various points I’ve still had to check the pages by eye and print off copies to read. I don’t always do this for editing, but if you want to take a really close look at the text then there is really no substitute for holding it in your hand as there is a difference between reading a text on a computer screen rather than paper.

I feel like I am getting better at this process, but it inevitably takes more time when you have to find an hour here or there round a full time job to do it. Heidi, who is the person coordinating my book’s journey through production at Troubador has been wonderfully patient and although I did find a handful of edits from the last typeset I wrote about here, the text is now set and we’re just working through the last few layout tweaks before I can pass it for press.

What has been finished is the cover, and I will blog about that properly once I have all the images I need to show you the various stages of the journey from vague ideas connected to the book, to sketches, selections, the final image taking place and the full cover.

I’m very close to letting go of the book, as every writer does, because at some point there is nothing left to do but let it go into the world and hope people take care of it.

I have been researching book three when I can for months now, but hopefully that should pick up pace soon, which is good as it feels like a long time since I did some actual creative writing.

However, my focus obviously has to be on the current book and I’ll soon be sitting down with my marketing person (it still feels a little weird to say that) to shape up what we can do to get The Price of Magic in front of as many people as possible. That might not have been the most showy way of revealing the title of my new book, but hey, I’m not really that kind of writer.

Onwards to the next thing.

To all the things!

The Difficult Second Album

Somehow seven months have slipped by since I last updated this blog. That’s time for an entire season of NFL blogging, multiple edits of the new book and typeset checks so I guess I had better get things back on track with this blog and quickly, because whilst I may have been quiet on here, things have been anything but quiet for me.

So, where am I now?

I have come out of the post NFL relax week or two that usually follows the end of the Super Bowl and what I think of as my NFL blogging season. The NFL blog has been a great platform to learn when I can write, gives me structured thing to practise developing content and getting writing reps in, and gives me an excuse to watch a lot of American Football. I also thoroughly enjoy my weekly chats with Dan for the podcast, which also helps me form ideas for the blog and help give it structure, and this season get NFL trivia questions wrong. For those of you who were listening you will have got a sneak preview of the title of the new book.

I have already started to outline how I might tweak things for next season, but there’s plenty of time to think about that.

Whilst the season was going on, we’ve put in place the plan for the sequel to A Ghost Called Dog got everything sorted out with the relevant publishing companies and I’ve been hard at it. Mostly I have been focussed on turning the new book into the best piece of work I can. We have used the same editor, Karen Holmes, who edited Ghost but the new book is setting up something bigger and more complex so the draft I started from needed a fair bit of work and it took a couple of passes to turn that draft into a manuscript that works the way I intended

You always learn from your mistakes and there are several things I can take away from this process that will hopefully serve to improve the next book’s development. I say improve as I believe it is a common folly for all writers to start their next book full of confidence that they have learnt so much and there will be no problems with this one. Yeah right…

Still, I am determined to improve things both in terms of planning, plotting, and my initial editing process. I think I’ll always need to write my way through problems and questions, but hopefully I can weed out the excess that readers don’t need to see before putting the next manuscript in front of an editor. I might need a better laser printer for that.

I did at least avoid the whole difficult second album problem because my life did not change radically after the release of Ghost, and although it was my first published book, Ghost was in fact the third book I had written.

Currently, I am trying to get the typeset finished. My latest batch of amends has gone back to the publisher, and I’m confident once those changes have been made that the text will be set. We will still need to check the layout to find out what if anything has drifted and if we need to move any text around pages, but we are getting close. I am excited about how the illustration for the cover has turned out and as we have the dimensions of the spine sorted I don’t think it will be too long before the full cover starts to takes shape.

I’ll keep you updated on how things are going, and I have a couple of other tweaks and changes that I’ve been thinking about for the website and staying in contact with everyone.

For now I will say, I am incredibly grateful to all the people who have had kind words to say, been supportive, or just wondered where I found the time. I’m not giving up any time soon; I have a bunch of ideas for future books outside of the sequels for the little series I’m developing now. I just have to keep going with the writing and finding ways to get that writing into people’s hands, digital devices, or even uploaded directly into your brains once the technology exists. That last one might be a little over the mark…