First Contact: Alien Encounters

Presenting eleven entertaining and thought-provoking tales of alien encounters—some serious, some whimsical, some that end well for those involved, others... um, not so much.

Kindle Edition (USA)
Kindle Edition (UK)

 

In my previous post, I highlighted one of the major perils of self-editing your writing, and I just found out there’s a term for it — typo blindness. Essentially, once you have read through your work a large number of times, overfamiliarity with the words on the page makes it much harder to distinguish between what you think is there instead of what is actually there.

There are several ways to overcome this problem, the most obvious of which is a fresh pair of eyes — i.e. asking someone else to review your work. Ideally, you should hire a professional copy editor, but a good copy editor doesn’t come cheap, and unless you’re anticipating making serious money from your published work, it can be hard to pull the trigger, especially for a novel or full length dissertation.

You could always ask a friend or relative instead, but even with the best will in the world, unless they are professional writers or editors, most people will miss a lot of the same mistakes you do. And for longer works, you’re asking for a huge time commitment if you want them to do a thorough job.

There are other tricks you can try, like reading your piece from back to front, a sentence at a time — i.e. not actually reading backwards, just reading the sentences forwards but in reverse order. This breaks up the normal flow of the writing so it’s not as easy for your eyes to slide over the mistakes. Some people switch to a different font, like Comic Sans, to change things up, others like to print out their work for a different perspective, or they will read their work aloud to themselves, which can help them focus.

But there are two simple but very effective tricks I would like to detail here.

The first is very easy, and extremely quick. A couple of years ago, Google introduced grammar checking for its online services, like Google Docs and Gmail. It wasn’t very good at first, but after two more years of crunching uncounted terabytes of emails and documents, the service has improved to the point where it rivals paid services like Grammarly.

I just pasted a copy of this blog post into a Google Docs document and it immediately highlighted seven words and phrases–a missing word, an extra word, two uses of the wrong form of a word, two instances of “copyeditor”, and “works” instead of “work”. The first four are errors, “copyeditor” vs “copy editor” is a choice, and “works” in the above context is okay.

As you can see, you’re still going to have to decide if a correction is necessary on a case by case basis, but for longer works, loading them up in Google Docs is going to help you clean up many of those pesky little errors very quickly. Even if you’re just knocking out a quick blog post, cutting and pasting it into an open Gmail window is worth the extra few seconds it takes to help maintain the quality of your prose.

But grammar checkers do have their limitations. They can’t catch the more complex grammatical errors and won’t find errors like clumsy sentence structure, poor word choices, reusing the same words or phrases too often, or problems with the general flow of your writing. 

This is where the second simple trick comes in. The most effective tool I have found for copy editing is text-to-speech.

In other words, have your computer or mobile phone read your writing back to you. Getting another person to read your work aloud will work too, but they won’t be 100% perfect like your computer or phone, and for longer works, it is a huge commitment, especially since you will have to find mutually agreed upon times and places.

Fortunately, if you have an iPhone or an Android phone, you have all you need to listen to your writing at your own convenience. The Google Play Books app comes preinstalled on most Android phones these days, and can be downloaded from the Apple App Store if you own an iPhone. The document you want to edit must be converted to the EPUB format first, but once that’s done, it’s as simple as sending the document to yourself as an email attachment and then downloading it into Google Play Books on your phone.

For those who need more help setting things up, I will detail the entire process step-by-step in my next post, but in the meantime, let me explain how I use the text-to-speech capabilities.

I typically open the document in my editor of choice on my laptop, ready to make changes, and then select the “Read Aloud” option in the Play Books app to start reading. Then, whenever I hear a mistake, I just tap the screen once to pause the dictation, make the edit on my laptop, and then tap again on the phone to start reading again.

For me, it’s vital that I read along with the app, and that I remain focused, otherwise my attention can wander and I will miss some of the errors. When that happens, I go back a couple of pages and start again from there.

There are other text-to-speech apps, of course, and Microsoft Word has had text-to-speech capabilities since Word 2010, and the most recent version has a full “Read Aloud” feature, as does their online Office 365 version. But if you’re okay with converting your manuscript to the EPUB format, Google Play Books is free and handy to use, and you can even choose from a selection of male and female voices.

Neither of the simple tricks outlined in this post is guaranteed to turn you into a bestselling author, but they will go a long way to cleaning up your writing and ensures that anyone who reads it, be they paying customers, agents, or publishers, won’t be taken out of the flow of your writing by those annoying and eminently avoidable mistakes.

Well, it’s been a while, to say the least. Since I last posted on this blog a lot happened in the world, and not all of it for the better, but that’s a subject for another time and place.

Instead I want to focus on what I discovered upon rereading the first edition of my science fiction short story book several years after publication. I can’t say that I was terribly happy with what I found–starting with a glaring grammatical error on the very first page of the book!

It wasn’t to be the last, either. Thanks to Microsoft Word’s spellchecker, spelling mistakes weren’t an issue, but there were plenty of other problems–grammatical errors, duplicate words, missing words, clunky phrases, and even a number of sentences I had somehow left only half-edited.

That’s not to say it was a complete disaster, but even one error every five to ten pages is a lot when you’re talking about published writing. When was the last time you spotted more than one or two mistakes in a full length professionally published novel?

Perhaps the standard isn’t quite so high for low-cost self-published work, but readers aren’t going to tolerate tripping over obvious mistakes and clunky writing for very long before they move onto something else.

To be honest, given how much time and effort I had put into editing the book, I was quite surprised by how many glaring mistakes I found. I must have read and reread those short stories a couple of dozen times at least, making sure to go over each one again if I made more than a few minor changes to it. So how were there still so many mistakes in there?

Then I realized — even though I had read the stories many times, at some point I had started reading only what I thought was on the page, and not what was actually there. I had become so familiar with the stories that my mind was no longer able to focus on the words on the page. I was skimming, and wasn’t even reading the mistakes as I glossed over them.

I decided there and then I needed to publish a second edition of the book, for my own peace of mind if nothing else. But how would I avoid falling into the same trap as last time? It’s not as though I had forgotten the stories, even though several years had passed. Well, stay tuned, and you’ll find out.

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After taking a little time to make sure that both the Kindle and Nook versions of the book are in good order, I finally went public with my book this afternoon, starting with a post on Facebook.

And it’s the strangest feeling. While people have read my short stories and said nice things about them before, I still really don’t know what the overall reception will be, especially now that people will be paying to read my work

That’s the curious thing about self-publishing. If you take the traditional route and your book is picked up by an agent, who then finds a publisher who wants to sell it, you will have had an entire team of people expressing confidence in your writing by the time your work hits the streets. That’s not the case when you publish the book yourself, so it is with some trepidation that I await the first reviews of my book.

Next up, digging through my email address book to let all my old friends and contacts know about the book, and then on to the task of creating a more public profile on websites where likely customers can be found. I’ve already done that on The Guardian website, creating a new profile with a link to my book that I can use to comment with, especially on news stories about aliens, or space exploration in general.

I’m not a very public person, so marketing and self-promotion is not something that comes naturally to me. On the other hand, with the amount of work I put into the book, I don’t want to just let it languish in obscurity either, so I really have little option but to bite the bullet and get on with it. You never know, I might even start posting on Facebook more than once every three months.

 

Well, it’s finally here–my very first book: First Contact: Alien Encounters. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of science fiction short stories and one novella revolving around the theme of making first contact with aliens.

A number of the stories, like Fair Trade and Executive Decision try to anticipate some of the issues we would face should we ever make contact with an alien civilization. Others, like We Have a Winner and The Probe are a little more lighthearted in nature. Hopefully, readers will find all the stories in the collection both thought-provoking and entertaining.

It’s been a long time coming, I’ll be the first to admit, and while the manuscript has been complete for some time, the process of getting the book ready for publication has been a little longer and more complicated than I originally anticipated. I plan to post more on this process, and some other thoughts about writing the book, and writing in general, in the weeks ahead.

 

I can hear the people now…

“Did he make it? Did he get to 50,000 words?”

(Actually, the silence is deafening, but, no matter…)

Short answer: Yes!

Slightly longer answer: Yes, but it was touch and go for a while.

And the gratuitously long-winded answer:

Things were going along quite nicely during the first half of week three. Progress was slow, but at least progress was being made. The action in the story kicked into higher gear, which always helps–I tend to find it easier to turn action sequences into words than I do scenic settings–but there was one fly in the ointment looming ever larger. The emotional side of the story–of how Izzy and her father cope with the death of her mother–was becoming hopelessly derailed. I didn’t like the direction it was taking, and I didn’t have a clue how to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.

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Well, week two of NaNoWriMo has come and gone, and my word count is currently sitting at 23,714. So, yes, I’m still going strong, but while week one was driven by enthusiasm, week two became more about dogged determination.

The first part of the second week went fine. I was still tackling Izzy’s first major incursion into her parallel world, and I had most of it mapped out in my mind already, though most of the descriptive passages about the underground world she had wandered into will probably have to be rewritten at some point. But in the lull in the story that followed, I began to have some doubts about the whole thing.

Now, I assumed that I would happen at some point. Writing a novel is not a small undertaking, and having gone through it all once before (over a much longer period of time) I kind of knew what to expect. First, I noticed that the number of inconsistencies and missing details about the protagonist’s personality and life were mounting up. Where were her friends? What hobbies and pastimes did she have? Do kids text, IM, Twitter, or Facebook? Then I began to realize that one particular plot point that I had threaded into the storyline was becoming more and more of a hindrance, and it wasn’t something I could easily rip out.

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In case you didn’t know, November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. I didn’t, not until a few months ago, even though I’ve been writing seriously for several years now. But this year I decided to take up the NaNoWriMo challenge of writing 50,000 words of a novel in one calendar month. That’s one thousand, six hundred and sixty six and two thirds words a day (though I believe you are allowed to round that two-thirds up, if you like).

I already have one novel under my belt, but as my friends and family know all too well, it took me a long time to write it. You know you’ve been working on something for too long when people start being afraid to ask you how it’s going. I’ve recently been working on some short stories, but I decided that the challenge of NaNoWriMo was too good an opportunity to pass up on.

50,000 words in a month is a daunting target, but the thought of having 50,000 words of a novel under my belt after the month is over is quite compelling. I already had a novel that I wanted to write (the first part of a trilogy, in fact), with all the major plot points of the storyline mapped out, so there was nothing to stop me from getting cracking on the book, except the usual procrastination and inertia, and overcoming these things is precisely what NaNoWriMo is all about.

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The cover illustration for the short story entitled "We Have a Winner"I am pleased to announce the publication of We Have a Winner, the first story in my First Contact series of short stories on the Amazon Kindle. It’s a fun little tale featuring a pair of aliens who have been given the thankless task of executing an ill-conceived plan for making first contact with the people of Earth.

The premise of the story might seem a little preposterous, but one should remember that if we ever have the good fortune to encounter another intelligent alien civilization, there’s no knowing how bizarre and incomprehensible our Earthly customs might seem to them, and that might easily become a source of great confusion.

An interesting aspect of the piece is that it’s entirely written in dialog. There aren’t even any “he said” or “she said” tags, so I had to be extra careful to ensure that the reader can follow the conversation without getting the two unnamed characters mixed up. I also had to make sure that I conveyed their actions as they went about their mission.

If you decide to purchase this story, please come back and tell me what you think of it.

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I don’t think there is a better way to sum up my experience at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents Conference other than to say that I’m really glad I went.

Could I have gotten more out of the weekend? Certainly. If I had applied sooner (or arrived sooner) I could have signed up for an agent consultation or an editor consultation, and if I had been better prepared, I would have been in a much better position to pitch my book to the agents who were there.

But, all things considered–especially my late decision to attend–I still got a lot out of the experience. The sessions were informative and entertaining. I met a lot of cool and interesting people, and it was fun to rub shoulders and exchange stories with all kinds of creative people who share my desire to write.

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The third, and final day of the 2011 Writers’ League of Texas Agents Conference commenced with a general panel session, The Birth of a Book.

This was billed as being “a glimpse into how a book comes into being then gets published,” and while it was certainly informative in that regard, it soon became clear that this was the session where the agents (and editors) turned the tables and made their best pitch to us writers as to why we need their services. They talked about how important it was to find an agent who connected with you and your work, and who could both sell your book and protect your financial interests. To press the point home, they told us about all the complex issues with subsidiary rights and the difficulties in getting your work sold in the many foreign markets around the globe. (We should be so lucky to have those problems!)

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