Alice Jones: The Ghost Light

The second Alice Jones book is finished. Well, sort of.  Writing is a long process that involves A LOT of rewriting, editing, tinkering and back and forth between me (the writer) and my editors (the lovely Rachel and Kesia from Chicken House). I wrote about the many (many, many to the power of ten) stages of the editing process here.

BUT, the biggest hurdle for me is getting that first complete draft and making all the major changes to make sure the plot works, all the clues are there and no characters fall out of the book at the halfway point. And THAT task is done. Now it is on to the fun tweaking and tidying and adding more spooky bits and all the math analogies Alice loves to use.

image002It also has a glorious cover, designed by Helen Crawford-White.

Alice Jones: The Ghost Light is all about the mysterious goings-on at The Beryl Theater. Della is convinced an evil spirit is haunting the show: Alice doesn’t believe in ghosts and sets out to find the human behind the disturbances. As Alice investigates The Beryl’s past, she discovers another unsolved mystery, the disappearance of a fabulous diamond. Could the two cases be connected?

Alice Jones:The Ghost Light will be published January 2017. (So I better get back to fixing up all the details!)

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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.

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.

How many drafts?

“Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

A few years ago, I was giving a talk at my old elementary school. The students had so many great questions about the book and about being a writer. And it was fun to see Mrs. Tripp, my fourth grade teacher, trying not to cry when I talked about how much I loved writing choose your own adventure stories in her class. One student asked me how many drafts I wrote of Dreamer Ballerina. When I answered him, the entire auditorium gasped. Seriously, if there was a video, you’d see the collective intake of breath make my hair move.

Can you guess what the answer was?

20.

From the first handwritten draft I scribbled down in a notebook, to the final published book, I wrote twenty drafts.

It sounds like a lot. The student’s looked horrified. But hey, writing is hard work, and it’s good to know that up front. I think it’s also good to know that first drafts are almost always rubbish. My first drafts are so full of mistakes, cliches, bad ideas, clunky dialogue and wrong-plot-turns, that it scares me to think about someone reading them.*  Thank goodness I get a chance to rewrite!

So, to the wonderful students at Mt. Desert Elementary School, don’t let the 20 drafts put you off. Don’t stop writing because your first draft doesn’t work, or your second, or your third, or your twentieth. If you love to write, keep on writing!

*Seriously, I have nightmares.

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.

IT’S v. ITS

My own personal Waterloo.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things I struggle with when I write. I could fill a book. The reason this one issue irks me so much is that I should know better. In fact, I do know better.

I know it’s is a contraction of it is and its is a possessive. But when I type at speed, my fingers refuse to leave out the apostrophe. I have resorted to using the Find All feature to check each one before I send out a draft.

I wish I’d figured that trick out in college. I had one professor who delighted in red-penning this particular mistake. He didn’t hate me. He thought it was funny. When I was a senior and he asked me to proofread his own book, I was ready for payback.

I poured over each page of his manuscript looking for a similar mistake. I bought my own red pen just for the occasion. Did I find one? Nope, not a single incorrect it’s or its in the whole 300 pages. Ten years later and I’m still disappointed.

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!