Poem of the Week #9

Finally, Poem of the Week is back. This time it’s a little bit of fun I wrote for my son when he was in primary school.

There have been several reasons why it’s taken me so long to get around to putting up another PotW; I was busy with my novels, it’s been a crazy year and I’ve had other things to take care of apart from my writing, I’m just lazy. But there is another reason as well. The idea of PotW was to present poems that I could talk about, not just ones I thought would be fun to read. I wanted to give some idea about what was involved in the writing process, where the ideas came from, how I went about editing or rewriting them, etc, and what I’ve found is that the poems I have most to say about are (generally speaking) my more recent ones. For a start I can still remember how, when and where I wrote them, I still have my early drafts so I can work through the creative process more easily, and also I think the work I’m producing at the moment is (again, generally speaking) some of my best. But this is where the problem lies, because these are also the poems I’m still submitting for publication, and so often the rules of competitions require poems to be unpublished. And even my own website counts as publication.

So either I have to dig through my very-much-older back catalogue and hope I can remember enough to make it interesting, or I have to wait until something more recent gets published, thereby freeing it up for PotW. So if you promise not to complain when there isn’t a new poem every week, I promise to make more of an effort to get my stuff published.

Let’s see how that works.

A novel experience (part 2)

In case you’d forgotten, I left you last time at the point where I had three finished novels and nothing to do with them. They needed to get published, and there was no one to do it for me, so I decided to do it for myself.

When I first started getting my poems accepted into journals and anthologies, and I was looking to publish a full collection, the idea of self-publication was a very big no-no. It was vanity publishing, and it was a way of massaging your ego while paying through the nose for the privilege. The old argument was, if your poems are good enough to get published, someone will publish them. If not, they shouldn’t be published. It was fine if you wanted some nicely-bound edition to give away to friends and family, but anything more than this was just deceiving yourself.

Fortunately, things are very different now. Home computing, dedicated websites, specialist software and the emergence of the ebook have all meant that anyone who wants to publish their work can do so relatively easily and relatively cheaply. Which is not to say they can necessarily do it successfully, just that they can do it. Making money from publishing a book is still difficult and, in some ways, even more difficult now, simply because it’s so easy to do that so many more people are doing it and the level of competition is huge.

And if you want to self-publish properly, you have to be so much more than a writer. You have to be your own editor, designer, publisher, publicist, distributor, accountant… To do any of these jobs well is difficult, to do all of them well is all-but impossible.

But I do like a challenge.

So towards the back end of 2019 I began my journey. And the first thing I needed was to find someone who knew what they were doing to help me out. There are many companies offering publishing services; some are little more than printers, who will take whatever you send them and turn it into a physical (or digital) product. Others are our old friends, the vanity publishers, who will happily take a large amount of your money in return for producing that bespoke edition of your work and then deliver several hundred of them to you and that’s that – everything else is up to you. Others are genuine publishers, who simply can’t afford to take the financial risk of publishing your work on their own, but will happily trade their experience, expertise and mailing list for your money. Some will share the costs equally, others will require you to pay most of them.

I chose a company called York Publishing Services, who are recommended by the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook, but who also came with a person recommendation. They offered a whole range of services from which I could pick and choose to suit my own needs. If I’d wanted, they would literally have done everything for me short of actually write the novels in the first place or, alternatively, I could do everything myself and simply use them as a printer to produce the end result. In the end, I went for somewhere in between, and this is how it went…

I sent them the three novels as docx files, and then forgot about them for a few weeks. They then came back to me as first proofs, which needed proofreading. At this stage I could still make changes if I wanted, or needed to, but it’s really worth going through the original versions and doing this stuff before you send them off in the first place – partly for cost reasons, because the more you change, the more the cost is likely to go up, but also because it’s time-consuming and can be confusing. I did make some changes, but only for very minor details which I realised were not consistent across the three novels. For example, at some earlier point I had taken the decision to change all my distances from miles to kilometres, and there were times when the old measurements had slipped through. And sometimes there were sentences that read awkwardly that I felt I couldn’t leave as they were. But that’s all. I didn’t rewrite entire paragraphs, are introduce new characters or anything like that, so if you suspect you might want to do that, I suggest you do it before you decide to publish.

Very soon after I sent off the corrected first drafts, they came back as final drafts and I had to reread them. It’s tempting to just search for the corrections and make sure they were made, but I would strongly advise going through the entire manuscript as carefully as possible at each stage as there will always be things you missed. Of course, you don’t have to do this yourself. York Publishing would have done it for me if I’d wanted them to (and if I’d paid for it) but seeing as I was, at one point, a professional proofreader, I decided I could probably do a good enough job of it myself.

And now a word of warning. Proofreading is hard, and time-consuming, and really, really tedious. You’re reading something word by word, comma by comma, checking the spelling of words you know how to spell, just to make sure you got it right. Often you have to reread sections several times to make sure it’s all correct. And when you do come across mistakes, you have to know how to correct them, and how to signal those corrections to your publisher so that they know what to do. So it’s a hard, slow process. And I was trying to do three novels at the same time. Together, the three of them total about a quarter of a million words, and I ended up reading the entire trilogy – at a snail’s pace – four times.

While all this is going on, there were some other small details to take care of. The first is that in order for your books to be made available on sites like Amazon after publication, you need to have an ISBN. Getting one (or three) is a fairly straightforward process, but you have to do it, and pay for it, and this is where using someone like YPS has its advantages. They do this a lot and can do it much more easily and efficiently than you can.

The other thing you need to get working on is your cover. If you want your book to do well, you need it to have a good cover. Design is important – not just the front cover picture, but all the other details as well; the font for the title, the layout, the blurb on the back, the details on the spine, the cover price, etc. Again, YPS will do all of this for you if you want them to. They do it a lot, and know the kinds of things that work and also the things that really don’t. But again, me being me, I decided I wanted to do things myself.

I had already come up with a basic concept for the covers. I didn’t like the idea of going with a photo as the basis for the cover image, preferring something that was more of a design or abstract image. The original idea was to use the cover of each novel to depict the action of the story, using colour blocks to represent the locations and having connecting lines to represent the journeys the characters go on. I tried it, but it just looked messy and confusing, so I went for a more streamlined version, using simple 2-D circles to represent the planets (and a series of connected hexagons to represent a space station for the second novel) and using the planets’ relative sizes and positions to give some indication of where the action was going to take place.

And with that as a base, YPS then came up with finished versions of the covers. They replaced the font I’d chosen for one that looked slightly more science-fictiony, and they made the three spines different colours, rather than the plain black I had imagined.

Once the covers were confirmed and the final proofs returned, I was sent mock-ups of the finished products. This was really exciting, because for the first time I got to have some idea of what the end result was going to look like. They were proper books, full of my very own words, and that was the point at which I started to feel like a published author. But they still needed proofreading again. Even at this stage you have to check to make sure all the corrections have been made, and it’s never too late to find that odd little error that has eluded your best efforts to find it up till then.

And then it’s done. You sign off on the mock-ups, tell them how many copies you want and wait for the boxes to arrive.

But of course that’s not really it at all, because there’s still the small issue of distribution, marketing, sales, publicity, etc. YPS will do any or all of these things for you if you want them to. They charge, of course, but it’s really up to you, and at this point it would be rather foolish and somewhat counter-productive to do without their services. With very little effort they can get your books listed on Amazon (and various ebook sites like Kindle for the digital versions). They will send copies to the copyright libraries for you (which is a legal requirement and a bit of a pain to have to do yourself) and perhaps most importantly, they will deal with all sales via Amazon or via their own online bookshop, so you don’t need to spend your time packaging up copies of your books and lugging them to the post office every week.

Publicity is a very different matter. If you want to sell hundreds of copies of your books, have them available in physical bookshops and spend your time advertising and marketing them, then you can. Some people love this and are very good at it. I don’t, and I’m not. But knowing this in advance meant that I didn’t get carried away and print a thousand copies of each novel and end up with them cluttering up the house for ever more. I went for a very low print run, assuming that most of my sales will be digital and most of my physical sales will be to friends and family. If things turn out differently and there’s some huge and unexpected demand for my novels, I can always do a second print run.

And when all is said and done, I didn’t publish the novels to make money. I published them because they were just sitting there on the shelf and they deserved more than that. Obviously I’m biassed, but I truly believe they’re great novels and they will bring a lot of pleasure and excitement to anyone who reads them. I think they’re definitely good enough to have been published by one of the big traditional publishers, but they weren’t. Maybe they will be one day, or maybe not. But in the meantime, I’m happy with what I’ve achieved, I’m proud of what I achieved, and now I can move on to bigger and better things.

A novel experience

Apologies to anyone wondering what has happened to the so-called Poem of the Week. They will return soon, I promise, but the work on getting the novels into print has had to take centre stage for the past few months. But finally, that work is now finished, and all that remains is the minor business of getting rid of the damned things – and at least for the moment, that’s coming along quite nicely, thank you very much.

So a little bit about the novels…

I first had the idea to write a sci-fi novel in 2009. My oldest son was eight at the time and I thought it might be a nice idea if I wrote a book for him. He was a very early reader, but even so, I figured I’d have a couple of years before I would have to deliver the finished product, and even then, it could be “kind of short, and kind of simple”.

I still have the notes I made back then, and it’s entertaining to see which aspects of the story survived the following ten year journey, and which were sensibly abandoned. The final storyline, for example, has nothing about a bunch of eco-terrorists trying to cover the whole of the surface of mars with fast-growing lichen.

In 2010 I moved out to Brazil, and for a while I had more important things to do with my time than creative writing. In fact, I wrote nothing at all for several months and then, once things had calmed down slightly, I discovered I’d acquired a severe case of writer’s block. In order to work my way through this I started writing a blog – mostly for friends and family back home – and this saw me through the following year, so that by the end of 2011 I finally felt ready to get going with some proper fiction once again.

It took me a year to write, which I thought was quite slow. I wasn’t working at it full time, but even so, I had assumed six months would be enough to get to to the end of a first draft. To be fair, I didn’t really write a first draft as no one had ever taught me how to write a novel and I spent most of my time editing, and re-editing, each chapter as I went along so that, in effect, what I arrived at at the end of the year was something equivalent to a fairly polished second draft. So maybe a year wasn’t so bad after all.

Not only did I have no experience at writing a novel, I also had no idea what to do with it once I’d finished. Find an agent, was the almost universal advice. So I tried that.

In case you don’t know this, there is a lot of advice available on how to go about finding yourself an agent; how to target the right ones, how to write a preliminary letter, how to write a covering letter, how to submit, how long to wait when you don’t hear anything, how to deal with rejection…

…and I was rubbish at all of it. Firstly, my self-promotional skills are virtually non-existent. Secondly, my enthusiasm for this aspect of the novelist’s life is also virtually non-existent. I wrote a novel because I wanted to write it, not because I wanted to get it published. Still, I did try, on and off, for the next year or so. I trawled through a list of all UK literary agents, eliminating the many who weren’t interested in science fiction, and then the ones who weren’t interested in YA submissions. From the remaining list, I sent my self-deprecating cover letter and my regulation 30 pages to twenty-two different agents. Several of them never bothered to reply. Most of the others rejected me, either quite politely, or with a standard rejection email. Two of them asked to read the entire novel, and then rejected me.

While all this was going on, I was not simply sitting idly at home waiting for the emails to come in. I was working on a follow-up novel. By now I was back living in the UK and had joined a writing group – so was interacting with other creative writers for the first time and benefitting from the experience, both through feedback and advice. And a lot of the advice was, don’t start work on the second novel in a series until you’ve got the first one published because there are bound to be so many changes required, you’ll just be creating so much more work for yourself further down the line. As sensible as this advice no doubt was, I chose to ignore it.

In many ways, the second novel was a lot harder to write than the first. Until I was about three-quarters of the way through The Phoenician Conspiracy, I thought of it as a self-contained story, and it was only as I began to draw the plot to a close that I realised there was a whole lot more I wanted to do with the characters. So when I began Cenotaph, I already knew it was going to be the middle novel in a series of three and this made the task ahead seem so much more daunting.

Having said that, the writing itself was a lot easier. By then I had found my ‘voice’ and I was able to increase the tediously slow 500-words-a-day rate of Phoenician to a blistering 1000-words-a-day (at least on the days I was actually writing), which meant I had a finished draft after about eight months – which for a novel with a final word count of 85,000 shows just how few days I spent working during those eight months.

And the thing was, I knew for the whole time I was writing it that as soon as it was finished, I had to start work on the third novel. By this point I was fairly sure the first novel wasn’t going to be picked up by an agent, so I figured my only option was to finish the trilogy and see if any of the agents were prepared to change their mind now I could show I had finished the whole thing. In the meantime, Cenotaph was going to be even more of a labour of love than Phoenician as there really wasn’t anything I could do with the middle novel in a trilogy except file it away for later.

And then I messed up. Instead of moving straight on to the third novel, I thought I would give myself a break and work on something else for a while. Thanks to one of the other writers in my group, I was introduced to the wonders of flash fiction and for about a year I concentrated on this. I wrote quite a bit, but I never really got to grips with the concept successfully enough to get more than a couple of pieces published and I began to realise that when it came to the shorter forms of creative writing, I was far happier writing poetry than I was flash fiction.

And anyway, I was supposed to be writing a novel.

What finally got me back to working on the trilogy was NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the idea behind which is for authors to try and write 50,000 words during November. A few of the people in the writing group were going to give it a go, so I thought if I committed to it, I would have half a novel written in a single month.

Just so you know, it’s hard. Assuming you’re not going to write flat-out for thirty days (although I’m sure some people do) and will maybe take, say, Sundays off to spend with your family, then you’re looking at producing about 2000-2500 words each working day. Day after day. For a month.

I made sure I had a reasonable idea of the story beforehand and even had a chapter by chapter breakdown of the plot (by which I mean I’d written a few words for each just to remind me) ready for day one. And off I went.

I tried, I really did, but by the end of the month I had managed only 30,000 words. But more importantly, I’d written 30,000 words, or about a third of a novel, in a single month. And I was still going strong. I didn’t stop just because November had and I converted the challenge into NaNoWriSeason. I did take a break for Christmas, but by then the end was in sight – not just the end of the novel, but of the whole trilogy – and that was somewhat motivating. I don’t remember exactly how long it took before I was finished, but I do remember staying up all night to write that very final chapter.

As any novelist will tell you, though, finishing the first draft – even if it’s really a second-draft-quality first draft – is only the start of the adventure. But I think that’s enough for now. The journey from first draft to publication can wait till next time.

The New Mars Trilogy has arrived

The wait is over, and the long-promised novels are finally published.

Print versions are available now from the YPD bookshop with epub and kindle versions coming soon.

I’ll add more details as and when I have them, and at some point soon I’ll also write a longer post telling you a lot more about the novels, but for those of you who just can’t wait, you can read extracts from all three in the Novels section.

And after that, please feel free to go and buy the books themselves…for you and all your friends.

Poem of the Week #7 & #8

The new PotW is up, and I notice that I forgot to mention the previous one so you’ll have to go and find it in the archive if you want to keep up to date.

Also, it has become clear to me now that I won’t be putting up a new poem every week. I’ll still try to make regular updates, but it won’t be every week – for a start, I’m not sure I can think of enough to say about all my poems.

But I like the name, so that’s staying. It’s just that from now on, Poem of the Week will actually be more like Poem of the Whenever.

The Hedgehog Poetry Press

These days there are scores, maybe even hundreds, of quality online magazines and journals where budding poets can submit their work. At any given time, there are also scores, maybe even hundreds, of competitions available that are looking for anything from a single poem to a full-length collection. Right now, life is good for poets seeing publication.

But sadly, most places that offer publication as an end result will require some level of payment as a prerequisite. A £5, or even £10, fee for a single-poem entry into a competition is not unusual, and £25 for a collection seems now to be the standard. And while most magazines might still allow you to submit free-of-charge, many point out that the best way to see what type of poetry they are looking for (and the best way to increase you chances of publication) is to subscribe first.

The costs can quickly build up, and not all of us are in a position to be able to subscribe to every magazine, or enter every competition, we want. These days I have to be very picky about where my poetry-investment money goes.

One place I have decided to spend my money, however, is the Hedgehog Poetry Press. It’s basically a one-man show, set up and run by Mark Davidson, who does an amazing job of producing a constant stream of new publications, many available as free downloads and most of the others at very reasonable cost.

The Press also runs A LOT of competitions. At any one time there are usually three or four available, including ones for full collections, chapbooks or even 4-poem micro-collections. This year, they are also branching out into short fiction as well as poetry, and so there are likely to be even more opportunities for publication.

Competitions come with a fairly typical pricing structure (£5 for single poem, £25 for collection) but this is where the Hedgehog Press offers great value for money and why I’m happy to give them some of mine on a regular basis. For £25 per quarter, you can join the wonderfully named ‘Cult of the Spiny Hog’, which its their version of a subscription fee. And membership gives you four amazing benefits.

Firstly, all competitions become free to enter. For a dedicated submitter, who enters everything they have on offer, this could easily amount to anything up to £100 each quarter. Secondly, you get access to the Press back issue collection and can download anything you want for free. Thirdly, you have access to their monthly challenges – which are basically even more competitions, but limited to Cult members. And finally, at least once a quarter and occasionally twice, Mark will send you a bundle of every book and booklet the Press has published in recent months. Actual books. For your poetry bookshelf.

So basically, if you’re an active reader and writer of poetry, membership is not only an amazing bargain, but also an amazing opportunity to develop as a poet – believe me, entering that many competitions requires a lot of work! And if you’re not interested in, or in a position to pay for, membership, go visit the website anyway. It’s well worth your time.