What My Characters Get From Me

I often get asked where my characters come from. To be honest, I’m not always completely sure. In my first book, Casey Quinn leapt (or jetéd) out of nowhere when I was doing a writing prompt. Alice Jones came from my desire to write a detective story, but almost all of my characters have a little bit of me in them-things I like, bad habits, interests, fears, and other odd quirks.

Here are a few examples of the things I share with some of the characters from my latest book.


 

Alice Jones: My hardboiled detective gets her love of math from me. I was no genius, but I found geometry and algebra so satisfying. I especially loved factoring equations. Alice’s interests have given me an excuse to brush up on my math skills.

Kevin Jordan: Charming enough to get out of most of the trouble he makes for himself, I have very little in common with Kevin (I was the good kid with a guilty conscience, even though I never did anything wrong). But he has a sensible streak I’m happy to take credit for.

Sammy Delgado Jr: Sammy gets his relentless optimism from me, but I hope I manage to keep mine from being quite so annoying.

Arthur Jones: Alice’s Dad and a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. He likes to chug water from a sports bottle while he writes, like he’s running a marathon. My friends used to tease me about this in college, and I still do it today.

Delores Jones (AKA Della Lynn): Alice’s twin sister and rising theater star. Alice might not share Della’s love of the stage, but I did! I was an active drama club member in elementary and high school. Alice Jones:Book 2 is set in a theater and I’m having so much fun writing all about life backstage.

Dr. Adrian Learner: The scientist who disappears is based on my time interning at The Jackson Laboratory when I was 17.

Virginia Lynn: Alice’s mom. We don’t see much of her in The Impossible Clue but we do know she’s a costume designer. She gets that from me. I love sewing big elaborate dresses. I once went dumpster diving at a hardware store so I could get the metal strapping they use to tie planks of wood together so I could make my own hoop skirts and bustles.

 

Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue

My latest book, Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue is officially out today!

I’m having a glamorous pajama party at home with my daughter while she ‘helps’ me work on the outline for my next book. It’s a bit of a slog at the moment, so it is very nice to see The Impossible Clue out in the world and be reminded that ‘yes, I can do this.’

When I wrote my first book, I assumed that writing would get easier. In some ways it does. It took me 20 drafts to finish Dreamer Ballerina, and only 11 to finish The Impossible Clue. I’m better at finding problems and fixing them now. I still struggle with most of the same old worries and false starts when I’m working on those first drafts. But, I suppose, with experience comes the knowledge that, even though it feels like the book will never come together, if I just keep writing, one word at a time, it will.

If you do get a copy, I hope you enjoy it! Alice is a really fun character to hang out with. Happy reading!

Writers Live in the Future

One of the weird things about being a writer is how long everything takes. Publishing is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue comes out this month (actually, it’s been seen out in bookshops already!) but I finished writing it long ago. In fact, I’ve already finished the first draft of Alice Jones: Book 2 and am in the process of outlining Alice Jones: Book 3 in the hopes that it gets picked up as well.

So how long is long? I’m sure it differs from house to house and book to book, but for me I started writing Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue at the beginning of 2014 and signed a contract with Chicken House in the Autumn. Then there were layers of rewriting and editing, title changes and cover design until it was done (August-ish 2015) and ready for release.

Of course, books don’t just get released when they’re done. Releases are scheduled to fit into the publisher’s calendar, to make sure all of their books don’t come out at once. Mine is officially out months later on 4 February 2016. That’s about a year and a half from when Chicken House bought the manuscript* and over two years from when I started writing the first draft.

On the one hand, it can be frustrating to wait so long to see your work make it to print. On the other, it gives you time to work on your next book. I started writing Alice Jones Book 2 (about the mysterious, perhaps ghostly, problems plaguing The Beryl Theater) while my editors were busy working on Book 1. And when I got stuck working on Book 2, I’d daydream about ideas for Book 3.

Seeing The Impossible Clue in a bookshop for the first time (yesterday!) was thrilling, but it was also like traveling back in time to visit an earlier version of myself. I remembered where I was when I started writing, and all of the fun and frustrating times I had helping Alice solve the mystery of the invisible scientist, and then it was time to go back to the future where Book 2 and 3 are waiting to be finished.


*This was an extra long incubation period, probably because I had a baby in the middle of things and Chicken House scheduled in some buffer time just in case. I believe one year from purchase to publication is more average.

Only one month until Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue

Happy 2016!

My latest book, Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue is coming out next month! It’s the first in a series of detective stories featuring Alice Jones, a street-savy kid with a mathematical mind. Here are five of my favorite detectives, all of whom have helped inspire Alice.

  1. Nancy Drew-The original girl detective. Nancy Drew books started my life-long love of mysteries and reading in general. I loved Nancy, she was smart and resourceful and, though she had a lawyer for a dad, always solved her cases on her own.
  2. Hercule Poirot-Agatha Christie’s first detective. As a child, I think Poirot appealed to me because he wasn’t strong or daring or even particularly brave. He was clever, and he used his ‘little grey cells’ to get the better of the bad guys.
  3. Encyclopedia Brown-Another brain-based sleuth, Encyclopedia Brown books gave me my first taste of being the detective myself. Each short story had its solution at the end of the book. I think I got one right, once. I loved Sally (Encyclopedia’s partner, the strongest girl in the 5th grade) and Bugs Meany, their nemesis.
  4. Lord Peter Wimsey-The gentleman detective, Wimsey often used people’s assumptions that he was an aristocratic fool to his advantage. Alice uses the fact that she’s only 12 in a similar way.
  5. Philip Marlowe-A private eye rather than a detective, trying to do the right thing in a wrong world. I loved his bruised morality and how he tried to do the right thing, even when the choice was murky and hard.

Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue will be released 4 February, but you can read the first chapter or pre-order (UK/US) a copy now.

 

Waiter waiter, there’s a typo in my uncorrected proof…

A few days ago, Chicken House sent me the typeset pages of my new book. This is such an exciting moment because it’s the first time I get to see all the fancy doo-dahs that the publisher adds, all the front matter, the chapter headings and the words on the page just like in a real live book. It’s also the moment that makes me remember ‘oh my gosh, this is really happening!’

I got two great surprises when I looked at the pages:



First; Alice rides her bike all over Philadelphia while she’s chasing down leads, so I was thrilled that there was a picture of a bicycle on the first page.20150911_100616

Second; I had no idea Barry Cunningham, the Managing Director, Publisher and kid-lit genius, would write a little blurb on the inside. Wow, so exciting! I posted this on Facebook.Impossible Clue Proofs

But what’s this? In the blurb, oh my, is that a typo? (I’ve had quite a few eagle-eyed readers point this out.)

Yes, yes it is.

These typeset pages are called uncorrected proofs (sometimes page proofs, sometimes galley proofs). They are one last chance for the author (and a proofreader, thank goodness) to fix any mistakes before the book goes to print. This is not the time to rewrite chunks of dialogue or description since the typesetter has spent a lot of time fitting just the right number of words onto each page. But there is space to change anything small or obviously wrong.

And so for the next few days I’ll be rereading my work, looking for misspellings and other mistakes, red pen at the ready, jellybeans by my side. And then it’s back to finishing the next Alice Jones adventure.

Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue has a cover!

Alice-Jones-678x1024Maths-whizz Alice has already solved a mystery or two.

Persuaded by wannabe sidekick Sammy to investigate a scientist’s disappearance, she’s soon entangled in her trickiest case yet. Dr Learner is reputed to have invented an invisibility suit, but is wacky science really to blame for his vanishing?

With the unlikely help of erstwhile nemesis Kevin, Alice solves the puzzle – only to face another. Should she reveal the truth, or protect her most devoted friend?

I’m so excited to share the cover art for my next book, Alice Jones: The Impossible Clue (coming 4 February 2016) designed by the lovely Helen Crawford-White. I love the bright orange, and the nod to Alice’s interest in math and logic in the background.

For more information and updates check out my publisher Chicken House.

What’s in a name?

As an author, it’s easy to forget that a title is more than just the name of your book. When I first started writing Dreamer Ballerina it was called You Can’t Do Ballet in High-Tops. It was a line from the first draft of the book, a line that didn’t make it into the final version, but I still thought it was a great title. In a lot of ways I still think it’s a great title, IF a title was just the name of my book, but it isn’t.

A title is your book’s first impression. The first chance it has to grab a reader and say ‘Hey, over here, look at me! I’m exactly the kind of book that you love!’ It should give clues to the genre and tone of the book. (Did you know that Twighlight was originally called Forks after the town where the book is set? Do you think Forks would have been the same international phenomenon with that title?)

My published had a lot of reasons for wanting to rename my first book. They wanted something warm and simple, and a bit more hopeful because the book is a dream-come-true kind of story. The reason that surprised me the most was that You Can’t Do Ballet in High-Tops was too long. Not just that it was too long to say, but a title that long would mean that the cover design would either be all words OR the words would be small, maybe too small to stand out in a crowded bookstore. As an author, the visual aspect of my title had never occurred to me.

I have to admit, it was difficult to let go of my original title at first. But, I was lucky to work with a group of editors who I trusted. Once they explained why they wanted the change, and what they were looking for in a new title we worked together brainstorming new options. Some of the proposed titles included:

  • Toe Tied
  • Toe Shoe Blues
  • Bigfoot Ballerina
  • Dance Child
  • Ratty Tatty Ballet Shoes
  • Barefoot Ballerina

Eventually we agreed on Dreamer Ballerina and now I can hardly imagine my book had any other title.

Of course, when it started coming out in international editions there were a whole new set of new titles to get used to. But by then I was just excited to see what kind of title other people thought summed up the spirit of my book.

This time around, with my second book, I was much more prepared for the naming process. I started with a rough working title (The Invisible Scientist) and expected changes. After bouncing around a few different ideas, I’m very excited with the final result: Alice Jones Investigates: The Impossible Clue.

I hope it does what a good title should: make you want to pick it up and give it a try.

On the first day of Christmas my editor gave to me…

Happy December everyone! It is getting cold where I live and I’m drinking lots of cups of tea to keep warm while I write. I also just like tea. In my last post, I mentioned I was in the middle of revising Alice Jones and the Invisible Scientist for Chicken House. I thought it might be interesting to talk a bit about how much editing goes into a book once you sign a contract with a publisher.

disclaimer- this is all based on my experience working with Chicken House. Things may vary with other publishers, but I think the general idea is universal.

1. Major Revisions/Developmental Edit

The first thing that happens when a publisher is interested in your book (after you dance around your living room like a muppet and scare your cat) is a discussion about the changes they would like you to make. It sounds a little strange, doesn’t it?

Publisher- We love your book!

Writer- (squee!)

Publisher- But we want you to make some changes…

Writer-(say what?)

The thing is, writing is not something you can do all by yourself, which sounds weird. But having other people read your writing and give you feedback is so important if you want to get better. I write a draft, get help from my writing group. Write another draft, get help from my agent. So getting help from an editor is just the next step up the ladder.

This rewrite is for large issues, things that you can’t just fix by adding a new paragraph on page 11. Maybe your bad guy isn’t bad enough. Maybe your secondary character needs to play a stronger role. Maybe you need to add more description (or cut a whole bunch out).*

In my case, Chicken House asked me to come in for a meeting to talk about the changes they would like (this happened both times, the first time I was ridiculously nervous, the second time was a lot more fun). I actually really enjoy this process. Those editors are smart and have a lot of great ideas and a very good understanding of their target audience. I know some writers worry about having someone else ‘change’ their work, but in my experience, all the editor will do is point out where they see a problem. It’s up to you, the writer, to come up with how to fix it.

*yes, these are all things I have had to do for my own books (plus a few more too)

2. Line Edits

Once your big changes get approved, it’s time to look at the book scene-by-scene, sentence-by-sentence. Your editor will do a close reading, making comments on scenes that need more action or emotion, sentences that read a bit funky and anything else that catches his or her eye. These are changes that can be fixed by adding a paragraph on page 11, problems on a writing level instead of a structural level.

I imagine this used to be a lot harder when everything had to be handwritten and sent back and forth by post. Now that there is email and track-changes, it goes pretty quickly.

3. Copy Editing/Proof Reading/Fact Checking

Bad grammar beware, the copy editor is coming to get you. This stage is usually pretty straightforward. Sometimes writers use incorrect grammar on purpose, and generally if you can make your case you can keep your ‘mistakes.’

During this stage you also get something called a Style Sheet. The Style Sheet is a master list of how specific words in your book will be spelled, the names of places, companies and organizations and any non-standard usage that needs to be used throughout the book. You can see a copy of my Style Sheet from Dreamer Ballerina here.*

You may also go through some fact checking in this round. Chicken House sent Dreamer Ballerina to a reader in New York to make sure I hadn’t dropped any clangers when I was writing the city. (I had, the worst was sticking Casey’s friend Andrea in a 20 storey walk-up, apparently 6 was much more realistic.) They also double checked the names of the dance schools in the book and the dates I used. I’m not sure Alice Jones and the Invisible Scientist will get the same level of fact checking since it isn’t historical fiction, but we shall see.

*this version of the Style Sheet came before I argued that even though Dumpster is a trademark, it’s entered into general usage and shouldn’t be capitalized (they let me win on that one).

4. Page Proofs/Galleys

And this is the most exciting stage of all. Once all of the editing is done, the rewrites, the line edits, the copy edits and fact checking, your publisher will send you your page proofs. These are basically an unbound copy of what your book will look like in print. This is your last chance to catch any typos or misspellings before it goes to print. You go over it with a fine tooth comb and hope that you don’t find anything.

So that is editing with a publisher in a very big nutshell. I’m sure there are a ton of things I’ve left out (or just don’t know about because I only see things from the author’s perspective). It’s a lot of work, but it can be a lot of fun too. And when you get fun emails about bits and bobs like cover designs (so exciting) thrown into the mix, it’s just fabulous!

Exciting News!

I’ve always loved mysteries, and now I’ve written one!

Mystery and math are a perfect fit for gifted schoolgirl detective Alice Jones. But when Alice gets caught up in the case of a missing inventor, things get a lot more complicated than just solving her classmates’ mini-mysteries for a mars bar. And when it turns out the scientist was building an invisibility suit, Alice learns she isn’t the only one on the case.

With a mysterious silver Mercedes on her tail, Alice follows the clues, from state-of-the-art labs to dingy apartments, searching for the answer to one very important question: How do you find someone who can turn invisible?

I’ve signed a two book deal (2!) with Chicken House for Alice Jones and the Invisible Scientist and the next Alice Jones adventure. I’ll be posting here about the editing process as we get the first manuscript ready for publication AND about the writing process as I work on the sequel. There may even be some sneak peaks.