I had lunch the other day with Peter King, author of the Changels series – a soaring sci-fi YA trilogy that, at 600,000 words, tops The Lord Of The Rings for scale.
I met Peter over 30 years ago when we were both in the Victoria University Drama Club. Peter’s just released the second edition of his trilogy – which he wrote mostly on his phone while rattling back and forth on the creaking Wellington commuter train network. I asked him how it went.
Peter: Being the main breadwinner means that writing has to fit in with my life. Changels had to be written around a full-time job and a new baby. The funny thing was that I was way more productive than when I was younger with heaps of time to stare at a blinking cursor. I guess it just proves the old adage that if you want something done, ask a busy person.
Writing on a cell-phone is great. It’s always with you, it’s instant on and instant off, and every spare moment is yours to add to your story. I wrote on the bus, on the train, putting my baby son to bed, watching my older boy play soccer, anywhere and everywhere I had a moment.
Matthew: You didn’t go the trad route for this book – it’s self-pubbed. What prompted that direction?
Peter: Frankly, I had no idea what to expect when I finished my first draft. I had learned already that publishers were closed to approaches from all but literary agents, and I had read a lot about pitching them. To be honest I think pitching is a good exercise to do even if you aren’t planning to go the trad route because it forces you to answer the question ‘why would anyone want to read my book?’. And if you can’t succinctly summarise your work to pitch agents you sure can’t expect attract readers.
I pitched for about six months but gradually began to notice a depressing pattern. I had written the story thinking that minority superheroes would be a selling point. I mean how many minority superheroes can you think of, right? X-Men’s Storm and that’s about it. What I found was the more I stressed the minority angle the quicker the rejections came. I did experiments and found emphasising the minority angle could speed rejections from weeks to literally hours.
I couldn’t de-emphasise minorities because genetics, minority and inheritance is core to the whole work. Then a friend of mine in New York sent me an article which was a survey of Young Adult covers which basically pointed out how few minorities were portrayed in them. Even those figures in covers which were deemed ‘Asian’ showed blue-eyed very white people with vaguely Asian features. It suggested that my experience with agents was rooted in something way more entrenched than I had anticipated.
I had written for an international audience but I tried New Zealand and basically found it was closed. Even the New Zealand Author’s Society had no real idea what was happening in the real world of publishing in the country. The advice on their website was woefully out of date.
So I felt I had no choice but to go Indie. I have to admit fatigue was setting in and the edit I did on the first edition was more of a desperate drive to get the whole thing off my shoulders and finally get some feedback. It’s bloody hard to write something that huge in a complete vacuum. So I published between November 2012 and February 2013 and I did get some feedback.
The feedback was “marvellous story but your editing sucks”, which was pretty hard. I’ve been in the publishing game for a long time (I’m a journalist and magazine editor) , so I know how much editing costs and frankly I didn’t have that kind of money for a story of this size. Fortunately about the same time I joined the Romance Writers who know publishing very well, and they advised me to chop up the trilogy into packages of six 100,000 word books for marketing reasons. So with some help from my parents I did a major re-edit and re-packaging effort (gotta do a plug here for the Atlantis word-processor – absolutely the author’s best friend) and I’m now where I probably should have been when I started.
Matthew: Sounds like a lot of hard work.
Peter: Yeah, I had hoped that I could simply finish my first draft, sign a deal with a publisher and let them do the hard yakka, leaving me to collect the royalty checks. No such luck
Matthew: I’ve found the biggest challenge for any author, trad or self-pubbed, is discovery – care to comment?
Peter: I like Mark Coker’s quote, “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” It’s so true. I think a large part of the problem is ebook retail sites have such crap search systems. You can’t categorise your own work for essential qualities like dominant emotions (comedy, pathos etc), or realism or political orientation (liberal to conservative), and then have readers endorse or reject those ratings so as to provide a more structured form of review and guide to other readers. Frankly with Wattpad and Smashwords it seems the quickest way to discovery is a cover with sex appeal and porn content, which is rather sad.
Matthew: We were talking about a change in paradigm and behaviour – the instant internet and ‘free download’ generation. You mentioned something about even ‘free’ not stimulating interest – that these days people seem not able to even give their time. Tell me more.
Peter: I guess we have to face the fact that people are spoilt by the huge production values of movies. Movies are short and invade the senses. It’s hard for words on a page to compete with a cast of thousands and hundreds of millions worth of music and special effects. Reading involves a commitment by readers and they have a huge amount of choice. I guess it comes back to the search thing, though. People want to have a reasonable idea before downloading your story that its something they want to spend a lot of hours with. They need more guidance than a cover and a few sentences from another reader who they may have nothing whatsoever in common with.
Matthew: Can you tell me a little about the Changels series – we’re Kiwi authors. Why go for sci-fi?
Peter: The Changels Genesis Trilogy is a large PG13 Y.A trilogy which I describe as X-files meets Tintin. Its scary, fun, romantic, paranormal and globally adventurous all at once.
Fundamentally it’s about how a group of teenagers, all minority refugees of some kind or another end up trained and empowered to teleport around the planet to safeguard future world leaders in the world’s most dangerous places. The protagonist is a Maori boy whose gang-boss father beat his mother to death in front of him when he was four. So its about a kid transitioning from victim to hero.
Like any YA story it’s about growing up. Sam worries about what he has inherited from his father and is conflicted by that. He has to sort himself out romantically, but the main thing he does is become an agent of change for earth’s future – a kind of guardian angel of change. To do that he has to be trained to do some rather adult things. That exposes him to some of the worst aspects of our world and to hard adult choices. And then of course there are the unfriendly aliens out to get them.
Science fiction is a rather strange classification. Is Superman science fiction? How about Salman Rushdies Midnight’s Children? Changels is firmly set on Earth between 2007 and 2009 so this doesn’t involve some half-thought-out imaginary world. Its about some of the shocking things happening in this one.
Where Changels is science fiction is that it explores the implications of science. So the Changels’ sponsors, the Phae, are aliens who decide their genetics rather than inherit them. When you start to look at what that means it throws a lot of what happens on Earth to minorities (ethnic, religious or sexual) into pretty stark relief.
Changels is both global and Kiwi. Let’s face it nobody else would put the Haka (Maori warrior dance) at the centre of their story. I’m proud of our indigenous Maori culture but I think it will resonate with a lot of other cultures both minority and otherwise.
Matthew: It’s been good to catch up.
Peter: Thanks for the opportunity.
Visit Peter at www.changels.info. Read part one of Changels Genesis free on your smartphone at m.changels.info. And you can buy Changels on Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords or direct from the author at his Wazala shop orders.changels.info