From Idea to Published Novel

Ever wonder about the process of how an author goes from idea to finished product?

This is something I’m often asked about by readers. It took me about two years to go from my initial idea for First Command to a final product. I’m sure the process varies from author to author, but here’s an overview of the process from my point of view.

From initial idea to a published novel…

Idea Generation

Where do authors get their ideas?

Most authors really have no idea. It’s generally not online plot generators though. For the most part ideas for science fiction stories come from from a combination of personal experiences, curiosity, deep thought about the directions our own world is heading in, and exposure to the works and ideas of others through reading.

For many authors, myself included, idea generation is rarely the bottleneck in the process. In fact the main problem is often that there are so many ideas percolating in one’s mind, it’s challenging to latch on to one long enough to really develop it.

With First Command I started out wanting to write something that would be accessible to my own children at the middle grade level, and yet mature enough that adult audiences would enjoy. So I started with a team of cadets training to be astronauts. Some of the most important questions a writer can ask once they have a basic premise are…

What’s the most critical moment in these characters’ lives?

What the worst possible thing that could happen?

World Building and Character Creation

Ever wonder how writers keep entire fictional universes in order? That’s where world building comes in.

World building is the process of creating a fictional environment. Many writers will draw maps, write little backstories, generate character genealogy trees, or fill out character sheets to keep help solidify specific traits of the world and the characters within it. In science fiction authors can also spend a lot of time thinking about the science and technology in their universes. See for example my posts on travelling faster than light or the search for alien life.

Some people enjoy world building so much it becomes a hobby in and of itself.

Writers vary considerably in the degree to which they world build. I tend to do it on an as-necessary basis. For the Colonial Alliance Universe, at some point I had to establish a canon for all the little details that while they might not matter to the casual reader, are important to me as an author. For example, take spacecraft classification. A lot of writers default to navy terms for spacecraft, because that’s familiar. In First Command, the cadets are tasked with flying the Triumph, an old corvette that’s been decommissioned from the expeditionary fleet. I needed to call it something. I knew it was small and initially I’d been calling it a frigate, but after doing some research I decided that an expeditionary corvette was perhaps the most suitable name.

Somewhere I have a set of notes detailing spacecraft classifications along with details like crew size, how crews are organized, into which departments, how many astronaut officers and crew each contains and the like.

Plotting vs. Pantsing

Plotting
This the act of preparing a detailed outline of your novel from beginning to end, mapping out each individual scene. It includes writing out character arcs and sub-plots. Some authors use templates known as “beat sheets” that help writers to organize the story by word count.

The advantages of plotting are generally pretty obvious. You start out with an organized story. And sometimes it can help make the process shorter in the long run because those scenes you think might be important in the beginning but really aren’t can be axed before you even write them.

Pantsing
This is the art of writing “by the seat of your pants.” No plot? No problem. Just sit down with a character and a situation and keep making things worse for the character based on the decisions they make until you reach a cathartic moment or final crisis to serve as the climax of the story.

The main advantage of this approach for a writer is that you get to live in the moment of the story and watch it unfold in real time, as you’re writing. Also, there’s less time investment before you get to write. Some people can do this naturally and produce wonderful, coherent stories even in a first draft. Often though, my experience is that this approach can lead you into a lot of dead ends.

Plantsing
This is what happens to your pants when you sit on the fence.


Personally I find I write best when I have at least a brief outline to follow. That’s because I have a hectic day job and sometimes it can be days between opportunities to write. Also, sometimes I don’t have a lot of time at any given sitting to write. An outline really helps to keep me on track.

First Draft

“The first draft of anything is shit.” – Ernest Hemingway

I think this is what most non-writers think of when then envision someone writing. You sit at your computer, and type out a story. A typical novel is about 80,000 words long. When I’m in the groove, I can write at about 1000 words per hour. But it takes time to get into the groove, and some days you just don’t find it no matter what you do.

The first draft is all about getting the story down. The characters come alive for the first time and they tell the story. Writers scramble to organize thoughts into something coherent. Exercises like National Novel Writing Month encourage writers to ignore any urges to edit and lock away any feelings that what they are creating isn’t good enough and just delve deep into that creative zone to get the story written.

Getting to “the end” is an exhilarating experience, but completing the first draft is far from the end of the writing process, particularly for someone like me.

Self Edits

This is the process of making sense of the story that your characters have told you.

When people think of editing, many envision what’s called proof reading, i.e. checking for spelling mistakes. That’s later in the process. Once you have a first draft, you can finally see the story as a whole. This is when you have to start making surgical amputations and reconstructions. Some writers will cut out entire scenes or chapters because nothing really happens. You look for long paragraphs of exposition (known as “info dumps”), convict them of the crime of being boring and sent them to the guillotine. You look for logical coherence and fill in any plot holes that you can find.

This is not a single pass operation either. I probably went through First Command about three or four times on my own before sharing it with anyone else.

Editor: Developmental/Substantive Edits

Once you’re reasonably happy with your baby, it’s time to lift up the swaddling cloth and let a few others have a peek. You have to be careful about doing this. The world can be cruel and when your baby looks anything like a book it is often without mercy.

In Megavoltage Publishing, we hire a professional editor. The first step is substantive editing. That’s editing that is aimed at ensuring the content is coherent. Here an independent professional with experience in the genre reviews the work and gives detailed feedback on story structure, content, style, etc. A good editor here will help the writer find their voice, and help develop the basic meat and bones of the story into the best possible version of itself.

For writers this is often the most challenging step because this is where someone else will tell them what needs to be cut out and added. It’s not just finding out whether or not your baby is ugly. It’s sitting in an office to find out whether or not your baby has a cancer that needs to be removed.

But going through the process produces a health, vibrant story on the other side. You will also come out with a much deeper understanding of what the story is about and who the target audience should be.

Editor: Line Edits/Copy Edits

Once you have a manuscript you’re happy with structurally, you can move on to copy edits. This is where a professional editor will go though the manuscript in detail to make sure the text is clear and grammatically correct. The editor will look for consistency in details–do characters have consistent eye color, if you chose to capitalize the work Marine, is that consistent all the way through? Can the reader understand what the writer means to convey? Are there cliché phrases or over-used words?

You can get a manuscript that comes back with a lot of red ink on it in this process, but for the most part, every change makes the story that much more accessible to your readers.

Advance Reader Team/Beta Readers

Before releasing the story to the world, many authors will have some kind of advance reader team that get to read the book before anyone else. They get copies for free in exchange for feedback. Sometimes the feedback can be as simple as thumbs up or down. Sometimes it can be a review for when the book is released. Advance readers who are fans of a series are also invaluable for their knowledge of the universe and can help tremendously with consistency.

Anyone interested in joining my advance reader team can contact me here.

I should also throw in a plug for author readings. Along the way in the process, authors should read their work to anyone willing to listen. Every opportunity to share is an opportunity to make the work that much better. You can do live action slush readings at conferences, read to a writing group, find an online critique group, etc. But feedback is tremendously important, not just to a given story, but also to writers in terms of development of their own skills.

Production

This is where you take your word document and translate it into a full print or electronic book. One of the most exciting aspects of this is cover design. You get to establish what your book is going to look like when you present it to the world.

On top of the cover, you need to format the file for print. There are online services that help with this. You figure out front matter like your copyright statement, and dedication and at the back it’s important to add a follow up page, so if readers enjoyed the book they know where to look for your next project.

Next you put all of this into your formatting program of choice and it generates a book. This needs to be reviewed meticulously by the author. The point is to avoid words drifting off of a page or off-center paragraphs!

Proofreading

You thought edits were done? There’s one more stage… searching out those illusive typos that have survived to this point. Ideally there shouldn’t be a lot of them, but some of those guys are survivors. And I like to bury them deep too. Most are caught with basic word processors these days. But those programs are only so intelligent.

Some authors will rely on their advance reader team to catch these, but you can also hire freelance proofreaders.

Publication

And then finally you find a distribution company, go through their process.

One of the big decisions at this point is something called “going wide” or publishing with Kindle Direct Publishing “Select.” Kindle’s “Select” program is kind of like Netflix for books. Readers pay a subscription fee and get to read whatever is in their inventory for free. Authors get paid by the number of their pages that get read. But in order to do that your ebook has to be exclusive with them for a period of 90 days.

When someone goes “wide” they’re publishing on platforms other than Amazon, so Kobo, Apple, Google Books, Indigo -Chapters, etc. It also allows you to make your book available through your local library. That’s the direction I’ve gone with First Command.


So that’s it. That’s how you go from an initial idea for a story to a published novel.

Life… on Other Planets?

Photo* Pexels.com

Alien life is a staple of science fiction. In my latest novel, First Command, a crew of astronaut cadets crash land on a habitable planet and must survive an array of hostile life forms native to that world. But how likely is it that there actually is life on other planets?

Are we alone in universe?

The Drake Equation

In 1961 at the first Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) meeting, Astronomer Frank Drake proposed an equation to stimulate scientific dialogue on the topic. The equation is a means of estimating the number of intelligent alien civilizations that humans might make some form of contact with. While scientists don’t really expect it to come up with a precise value, it can still help guide efforts in this search. It also serves as a convenient way of breaking down the different dimensions of the problem–dimensions that span a wide array of sciences.

The Drake equation looks like this:


N – The number of alien civilizations that humans could communicate with.
How many alien intelligences are we likely to be able to communicate with? 10,000? 1? If it’s much less than 1, then there isn’t much point in trying to communicate with anyone else. But if it’s a lot larger than 1, it rather begs the question so eloquently asked by the Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi… where is everybody?

To estimate this number, we consider seven (mostly) independent factors.

R* – The mean rate of star formation in our galaxy
About 10 billion years in, the Milky Way galaxy has converted roughly 90 percent of its initial mass into stars. Initially R* was estimated at about 1 start per year, but some more current astronomical research puts this at about 7 per year and some estimates are as high as 20. It’s important to bear in mind though that there’s also a lag factor at play in the game. The relevant R* that was 5 billion years ago when our own sun was formed, may have been different than it is now.

fP – The fraction of those stars that have planets
It turns out that stars with planets are relatively common in the universe. To a rough approximation fp ~ 1. Digging a little deeper, according to NASA, about one in six stars has as Earth-sized planet orbiting it.

ne – the mean number of planets that could support life per star with planets
These are the “Goldilocks” planets. Most often this factor is associated with the physical conditions required for water–too cold and you live on an ice cube, too hot and you’re in a cloud of steam, but just right and you have conditions for liquid water. Astronomers define a “circumstellar habitable zone” as the range of distances from a given star where liquid water could exist. Sometimes this is called the “Goldilocks” zone after the character who needed her chair, porridge and bed to be just right. Initial estimates of ne were as high as 5, but I think it’s important to recognize that water’s not the only element necessary for life. The planets would also need to have the other necessary raw materials too, which cuts this factor down considerably.

fl – the fraction of life-supporting planets that actually develop life
Now we get into the variables with much wider ranges of uncertainty. That fact of the matter is that in terms of planets that have actually developed life, we have precisely one data point. That’s not much to go off of. Still, that hasn’t stopped scientists from attempting to address the idea. If even microbial life were to be found on Mars or on one of Jupiter’s moons, that would imply that fl is relatively close to 1. There is also an argument that since life began on Earth soon after the geological conditions were favorable, that the emergence of life must be relatively common. Really I think the basic transition here is going from having the correct set of molecules and getting precisely the right conditions where they can spontaneously start to replicate themselves (i.e. RNA and DNA).

fi – the fraction of planets with life that go on to develop intelligent life
Once you’ve got basic microbial life, then you go through billions of years of Darwin Awards. New species arise and go extinct. Life survives through a series of mass extinction events (we’ve had five so far and are arguably in the midst of a sixth). And eventually you get something as complex as a primitive human. One one hand of the argument, you have a group that argues this factor should be very low. After 3.5 billion years of evolution we have only one intelligent species out of billions of branches on the tree of life. On the other hand are scientists who argue that complexity in living things has increased over time and given billion year timescales, intelligence is rather inevitable and therefore fi ~ 1. (But try telling that to your grade seven math teacher!)

fc – the fraction of intelligent civilizations that become capable of communicating across space
Now comes the tricky part of going from making fire and wheels to building microprocessors and radio-telescopes. Oh, and not annihilating ourselves somewhere along the line. Again given our one data point, humans have only just reached this point. Some might argue we’re not even there yet. Sure, we’ve been emitting somewhat coherent radio waves for the last century, but it’s really only been since the Cold War that we’ve emitted radio signals powerful enough to make it beyond our own atmosphere and the radio noise from the sun. Personally I think once a species gets to “wheel and fire” it’s just a matter of surviving mass extinctions until we become capable of long range communication, so I’d estimate fc ~ 1.

L – the mean length of time that those civilizations could communicate
And back to not blowing ourselves up. Or making our planet unfit for human habitation. Or consuming all our food. Or wearing masks and getting vaccinated during a global pandemic. Or producing enough Bruce Willis’s to save us from rogue meteors. This factor basically argues that it’s all just a matter of time folks. The optimists would argue that once we get to the communication stage we’re likely to expand beyond many of these threats and therefore if even a small fraction of civilizations make it to this “immortal” stage, L can reach billions of years.

According to Wikipedia, on the low end we have N ~ 9.1 x 10-13. For anyone who doesn’t understand scientific notation that’s about one in a trillion, or a very very very small number. On the optimistic end however, you’ve got N ~ 15,600,000. That’s quite the range of values!

As a science fiction writer and scientist myself, I tend to land on the more optimistic side of things. But one of big challenges we face, again comes back to our single current data point. We have only life on Earth as our example to guide us in our search. If and when we do encounter some kind of alien civilization, will we even be able to recognize each other?

What do you think? Is there anyone out there?

*Photo above is attributed to:
u0418u0433u043eu0440u044c u0426u044bu0431u0443u043bu044cu0441u043au0438u0439 on Pexels.com.

10 Tips on Making Time for Writing

One of the biggest challenges for writers is finding the time to write.

How do you it?

In my own life, I’m a father & husband first, then a medical physicist in a busy cancer center where I have to balance clinical responsibilities, research and teaching. And only after that, I get to be a writer. One of the common questions I get is: Where do you find the time for writing?

Short answer: You have to make it.

Here are my top 10 tips on making time for writing…

  1. Make Writing a Regular Habit
    Schedule it into your day. Even with a mind-blowingly hectic schedule, blocking off an hour, or even a half-hour to devote to your craft will accumulate over months. Play the long game. Figure out what’s reasonable given your schedule and defend your writing time. People around you will learn your schedule.
    Further, when you do something on a regular basis, you tend to get better at it. Your brain learns that this is the time of day to be creative.
    Thanks neuroscience!
  2. Set SMART Writing Goals for Yourself
    Goals are hugely important. When you don’t have a specific goal with a deadline, making any progress in your writing will often take a back seat to the other things in life that do, even the unimportant ones. Make sure your writing goals are:
    Specific
    Measurable
    Attainable
    Relevant
    Time-Constrained
  3. Permission to Play
    Writing for me is constructive down-time. It’s how I relax and exercise my creative mind. Sometimes people see this as an indulgence… something you really shouldn’t be doing… there are more important things to do. And sure, there are very clearly more important things in life. But when you’re doing those “more important things” you want to bring your A game. That’s hard to do, when you can’t concentrate well. People need down time. It makes that “executive function” part of the brain that much more efficient when it’s needed.
  4. Self-Care
    Exercise. Get adequate sleep. Eat properly.
    While at first, hitting the gym or going to bed early may seem at odds with building time into your schedule for writing, keep the long game in mind. When you do sit down at the keyboard, you want to be alert and have a healthy reserve of creative energy to unleash. This is next to impossible when you’re lethargic.
  5. Eisenhower’s Quadrants
    See the picture above? I first leaned about this in Steven Covey’s the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” but, it’s often attributed to Dwight Eisenhower. All “tasks” fall somewhere on this chart–having both relative degrees of importance and urgency. Any tasks with deadlines start with low urgency and march across the board like a game of horizontal Space Invaders until they can be checked off.
    The point is to make choices based on an evaluation of Importance and Urgency. You want to spend the majority of your time in the upper left hand quadrant: important, but not urgent. This keeps important things from moving into the urgent quadrant, where you have less options for controlling them. Further, if something is not all that important: why are you’re doing it at all?
  6. Tell People About Your Writing
    Talk to your family, friends and colleagues about your goals. Most people want to see other people pursue their passions and achieve their goals and will go out of their way to help. But they need to know what those goals are and what they can do to help. It also goes a long way when you learn about what other people’s passions are and offer them the same kind of assistance.
  7. Join a Local Writing Group
    Building on that last point, it really helps to surround yourself with people who have common goals, in particular those who may be a little further along in their writing journey that you can learn from. They help you learn the craft and share personal victories.
  8. Avoid the Naysayers and Emotional Vampires
    As a counter to the above, there are unfortunately people who can be toxic in their attitudes and actions (whether intentional or not). These are the types who tell you writing is a waste of time, or that you don’t have any talent, that you’ll never be as good as Stephen King (often these people aren’t too creative with famous author names).
    While you probably don’t want to completely ignore people who are otherwise close to you, do what you can to limit toxic interactions.
  9. Make it Easy to Write
    Create your own personal writing space and develop tools to help make it easier to start writing. One example of this might be keeping your projects on a cloud drive like Dropbox or Google Docs. That way, when you have a few minutes and access to a computer you can open up your project and get right to work.
  10. Read a Lot
    Again, perhaps one of those counter-intuitive points, but making time to write is about using the time you have efficiently and effectively. One of the best ways to learn what makes a good story is to read a lot of stories. On top of that reading a lot helps your brain to think in terms of prose and story, it helps you develop those natural talents for structure, character, generation of suspense, etc.
    On that note-consider picking up my latest novel: First Command.
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B096BFLHB3

Faster Than Light Travel… in Science Fiction

The Enterprise FX6-1995. Vulcan, (Alberta, Canada, Earth).

The Problem

The universe is very big.

It’s so big that our terrestrial-evolved brains have trouble really understanding how far distances between stars really are. The closest star to us (other than our sun) is Proxima Centauri at 25 trillion miles away. That’s so far, it would take light 4.2 years to reach it.

This presents a challenging problem for gallant space cadets exploring the universe and battling aliens. In order to cross the distances even to the closest stars would take a very very long time. If you were to travel at the same speed as you drive on the highway, it would take about 44 million years to get to a neighboring star! (Without bathroom breaks.)

New intelligent species could evolve back on Earth before you got back!

The solution we humans typically employ to cross vast distances is to travel faster. But the problem is that there’s a cosmic speed limit that can’t be broken. You can’t go faster than the speed of light – typically denoted mathematically as c, about 300 million meters per second, in case you were wondering.

Why You Can’t Travel Faster Than Light

Because physics.

Anything with mass behaves differently when it gets accelerated to speeds approaching c. You can thank Albert Einstein for this little nugget from special relativity… the Lorentz factor (Hendrik Lorentz had a roll in it too).

The m0 term is the “rest mass” of the space ship, person or electron you’re trying to accelerate. On the other side, m, is the “relativistic mass.” I won’t go into the details, but this derives from the total energy of a system (in the E=mc2 sense.) What this equation says, basically, is that as an object’s velocity (v) increases, it will behave as if the mass has increased. For the most part, in our experiences evolving here on earth, things simply don’t move all that fast. The top speed of a cheetah for example is about 36 meters per second.

The speed 36 m/s is very small compared to 300 million m/s. The ration is even smaller when squared. So for all the fancy terms on the right hand side of the equation above are practically no different than 1. In other words, unless you’re travelling an appreciable percentage of light speed, your mass doesn’t behave any differently than if it’s at rest.

But what happens when v gets close to c? All of a sudden, the term on the bottom gets smaller. In fact if v=c, you run into the “divide by zero” problem. The relativistic mass becomes infinite. And it takes an infinite amount of energy to move it.

The problem then facing the science fiction writer who wants a heroine who can gallivant around the universe with her K205 railgun at the ready in a timeframe that doesn’t involve the evolution of new species, is how to overcome the distance problem and sound at least semi-believable in doing so.

Breaking the Lightspeed Barrier

In theory there are ways around this.

There are physicists who spend their carriers working through general relativity equations, searching for potential solutions to the problems of interstellar travel. Enter the notions of wormholes and warp drives.

The basic “cheat” here is figuring out ways to shorten the distance between two points.

When general relativity came around shortly after the end of World War One, it changed how physicists thought about space and time. Einstein showed that gravity could be explained mathematically as a curvature in space around an object with mass. Space itself could change!

It only took a few months following the general relativity publication for Karl Schwarzchild and Hendrik Lorentz to publish solutions to Einstein’s field equations for a point mass, effectively describing a black hole (though the general concept in the classical sense had been proposed over a century earlier). This extreme warping of spacetime eventually gave rise to another idea where by two points on a plane could be brought together through a shorter tube. In 1957 John Wheeler coined the term “wormhole.” In principle, this solved the distance dilemma.

If the two star systems are too far away, one could simply warp space and time to bring them closer together. You don’t have to go faster than light and you can still get there.

A 2D conception of a wormhole courtesy of the Megavoltage Publishing graphics department. The green path is though a plane of “normal” space. Points A and B are quite far from each other. But conceivably, one could imagine a surface where the plane separating A and B is folded and connected by “wormhole.” The blue path through the wormhole is much shorter.

It’s important to point out that this is one of those notions where the math comes first. There’s nothing in the mathematics that says this can’t be done, however that doesn’t mean it’s easy. For one thing, the kind of warping we’re talking about typically takes huge amounts of energy–like all the energy contained within a star. And there are other practical considerations-like not getting turned into a human spaghetti noodle by gravitational tides. However, as we used to say in physics undergraduate classes… those are engineering problems.

The other big idea along these lines is a little more recent and was inspired by the Star Trek franchise. In 1994, Miguel Alcubierre proposed a solution to Einstein’s field equations whereby a spacecraft could contract spacetime in front of it and expand spacetime behind it, effectively travelling faster than light without actually breaking any laws.

Unfortunately for would be Captain Kirks, accomplishing this requires matter with an energy density less than than of a vacuum–in other words a “negative mass” (and a lot of it at that)–which we’ve never observed and many people say is not actually possible.

The Alcubierre concept. Negative mass enables a warp field that contracts space ahead of a spacecraft and expands it behind the spacecraft, enabling faster-than-light travel.

Recent work from Alexey Bobrick and Gianni Martire as well as work from Erik Lentz that has come out just this year suggests that perhaps you can get by without the requirement of negative energy, although the catch seems to be that while you can in principle have an isolated bubble that moves practically faster than light, you still have an acceleration problem. And generating the bubble may not be possible from a spacecraft within. But that work is a hopeful step that there might be “some” way of actually travelling faster than light.

Incorporation into Science Fiction

As a genre, science fiction has a spectrum of scientific realism interpreted on a scale of hardness. One one hand you have hard where the author makes a serious attempt at keeping the technology realistic. A good example of this might be Andy Weir’s “The Martian” where an astronaut on a Mars mission is left for dead and has to survive on his own until he can be rescued. There’s no faster-than-light travel and the science is at least reasonably believable. On the soft end you have something like the Star Wars franchise–where the science takes a back seat to the action. You just get in your Millennium Falcon and go make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, regardless of what a parsec is.

When building their fictional universes, authors have to make a decision about how true to the science they want their stories to be. And a lot of the time that depends on the type of story that they want to tell.

When I was writing First Command, my goal wasn’t to write hard science fiction. The story at its core is about leadership. It’s action first, science second. That’s not to say that I didn’t think at all about the science while writing it though.

What is important, even in pew pew kerplewy stories, is a set of consistent rules. Readers of speculative fiction will often accept whatever rules you establish up front as a writer. What’s critical, is loyalty to those rules as the story evolves.

In Cassi’s universe, spacecraft achieve faster than light travel via a transit process, similar to the Alcubierre drive. The completely fictional part is that they need to line up precisely between two stars to generate their warp bubble. This forces spacecraft to travel along specific lines, like train tracks when travelling between solar systems, and looking ahead in the series, this presents a set of interesting possibilities and restrictions for interstellar travel.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B096BFLHB3

How to Write a Book Review

If and when you find an author whose work you enjoy, there are a lot of ways that you can support them. Number one, is obviously purchasing their books, but something else you can do is leave a review once you’ve read the book. This helps other readers decide whether or not the book is for them.

Does my opinion really matter?

Yes.

Without digging into the statistics, people rely on independent reviews when shopping online. They use the number of reviews as an indicator of a book’s popularity and feel more comfortable when they can review information from a source with no financial interest in the outcome.

What if I don’t have a degree in English literature?

Neither do (the vast majority of) the other people browsing. Most potential readers are just trying to figure out whether or not they’ll enjoy the story. Is it going to be a fun beach read? An engaging listen during a long commute? Will they like the characters? What emotions will the story draw out?

If you’ve read the book, your opinion counts.

What if the book was only… okay? I’d like to give feedback, but don’t want to give it five stars.

Moderate reviews are helpful.

Consumer confidence goes up when consumers see reviewers giving honest feedback. Not everyone is going to like a given book, even if it’s well-written.

If a particular book isn’t for you, is there a target audience it might be better suited for?

How to write a review (on Amazon)

Search up the webpage where you purchased the book. Scroll down about half way. You should come to the “Customer Reviews” section. Look for the box that says “Write a customer review” and click on that.

Look for this!

At the top of the page you can leave a name that will be displayed. You don’t have to use the name associated with your account. Or you can shorten it.

Amazon Reviews will want a title. Sometimes this is called a “hook.” You don’t need to get too creative with it if you don’t want to. Titles like “I Really Enjoyed this Book” are fine. Sometimes it can help to write the main body of the review and then just copy an paste a phrase that comes out of that.

Ideas for things to discuss in the the body of the review
(you don’t have to answer all of these, they’re just suggestions, pick one or two):

  • What emotions did you feel while reading the book?
    Angst, fear, sadness, excitement, happiness, elation, joy?
  • What would you tell your best friend the book is really about?
    What happens? Where did the story take place? What was at stake?
  • What was something you read in the book that you hadn’t come across before? What was unique about it for you?
  • What is one word (or phrase) you would use to describe the book?
  • How would you describe the main character(s)?
    Did you feel an empathetic connection? Did you care what happened to them? What did the character want or what goals did they have in the story? Did other characters stand out for you?
  • What kind of reader is likely to enjoy this book?
    Age? Stage of life?
    Fans of another book, movie, or TV series?
    A book club or discussion group?
    Science nerds? History buffs?
  • For what places or circumstances might this book be a good read?
    Camping? A long road trip? Something to read next to a crackling fire?
  • Include something about yourself.
    Is this the first time you’ve read something like this or are you a prolific reader in the genre?
    What other types of books do you like to read?

And if you want to leave a review, but just can’t find the words or the time, you can always just say:
I enjoyed this book.

First Command Book Trailer

https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B096BFLHB3

Today I put together a simple book trailer using MS Powerpoint. The process was relatively straight forward, if you’ve ever used animations in Powerpoint.

You start by figuring out what you want your add copy to say and write it out in text blocks. I tried to cut my blurb down (which is incredibly hard), but came up with three blocks of text. I superimposed it over a darkened version of my cover’s background image. I wanted something dark enough that the text would stand out, but more interesting than a black screen. With some playing around, I got something I was happy with. I used a courier font in a bright green colour for fun.

For the animation, I wanted to create an effect reminiscent of 80’s science fiction movies where you would watch text scrolling across a monochromatic screen, often with some kind of ominous implication going on in the background. Some examples that come to mind:

You then animate the text blocks. For each one, select the “appear” animation.

In the effect settings you can make text appear by the letter. To get into this, you open your animation pane (under advanced animation), right click on the animation and go into “effect options.” From there you, under “animate text” you can select “by the letter.”

Then it’s a case of setting the timings for each block. I wanted the text to come up relatively quickly so the reader wouldn’t get bored, but not so fast it couldn’t be read. A timing of about 0.09s per letter seemed about right. I set the blocks of text to appear in sequence, (timing > start: after previous, the first one I started with previous so it would start playing immediately as soon as the slide show started).

After the text, I added a “disappear” animation for all the text blocks and then added a 3 second fade in for the book 3D image and a few additional copy points.

Then it was just a matter of recording and exporting the file as an MP4. It generated a 30 second trailer that I hope is a little more eye-catching than a static image.

Unfortunately I can’t post the trailer directly on my blog for some reason, but if you want to see it I’ve uploaded a copy to my Facebook Page:
First Command Book Trailer

As always, thanks for your support!

First Command – Amazon
First Command – Universal Book Link



First Command Launch Day!

https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B096BFLHB3

Today is the day! First Command is officially out!

As excited as I am about this, there are so many people I’d like to thank for all the help and encouragement in this project. I can’t express how grateful I am, first and foremost to my ever-supporting family. My amazing wife has been a never ending source of optimism. My children are a constant fountain of inspiration and wonder. My parents have believed in me from the beginning.

My local writing group, The Lethbridge Riverbottom Writers, have given me the confidence to move from “writer” to “published author.” Writing is such a solitary endeavor, it’s so great to have friends to share it with. Even over the pandemic, many of us have managed to keep in touch virtually. This group has helped me interact with so many other writers in Southern Alberta at so many different stages in their writing journeys, I’ve learned so much from those ahead of me.

I’ve been fortunate to be a part of the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) community for almost twenty years now, starting back up in Edmonton. I even took on a role as a Municipal Liaison for a few years, organizing local write-ins, and helping others turn their ideas into words.

Thank you to my professional friends and colleagues. Most of you know I write, and have always been encouraging. Not all writers are so lucky. My close personal friends have supported me even more so.

I’m grateful to my editor for helping me go through this book with a fine-toothed comb and turn it into a story that I am proud to put out into the world.

On the surface, writing is such a simple expression of art. You sit down, think of something cool, type out a bunch of words to describe it. But if you do it well, another person can experience those exact same thoughts as if that experience is real. What’s more this process can transcend time and space. Words written thousands of years ago can still be read and experienced today.

As First Command goes out into the world, I hope that it brings experiences of joy and excitement.

First Command – Amazon
First Command – Universal Book Link

First Command… Cover

To an author, creating a book cover can be a surreal experience.

A story that until that point has been only words, enters a new medium. You get to see what your world looks like. And when you have another artist/designer do it, you get to see it through someone else’s eyes.

I commissioned the cover for First Command through MIBLART.

I started by explaining that the book was about a group of astronaut cadets who crash land on an alien world. The lead character, Cassi, is a 19-year-old cadet, who assumes a leadership roll as they battle pirates and aliens and struggle to find a way home. The designer presented an idea of Cassi in a futuristic suit holding her helmet aside. They wanted to set her against a background of alien terrain, and other planets or moons in the sky, with a wrecked spacecraft in the background.

We went through a couple of rounds of tweaks, and in the end this is the cover we’ve come up with…

First Command. Out now.
Ebook. Print Book.
Alternative booksellers.

Pen Names

Charles K James is not my real name.

I know… shocking.

I use a pseudonym for a couple of reasons. First, I have a day job as a scientist-clinician. Not only do I have clinical responsibilities for making sure that very precise doses of radiation are put into people, but have an academic appointment as an adjunct associate professor. I write scientific papers. I teach and mentor graduate students.

Now I don’t think anyone is going to confuse what I write about in the Alliance universe for real science, but I feel it’s important to keep those dimensions of my life separate. Fiction is where I go to relax, to play, to exercise creativity. Using a pseudonym helps to draw that line.

Secondly, I want to have a name that’s relatively easy to remember and spell. I’m proud of my real name, but it’s very close in spelling to another much more common name. So my real name is commonly misspelled. On the chance that someone hears about my writing and wants to look me up, I’d hate for a spelling error to get in the way of that.

At one point I though about changing my pen name to “Local Author.” At least I’d get my own section in most bookstores. But for some reason, I don’t see that unfolding as favorably as I might like.

Despite my best efforts Googling, there is apparently another Charles James author out there. So I’ve decided to go by “Charles K James.” One of the members of my writing group asked what the “K” stood for.

Apparently it’s Knievel.

CJ