Stephen West

Writer

Lifting Gas in Airships

Most people know that zeppelins like the Hindenburg were filled with a flammable gas known as hydrogen, and that the Hindenburg disaster was caused by this gas igniting. Some also know that American airships were filled with the inert gas helium, but that the Zeppelin company was not allowed to purchase helium from the Americans. But what are the other characteristics of these gases, and are there any other alternatives for providing lift to airships? Read More...
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New year, new stuff

As I’ve mentioned before, I wrote the first few drafts of Airship City (then known as Aeropolis) on my iPhone. This was because I wanted to write on the Tube on my way into work, and I didn’t have a laptop then. It actually worked pretty well. It wasn’t much good for editing and rewriting, because the small screen area and touch screen controls makes it difficult to move around in the documents and make changes. But for banging out the first draft, it was near-perfect. Read More...
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Cover change, and a new chapter

I’ve decided to go back to the original cover. I finally realised that I had chosen the yellow-danger-sign cover mostly for visual impact, but it didn’t feel very original and it certainly didn’t seem to be in keeping with the book, being quite modern and simple. I just like the old cover more.

I’m using some 3D software to design a new cover, which will include an image of Joseph (something I’ve always wanted) and once that is done, I’ll then do the print edition, and also relaunch Airship City with some new content!

Yes, the beauty of self-publishing via the Kindle is the ability to upload a new version whenever you like. Based on some feedback from one of my reviewers, I’ve realised that there is an exciting chapter missing from the book, and I’m in the process of writing that chapter and adding it in. Everyone who has already bought Airship City will get the opportunity to download the new file as well. My aim is to get it done in the next month or so.
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Airship City update

Changing the cover doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact on the Goodreads campaign, although, as August is a strange month, it’s hard to tell. Sales overall are slow, which is probably normal for a first book by an unknown, independent author, and I should probably just put my head down, finish the sequel, and build up my offering. But then again, I do still have three free days of promotion left on my KDP Select account for the enrolment period, which is up at the beginning of September. Watch this space…
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Why I decided to change covers

Since publishing Airship City I’ve been experimenting with different forms of promotion. I paid for some Facebook advertising, which seemed to do very little. I then took an ad on Goodreads. I’ve had some response from that, in the form of people adding the book to their “want-to-read” lists, but the click-through rate seemed awfully low. I had also been looking into making a printed copy of the book through Createspace, but had run into a problem with my cover: I had designed it at web resolution, and there was no way it would work in print. Graphics for display on computer screens look fine at about 75 dpi (dots per inch), whereas anything under 300 dpi doesn’t look very good when printed. I couldn’t use my existing cover on the print copy.
Read More...
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Free preview of AIRSHIP CITY

I’ve posted the first five chapters of AIRSHIP CITY on the site, so you can “try before you buy”! The extract is a bit longer than the free preview available on Amazon, and you don’t have to download anything, just click through and enjoy the preview.

Also, I’m going to be doing a free promotion of the book soon, but it will only be free for a few days. If you want to be notified when it goes free, just sign up to the mailing list using the link on the top right of the page! I’ll email everyone on the list a day or so before the promotion starts so you can be sure of getting the book absolutely FREE!
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Go for launch!

The revised upload seems properly formatted (thanks to Elaine and Gary for their assistance on this) so we are go for launch! It gives me great pleasure to announce that AIRSHIP CITY has taken to the air, and is available worldwide on the Kindle store, to buy (or to borrow if you are an Amazon Prime customer). If you are in the UK, you can buy from Amazon.co.uk and if in the US or in countries without a dedicated Kindle store, go to Amazon.com where you will be redirected to your own country’s Kindle store if available.

If you do decide to buy, and if you enjoy it, I’d be obliged if you would take a moment or two to leave a review on Amazon.
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Heading down the runway

We’re almost there! A few niggling formatting errors to iron out in the Kindle file (getting the book to open at the first page, not at the table of contents) and we should be ready for rotation and liftoff. Unfortunately each time you upload changes on Amazon, it takes 12 hours or so before the book is re-published, so I can’t check to see if the formatting change has worked until the new file is in place and can be downloaded. (It looks OK in the previewer but I want to be absolutely certain it’s right before launch.) It would also help if my router didn’t fall over every five minutes. But it’s all uploaded and republished now, to be checked tomorrow. So fingers crossed, we’ll be airborne very soon!
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Getting ready for takeoff

I’m knee-deep in book-covers and Scrivener and Kindlegen files and front matter and my KDP Bookshelf as I get the formatting right for the big launch of AIRSHIP CITY, the first book in the Aeropolis series. So in other words, I’m taxiing towards the threshold, communicating with the tower, and getting ready to line up for the big take-off run. More information soon!
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Edging towards self-publishing

So the rejections from agents continue to pile up. When I started writing the first Aeropolis novel, I was aware of the self-publishing renaissance that had been enabled by Amazon’s Kindle project, but I also knew that people like Amanda Hocking were likely to be the exception rather than the rule. I read the polemics of Konrath, but again, felt he was a special case. I was fairly sure that the best way for an unknown author to achieve publication was via the traditional method: find an agent, who finds you a book deal with a publisher.

I nearly achieved a shortcut on this process, quite by chance. I got the opportunity to send my manuscript directly to the editor of a publisher, which is very unusual. Of course I didn’t rely on that working out, and started submitting to agents as well more than a year ago. But when I found out last December that the publisher was not able to take the work, that meant relying on an agent, and so far I haven’t found one.

I’ve submitted to around twenty agents, including three that have yet to respond. The Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2012 lists some fifty agencies, so I’ve not by any means exhausted my options. But I do feel as if I’m close to exhausting my patience. It’s a slow process, and the temptation to simply get the book out there is strong.

Of course there is more to it than just uploading a file to Amazon. Creating the file itself is not that simple. But I do have strong technical knowledge, and have already made a few Kindle files for proofreading purposes. Also required is a good cover. Again, I have some graphic design skills. It’s hard to see the downsides to just getting it out there and seeing what happens. The feedback I’m getting from agents is that the writing is good, but it’s just something that doesn’t “click” with them, which means it may be a fairly niche work. In that case it’ll do better as an e-book anyway, if it doesn’t have to jostle for space with more broadly appealing titles. Or it may be one of those works whose appeal is not immediately obvious, but which does find a following.

I have designed a cover, which I do like a lot, although it’s based on a photograph which has forced certain design decisions on to me. I may have a go at creating one completely from scratch using a Blender render. In the meantime, feast your eyes!
Two Airships gradient v1
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Aeropolis in physical form

I had some requests for the book in physical form - obviously not everyone has a Kindle! So I had a look at print-on-demand (POD) possibilities, and the one that made the most sense was Lulu. I managed to upload a file from Scrivener with minimal problems, designed a quick-and-dirty cover, and had a few copies printed at a very reasonable price. It’s quite a thrill to finally see my work in the flesh, as it were, even if I’ve already spotted a few typos- I’m going to have to do a detailed proof read.IMG_3793
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Changes

There have been some pretty big changes in the last six months of my life: I moved house and started a new job, both of which have impacted on my writing. Moving house is an incredibly time-consuming exercise, not only in terms of the move itself, but also because of all the work that needs to be done on the new house to make it the way you want it. I think I’ve spent so much time assembling Ikea furniture that I could now do it blindfolded.

The new job has had an arguably greater impact though, as I did a lot of my writing while commuting on the train in my last role. The new job necessitated driving to work, so no free writing time, and it’s been quite a consuming six months which have simply flown by.

Nevertheless I have started writing my next book, working title Heart of Clay, and I’ve managed to get Aeropolis (known as Airship City in its second incarnation) in front of a number of agents, most of whom have been complimentary, although none felt it quite right for them. An agent in New York wants to see my second book, which I think means she felt Aeropolis was almost, but not quite, there, and that I might get there on the next one! So that’s encouraging. Unfortunately the editor who had requested the rewrite got back to me in December to say the book was much better, but that in the meantime she had bought a couple of similar titles (it seems I’ve written a steampunk novel) and so she had no room for Aeropolis. Frustrating. Although she encouraged me to submit to agents and even gave me two recommendations, so that was also encouraging.

I had already submitted to one of the agents, who subsequently came back with the dreaded “it’s good but I didn’t love it”, and I really should get it submitted to the other agent. It’s a tough thing, rejection. I remember reading all the advice about not taking rejection personally and about keeping your head down and your confidence up, but the thing is that it’s one thing to know what you should be doing and another to actually experience the emotions, and I do find the self-doubt starting to creep in. There’s a stronger resistance to making the next submission after every rejection, an unconscious attempt to protect oneself from the pain. But it’s a resistance that needs to be overcome. You only need one “yes” at the end of that very long chain of “no’s”. If you don’t get past them all, you won’t get to the “yes”. So it’s time to plough on!
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Rewriting Is Not So Easy

THE STORY SO FAR: Based on some positive feedback on Aeropolis from an editor, I decided to rewrite it to make it less middle grade and more young adult. Since the feedback was along the lines of “the protagonist comes across as too young in his reactions etc” I thought it would be a simple matter to go through the manuscript, rewriting Joseph’s thoughts and actions to make him more mature. So I worked out how his attitude to various characters would change, and started working through it. At first things went well, but as I got further into the plot, I began to feel more and more that the new Joseph would simply not do the things he was supposed to do in service of the plot. By the time I got about halfway it was obvious that it just wasn’t working anymore.

I started making some small tweaks to the plot, doing a basic outline in Word and trying to move things in a more character-driven direction. But the more I tried to do this, the more it seemed to me that my plot was a hastily cobbled-together series of somewhat random events, which kind of worked when Joseph was a fairly passive child-like character just reacting to things that happened to him. But now that I was trying to make the plot more character-driven, this passive reaction dynamic just got in the way. I managed to force the re-outline to a certain point, but beyond that I had no more ideas.

So I decided to take a break from Aeropolis for a while, using the time to read about plots and plotting. Very helpful in this regard was Kidlit, and I also took courage from Chuck Wendig’s frank account of his journey in writing his debut Blackbirds. I’d been reading David Hewson’s Writing: A User Manual, and I also picked up Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. I also expanded my research into Howard Hughes, German history, and Zeppelins. (I even spent some time sketching Aeropolis, working out its actual dimensions, volume of lift gas etc, and even creating Aeropolis using Google Sketchup!)

The result of all this was something akin to brain overload: I went back to the outline, ideas buzzing in my head, and started on an increasingly rapid round of changes, each one more radical than the last. After a while I felt that things were spinning out of control: it seemed, by the end of this process, that I needed to pitch the entire thing in the bin, and start again from scratch. A dispiriting thought, when you started the process thinking you had a completed novel that simply required some rewriting.

But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Most writers do not sell their first novels. The learning curve on the first one is so steep that many see it as some form of boot camp, a training ground that gets them up to the required standard for the subsequent novels. I realised that a writing career cannot be based on a single book, that writing is a journey and not a destination, and that all the work I put into Aeropolis would only be wasted if I carried on flogging a dead horse; giving it up might seem like a waste but in reality I would carry all that I had learned into the next project.

Once I came to terms with actually moving on from Aeropolis, and even got some good ideas for my next book, a strange thing happened. An insight came to me, a fairly small shift in emphasis, just bringing a certain character into the story much earlier, and changing his relationship to Joseph, and things suddenly seemed to fall into place. The plot started to work, to flow, with a believable character arc for Joseph to follow, and subsequent events fitting in nicely. Best of all there was now inbuilt tension between Joseph and the other main characters, something I had been striving to create, but which had been feeling false and forced. It all works very well now, at least in outline.

So now I have an outline of what I believe will be a much better story. It will still be a substantial rewrite, but at least some of the scenes from earlier drafts can still be included if they are slightly modified. I need to crack on and get it written so that I can see if finally I can fulfil that flash of inspiration from all those years ago.

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Rewriting Aeropolis Some More

I was lucky enough to be invited to submit Aeropolis to a publisher who doesn’t normally accept submissions from un-agented writers, and my initial partial submission resulted in a request for the entire manuscript! This all happened really quickly, and if that wasn’t enough, I heard from their editor in December.

Unfortunately it wasn’t an acceptance. But it was the most positive feedback that you can imagine, short of actual acceptance. The editor said some very nice things about my writing (I just love it when people do that!) and is prepared to look at anything I write in the future, including a rewrite of Aeropolis, because…

Well, here we get to the less positive bit. She felt that Aeropolis as it stands is not a true young adult (YA) novel, because of the way I had written the lead character Joseph: he comes across as much younger. (Interestingly one of my beta readers now says she missed the part where I give his age, and simply assumed throughout that he was much younger than a teenager!) This is not in itself problematic, except that this particular publisher only does YA, not middle grade.

So I have the choice of trying to find a middle-grade publisher, or rewriting to take advantage of the incredibly valuable opportunity that an “open door” with an editor represents. Since the manuscript is out there already, being considered (I hope!) by various agents, in some sense I am already trying to find another publisher. So how can it harm me to hedge my bets and start the rewrite? It will be a good experience in any event, responding to editorial feedback, and an exercise in technical skill.

So I thought when I started the process. But now that I am actually into the nuts and bolts of the rewriting process, I’m having a lot of fun doing it as well! There is something pleasing about going back to a scene and looking at it from a new angle, trying something different, exercising the awesome authorial power to go for something radically different.

Of course there will be difficult points, hard choices, struggles to make it work. But I’m really happy just to be writing again!
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Aeropolis finally finished

Well, I finally got Aeropolis finished and sent off to the competition. In January I will know if I made the long list. In the meantime, I’ve sent Aeropolis off to a number of agents and even a publisher who expressed interest via Twitter! Social networking is amazing...

I went to hear Sir Terry Pratchett talk about his latest novel and writing in general at the Theatre Royal on Tuesday night. It was an inspiring and enjoyable experience, and the love and respect of the audience was palpable. Long may he continue to delight us all.
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Rewriting Aeropolis

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks doing what I hope will be a final rewrite for Aeropolis. I know that all writing is rewriting, that writing is when we make the stuff but rewriting is when we make it good... but still. Every page of the printout is covered with revisions. I often think “How did I not see that?” I’m very glad I followed David Hewson’s advice to print it all out and read it through. As he says, there’s something about seeing it in a different format -- paper instead of on-screen -- that helps you to pick up problems.

My aim is to get finished in time to submit Aeropolis to a contest. I’m not certain that contests are a good idea, but even if I don’t actually submit it, the deadline is serving as a useful spur to get the darn thing finished. Once it’s done, I’ll decide what to do with it!
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Airship City Available in these formats:
Amazon Kindle edition
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