Saturday, May 6, 2017

Billy Twigg and the Storm of Shadows - Ninian Carter

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The story behind the story: How I came to write "Billy Twigg and the Storm of Shadows" on a mobile phone and win a publishing deal for my troubles!

Writing a book was one of those bucket list items for me, I guess. A must do it before I die type of deal. That's certainly how it all started out, about ten years ago, in Australia.

  I'd always liked writing stories as a kid growing up in the Scottish Borders, and had spent a few summer holidays hunched over my parents old typewriter, trying to hammer out my "bestseller". It would invariably be influenced by whatever my favourite movie or TV show was at the time, or maybe by the books I was reading. I liked macabre tales of mystery, horror, fantasy and science fiction mostly (and still do in many ways).

   It didn't take me long to realise that writing an actual book was a really big deal (particularly when I was 13 years old and only had six weeks off school!) so I switched to short stories (that I had a realistic chance of finishing) and had the odd one published in my high school magazine as a teenager in the mid-1980s. That was about the sum extent of my blossoming literary career before I decamped to art school and then a hectic career in the news graphics business.

  Jump forward twenty years, and I'm a new resident of Sydney, Australia, working for The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper as its Graphics Editor. My girlfriend and I had had enough of living in London (for ten years), and after a fortunate turn of events and an exhausting interview process, I'd landed a brilliant job on the other side of the world. I was 35. It was the chance of a lifetime. We were off on an adventure.

  Sydney turned out to be the most bewilderingly beautiful city we'd ever lived in. Gemma and I had the time of our lives there, soaking up the practically unending sunshine, amazing scenery and legendary Australian hospitality. It also, unwittingly, became the birthplace of Billy Twigg and the Storm of Shadows, or as it was known in the early days, The Imagination of Billy Twigg.

  Despite having barely written a word of fiction for two decades, I'd always kept notes of story ideas in a scruffy old notepad or on the backs of discarded envelopes and business cards. I entertained the fantasy that one day I'd sit down at home, dig out my notes and write my boy's own adventure story. Billy Twigg became another one of those numerous scribbles.

  As is often the case with my story ideas, the Billy Twigg premise was derived from a peculiar dream. I'd awoken one morning in our Darlinghurst apartment, with a fabulously vivid notion in my head: what if dreams are real? All of them. No matter how crazy they are.

  It was an idea that I duly added to my bag of story ramblings and put away for that never-would-happen future book writing splurge.

  However, this particular notion of real dreams wouldn't let go of me, and I found myself thinking about it more and more – especially in bed at night, which in turn fuelled more crazy dreams and more furious early morning note taking. Before I knew it, I was cobbling together a science-fiction yarn that was starting to grow on me. I'd even begun to flesh out an opening chapter. This was unheard of!

  That being said, I wasn't in a huge hurry to write a book at that time, as we were far too busy enjoying everything Sydney had to offer, and slowly the inertia waned. The story fell back into the I'll write it when I'm older storage area of my noggin, and disappeared.

  Roll forward a few years to April 2010. It's sunrise and I've just returned home from queuing all night with hundreds of Apple geeks in the enormous Eaton Centre shopping mall in downtown Toronto – where I've worked for a couple of years for The Globe and Mail, Canada's leading national newspaper.

  I'm back in our cosy Annex apartment, excitedly unpacking the very first iPad. It's hard to express what a game-changing device it was back then, given tablets are so de rigueur these days. But seven years ago, it was revolutionary.

  Even more importantly, I'd come upon a piece of software called Pages. This was a word processor and desktop publishing app in my hands. Something I could casually pick up and take about with me. I didn't need to be chained to a desk, with a two ton computer wired into the wall. It was freedom. Freedom to write on my terms. To fiddle with ideas and not have to feel like I was making a big commitment. I think writing began to feel achievable right then, whereas before, the idea of being an author had always seemed a little bit silly. Embarrassing even. Like, who was I kidding? Now I could be a sneaky writer and nobody would know what I was up to.

  I immediately began scribing chapter one of Billy Twigg from my tatty old Australian paper notes, while sitting in bed in the mornings before starting my shift at the paper. Gemma was off to work early. I started later in the day, so the apartment was quiet and all mine for a while.

  After a few weeks of messing about, I had an opening structure (chapter one of the finished book is still largely what I wrote here), a lead character that I liked, an alien sidekick I liked even more, and a setting inside a deep space rail car diner that somehow felt entirely logical. All seemed to be going well.

  Then, I realised that I didn't really know how to resolve the science of it. Well, when I say science, I mean pseudoscience, mumbo jumbo nonsense. Still, it needed to have some kind of twisted, fictitious logic to it for it to gel with me. It didn't. I couldn't find a way to explain how the dreams could be real without resorting to "magic". I didn't want magic in my story – that was already the domain of a certain famous literary wizard. No gods, or superheroes either, if I could help it. I wanted regular folks, using clever (pretend) technology to resolve their dilemmas, no matter how crazy the situation. I was stuck. There was no point writing any more until I could shore up this gaping plot hole. Billy Twigg was shelved once more.

  Leap forward again, this time for a year, and to the latter end of 2011. Gemma and I are now back in Britain after several years galavanting around the world working. I've just landed a job with a cool infographics agency in London, called Graphic News. I'll soon be making news graphics for an international client base – somewhat ironically including my previous employers in Australia and Canada.

  However, the difference with this venture is that we don't want to return to living in London again, and Gemma doesn't want to work there at all. So I become one of Britain's millions of daily train commuters. We set-up home in the pleasant surrounds of leafy Cambridgeshire, and I begin riding a beat-up misery of a train into London and back – about 45 minutes each way.

  For the first year or so, I do what everybody else does. I look miserable. I read my Kindle. I play my pocket-sized Nintendo gizmo. I mess about with social media. I doze off.

  Then in 2013, we find out we're going to have our first baby, and something triggers in me. I don't recall exactly how it came about, but for some reason I deemed reading other people's writing on the train a dreadful waste of time. Playing video games an even greater sin, and sleeping to be absolutely forbidden.

My tools of the trade

  I should be writing my own book, I said to myself. I should be writing a book on the train! I'll buy one of them smartphones I've been putting off getting for years, and use its Pages app to pick up where I left off in Canada. I could get 90 minutes of writing done a day while commuting. Maybe top-it up to two hours with a little bedtime tippity-tapping as well. That would be 10 hours a week, at 46 weeks a year, when accounting for vacation time. That'd be 460 hours a year – like the equivalent of about 60 days of work, based on eight-hour shifts. Surely, I can write my Billy Twigg book in that period. Right? Make it 50,000-60,000 words long. That's only 1,000 words per day. No problem!

  Let's jump back into the blog time machine again and this time set the dial to three years later. We have a toddler now. And another baby on the way. Life has suddenly become extremely busy!

  But, I'm still riding the train in and out of London every work day. I still have my 90 minutes of free time and what's more amazing, I'm still using it to write my Billy Twigg story rather than catchup on sleep! I haven't wavered. Not once. In fact it's become my obsession, and besides, I find it's the best way of nullifying the commuting misery of riding one of Britain's increasingly expensive and unreliable rail routes. The commuting time flies by even faster than if I were playing Candy Crush!

  I've decided I'm going to finish the book if it kills me. And if it doesn't finish me off first, then I'm going to reward that achievement by self-publishing it on Amazon's Kindle format and tick-off that write my own novel bucket list entry and move onto another one, like climb Machu Picchu.

  I'm determined to not let it fall back into development hell again. But it's more than pride at stake now – I've fallen in love with my book's characters. Billy, Sal, Ellie and the others have developed real voices. Admittedly, for the first year or so, I'd struggled writing their dialogue and inner monologues (and as a consequence almost given up on the book), but then something clicked. I didn't feel like I was forcing words out of their mouths any more. I felt more like I was hurriedly transcribing their dialogue as they chatted among themselves. So much so that I'd gone back and rewritten all the previous year's dialogue work in a matter of weeks.

  My characters had suddenly come alive for me. They were real. I was excited for them. Worried about them. Hopeful for their futures. I wanted to know how my own story was going to pan-out. It didn't matter if it would become successful or not. I didn't care about that at all. I was writing the story because I was genuinely enjoying it and because I wanted to know what was going to happen to all the people living in that world. How were two school kids going to deal with an alien lunatic trying to end the world? Was Russell going to get Billy? Would Sal have her revenge? Would Billy learn the skills to survive that he desperately needed to in time?

  There was so much going on now that Billy Twigg and the Storm of Shadows had doubled in size to over 100,000 words. There were multiple plot lines weaving through the tale and I'd set myself the challenge of keeping it very fast-paced. I didn't want there to be even a dull half-page in there. I wanted it to feel like the reader was inside an early Steven Spielberg movie that had got lost and never made it to theatres. Like a joyous discovery of a story you rarely come across these days. I was unashamedly trying to write an entertaining, page-turning, rip-roaring yarn. Exactly the type of thing I'd want to read on a boring daily train commute.

  The book was also trying to hit the young adult market with a story that would hopefully appeal to young teenagers upwards. And although it was sci-fi, I didn't want it to be too technobabbly. It needed to be as much a thriller, as it was a mystery, as it was a sci-fi yarn – one where most of the action takes place on Earth, with real people in peril.

  To that end, I'd honed the creative process down to fit into the book's incredibly restricted development time. I'd spend 30 minutes walking to my train station in the morning, working out what was going to happen next in my story. Depending on the type of scene I'd be working on, I'd listen to appropriately emotive music in order to get me in the mood. If I was doing a fight scene, I might listen to Alan Silvestri's Predator movie soundtrack (I must have listened to that for months). If I was writing a profound scene, I'd maybe loop Austin Wintory's incredible soundtrack from the Journey PlayStation game or something by Michael Giacchino or Takeshi Furukawa. Anything to get me in the mood.

  Usually, by the time I boarded my late-running, overcrowded, dilapidated southbound train, my noggin would be brimming with ideas and I'd frantically begin hammering away at the iPhone glass to input as many words as possible before pulling into King's Cross Station. At the end of the day, I'd do more of the same on the way home, usually editing that morning's stream of consciousness first, before adding to it if there was time. Later on, I'd repeat the process in bed for half an hour before sleep. Then I'd wake up the next day and start it all over again. Five days a week (no writing at weekends), 46 weeks a year (no writing on vacations), for three whole years.

  Then, almost unexpectedly, it was over. I typed the last line of the epilogue and it was done. I was in shock!

  To be honest, for most of its gestation I hadn't been altogether sure I'd finish the thing at all. It had only been the last few months that I'd realised that it was going to have a terrific ending and that all the elements and narratives were going to join up nicely into a satisfying conclusion. Then I hadn't wanted it to stop. What would I do now?

  Time to investigate Amazon. I looked at their Kindle Direct Publishing arm and found that they have a few different royalty payment schemes one can enrol in, each one with different benefits. I was also going to need to format it for Kindle using some fearsomely complex looking software and design an eye-catching cover. And, it needed to be proofread by a pro. I didn't know how to do any of these things.

  Luckily, working in the newspaper business, puts one in touch with plenty of writers, and I was able to harvest a list of recommended copy-editors and proofreaders from a former SMH journalist contact who'd written several books. What I didn't know was that these editors tend to specialise in certain genres and so I was bounced about for a few weeks until I found Lesley Jones in Cheshire, who specialises in young adult sci-fi. I'd found my editor at last.

An early cover concept (left), an update of the cover used during the Kindle Scout campaign (centre),
and the final redesigned cover provided by Kindle Press shortly after the book was published

   It took her a couple of weeks or so to edit my manuscript, during which time I messed about with the cover design. You can't really do this on a mobile phone (although I did try), so I had to bring out the big guns and use a desktop Mac. I began working on designs and text formatting experiments in the evenings and weekends when the kids were asleep. I also had to build a website. I could see that production/marketing was going to be every bit as involving as writing the book itself.

  I received my edited manuscript back with encouraging noises to the effect that Lesley had really enjoyed reading it and thought it could sell.

Billy Twigg and the Storm of Shadows occupying the number one spot in Hot & Trending

  Then, rather by accident, I fell upon Kindle Scout. A relatively new innovation by Amazon. Kind of like The X-Factor TV show, but for writers. You upload your book to Amazon. They pluck out a 5,000 word extract and stick it online, together with a bio of the author. Then they ask readers to nominate the books they think show the most promise. It runs for 30 days, at the end of which, Amazon tallies up the scores and decides which books, if any, they want to include under their own publishing banner, Kindle Press. Voters of a book that goes on to win a publishing deal, get a free copy of that book. It's a kind of crazy symbiotic scheme but one that seems to work.

  I figured I had nothing to lose by entering it. I knew I had no chance of winning as there are a couple of hundred books up there vying for attention, but just being in the contest would be good exposure. Afterwards, I'd simply self-publish it anyway.

The stats page that Amazon feeds to all Kindle Scout entrants. Unfortunately it doesn't actually tell you how many people have voted for your book. They keep that figure a closely guarded secret

  Wednesday, October 26, 2016, 5:00 am: My book extract went live. I remember being at work and checking the stats at lunchtime. Knock me down with a feather, I was in the Hot & Trending section – the bit you want to try and stay in for as long as possible. By the close of day one, I'd spent 15 hours out of 24 in there. Surely some mistake?

  The next day: 19 hours.

  Day three: 16 hours.

  Four: 24 hours.

  And so it went on for nine straight days. This was nuts. People were voting for my book. A lot.

  On day 11, it hiccuped – zero hours in Hot & Trending. A few days of flurry and then it flatlined for ten straight days. Three days from the end, it rocketed upwards to spend 66 hours in the scoring zone. Then it was over.

One of the postcard ads I placed in a local shop to try and drum up Kindle Scout campaign hits

  I was glad. I was nervous wreck! I'd spent every spare moment for a month willing it higher up the chart, while trying to drum up visitors to my book's Kindle Scout web page using social media, email contacts, Facebook ads, even postcards pinned up in the local shop and pub! I was knackered.

  I didn't hear anything back from Amazon for a week. I figured they weren't interested. Maybe they wouldn't get in touch at all? I didn't really know what to expect. I'd entered into this whole arrangement completely clueless, and clueless I remained.

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