Monthly Archives: July 2020

Getting serious about writing (wk1): The long strange trip

Five years ago I was in full swing in my writing:

For starters, despite having only been a ‘proper writer’ for a couple of years at that point I had two books out on shelves and people were actually buying them too (and telling me they liked them, which was even better). I was even visiting schools to tell kids about my books and talk to them about writing.

On top of all this, I also had this website running with regular blog posts telling everyone about all of these new writer experiences. I had even managed to persuade myself to keep up a regular (guilt-free) batch of ‘writing time’ each week.

It was a good time.

So anyway, as I say apparently five years have passed (five very good years mind you) and I actually had no idea it was that long. That was until an old post popped up on my Facebook feed to remind me; a post from a time when I had entered a state of something like ‘writing bliss’. A time when I was announcing to readers that the newest Jack Reusen book was on its way. (I was also writing in a ‘gypsy caravan’; one of the most unique writing locations I’ve ever been in see the picture above too).

Two books were good but three made a trilogy, it started a series! I was on chapter 12 of the latest Jack Reusen book; ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ and nothing seemed to be in my way. Unfortunately, I didn’t know it at the time but finishing ‘…the Children of Fate’ was to become one of the biggest challenges I was going to face as a writer.

Five years later, and that book still isn’t on shelves. The story was there, the characters reached a dramatic conclusion to their three-book arc, everything I needed was there. So what went wrong?…

Fixing my mistakes (Some notes for other writers)

This post is part of an ongoing series about self-publishing. Over the next few weeks, I aim to highlight some of the mistakes I’ve made as a writer and also explain some of the techniques I’ve discovered which help minimise the risk of mistakes like these happening again.

First off, I should say that I didn’t simply hit the ‘pause button’ on my writing five years ago. In the intervening years, I’ve released a new book (a standalone dark fantasy call ‘Marcus’), helped a classroom of kids write their own novel, and written three more books set in the Jack Reusen universe (all currently, unfortunately, still in draft form).

In fact, it was whilst writing these new stories; skipping ahead in time and seeing where my characters were going, that I came to see what wasn’t right about my original version of ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’.

Problem number one (Direction):

I didn’t see it at the time but I had lost all objectivity. The truth was that my story lacked direction. I ‘sort of’ knew where my main characters were going but my third book was the writing equivalent of standing in the doorway of a house, wanting to leave but stuck in a state indecision; ‘to the park, or hunt for Nessie, to the zoo, or rob a bank ?’. It was a stalemate of options, something that I can imagine is a fairly common problem in fiction writing.

To compound things I had gone into book three knowing that I had more books planned. Because of this I originally left everything in book three up in the air. I wanted to leave myself with lots of options for book four and beyond. The story was up in the air on purpose, I told myself that it was meant to be like that, but a single read was enough for my beta reader to bring the whole thing crashing to the ground. With slightly more objective eyes I looked again at my story and realised it simply wasn’t working.

I tried to fix it, with editing and writing, and more editing, and more writing. On my second draft I chopped out whole sections, then in my third I added whole new chapters. I wrote so much that the story grew arms and legs and became a monster.

Then, for a long time, I locked that monster in a desktop folder and pretended it wasn’t there.

Problem number two (Denial):

My second problem was one which I suspect many self-published authors suffer from. I didn’t want to accept that there was a problem. I told myself ‘It’s not that bad’. At one particularly unhinged point, I even considered simply launching book three as a ‘Beta version’ on Kindle.

I thought that I could release book three in a rough format and fix problems as people pointed them out. The biggest issue with this is that it just isn’t very nice to use your readership as your editors. If they enjoy your books they should get to see them at their best, not simply at a level you tentatively regard as ‘good enough’.

In the end, I realised that I simply needed to break away from the text and write some other things. Time and (narrative) distance came to show me that book three (as it stood) was far from ‘good enough’ but it also gave me more experience and offered new writing skills that would help me when I returned to the book.

Not only did I come to see that my book wasn’t right but I also came to recognise how important it was to get it right. However, as I developed my writing and worked on new projects, more time passed, so much that I now had three sequels written to a book that still wasn’t ready to go out. I had now invested years of writing in this project.

It was time to make that time mean something, I probably left book three for longer than I needed to, the dread of how difficult my job was to be looming over me.

That time had been essential in helping me become more objective, to step back, and to accept the fact that this book needed some significant work. However, if I wasn’t careful I could have left that little file waiting forever.

Problem number three (Time):

3am watch on stone floorI noticed these issues more than a year ago. Almost four years had passed since I had written the last sentence of that first draft and I knew that was far too long for a third book in what was now a five/six-book series.

At some point last year I tried to cask my anxiety aside and took a look at the dreaded manuscript.

I had learned more about writing by then, I was more relaxed about making big changes when the story called for it. In short, I was more able to deal with problems in my writing.

During that new look at book three, it was clear that I could do better (I already knew that), but for the first time in a long time, I realised that the book wasn’t unsalvagable. It could be fixed. It could become better than ‘good enough’ but getting it there would take work.

Unfortunately, that work was going to take time and with two kids, a part-time job, my own business, and marketing activities for my already published books, I didn’t exactly have an abundance of time.

My weekly routine marched on; work to do, meals to cook, clothes to wash, kids to drop off and pick up from school. Step by step ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ dropped in priority. It bothered me on a number of levels but hardest of all was during book talks when I would talk about characters who were (at least in my own mind) already years past the stages they were in my first two books.

I wanted to tell readers what happened next to these characters but I couldn’t because book three wasn’t out. It wasn’t real yet.

Book three hovered in my periphery for a very long time. I wanted to tell the story but I never had the time to fix it and get it out.

Then came lockdown…and for better or worse, everything changed.

New Habits

I have time now. Even during the eased lockdown process here in Scotland, there are still a few extra hours each week for me to work on my books, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working for weeks on it.

At first, it was just a bit of polishing, then it was some textual decorating, then a big word clear-out. Then I tore a couple of chapters out to make room for the real story. The endless strands of what was a meandering story were either dropped or woven into the main tale. Characters went through arcs.

I started to understand what this book was really about all along; How it tied together with what came before and how it really could launch what I have set up for after. It’s been a long strange road from that gypsy caravan five years ago but tonight I am about to sit down and complete my edit of the last chapter of ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate.’

‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ is ready (really ready). At last.

More steps before we reach the finish line

However, that’s not the end of the story when getting a book onto the shelves. There’s a long way to go.

I’m now on proofreader stage, next comes the editor, then a final tidy up for print formatting etc. and we’re off to the printer. (By the way, this sounds quick but it could still be November before all of these stages are complete).

Every week I will fill readers in on what a self-published author does in getting their book from this raw (sort of complete) stage to something real, well-formatted, looking good, and most importantly sitting on shop shelves.

I’ll have lots of tips to share as we go on but this first one should fill you in on how you can motivate yourself to get your project up and running.

All it took for this to happen after five years of indecision and denial was a tiny bit of extra time and a slightly better approach in how I use that time.

My new magic tool

One of the most useful things I’ve done during lockdown was to set myself a clear list of activities to work on in small increments. Key to this change has been a greater emphasis on time-management (so that I don’t let myself brush off necessary work again).

One of the most beneficial tools I found was a new time-management service. The service is called ‘ClickUp‘ (by the way this is an affiliate link so I do get ‘ClickUp credit’ if someone signs up for a free trial, I don’t want to seem disingenuous).

ClickUp is compatible with my PC and my phone so I can now easily track what I need to be doing on a day-to-day basis pretty easily. It comes in tiers so you can actually use a free account for life if you only want the basics.

However, you don’t have to use something like ClickUp; you could simply work on a spreadsheet, or even write it by hand on a bulletin board, whatever works for you. The key change is to look at what you want the end of your project to look like then frame your work in relation to that goal (working back).

In my case, I started with my end goal for this book (paperback copies out in time for Scottish Book Week in November) and worked my way backwards through the essential stages which get a book into print. I broke down each job and looked at when it would need to be complete for this to work. Then I broke down my own work into much more manageable sections, each coming up as small, specific, tasks with deadlines and reminders.

Book three is back on. It will finally be making its way to shelves, and it is a huge weight off my shoulders.

Follow the whole book publishing process!

I’m going to add an update on this site every Monday as I move towards publication. These posts will offer a detailed step-by-step guide which should show how a book moves through its various incarnations before it lands on shelves.

I’ll do what I can to help readers (and fellow writers) follow this book’s progress; from writer’s draft, through all the tidying work of proofreading and editing. We’ll look at the cover design process, marketing plans, and even the formatting that’s needed for the printers. I’m going to do what I can to make sure you can see exactly what’s involved in self-publishing.

If you’re interested in following this process please feel free to join my mailing list (you’ll only get emails from me, and you won’t get spammed with 100 emails in one day because I just can’t write that quickly). It’s easy to sign up, simply click this link and fill in your name and e-mail address.

Please feel free to ask any questions you like in the comments below and I’ll be back next Monday with more updates,

As always thanks for reading,

All the best, John