Galaxy Games author Greg R. Fishbone and I had a chat yesterday to discuss junior science fiction, publishing, childhood and writing for kids. Enjoy!
GREG: Okay, let's welcome everyone to our middle-grade science fiction author chat. I'm Greg R. Fishbone, author of the Galaxy Games series from the Tu Books imprint of Lee & Low Books. The first book, THE CHALLENGERS, starts the story of an international team of Earth kids competing against teams of alien kids from across the galaxy.
SIMON: Hi everyone. I'm Simon Haynes, Australian author of the adult/teen Hal Spacejock series (Fremantle Press) AND a brand new novel for middle-grade readers: Hal Junior The Secret Signal. Hal Junior lives aboard a space station in the distant future, and the novel covers the events immediately after a supply ship docks. There's a plot against the space station, a ton of laughs and a home made space cannon.
GREG: I'm looking forward to learning more about the science fiction market in Australia and how it may be different from or similar to that here in the United States.
SIMON: I think the lack of middle-grade SF might be a worldwide phenomenon. In Australia, as everywhere else, publishers release books with appeal to the widest potential market. Numerous people have told me MG SF doesn't sell because it doesn't appeal to the majority of younger readers.
GREG: I've definitely heard from young readers and from those trying to put books into their hands that middle-grade SF is hard to find on the shelves.
SIMON: Yes - it's hard to sell lots of MG SF when it barely exists. After I'd written Hal Junior I cast around for similar titles (it's handy to have a reference when trying to describe a new novel) and some of the suggestions were chalk and cheese.
SIMON: E.g. Hal Jnr is 200 pages, 30,000 words and 40+ small illustrations (some sight gags, some diagrams of airlocks and recycling processes.) People were suggesting books with 70 pages, written with sparse sentences barely five words long.
GREG: So there's a market for SF chapter books but not middle grade? Interesting.
SIMON: I was out there looking for meaty science fiction for younger readers, but mostly they seemed to be simplistic early-reader books. That's why I was interested in Galaxy Games, because it looked like we could feed off each others promotional efforts.
GREG: If there's a dearth of science fiction for middle grades, I'd think that humorous sci-fi would be even more of a specialized niche to find.
GREG: What about Young Adult? There seems to be a lot more in that age range here, especially dystopias.
SIMON: YA is a whole new ball game. Teenagers, romantic elements, angst ... I didn't enjoy living through the experience and I'm certainly not going to write about it!
SIMON: MG involves school, friends, family. A lot of YA is about becoming an adult. Much more serious.
GREG: I agree. The borderline is fuzzy sometimes, but MG is where my comfort zone is as an author. But you've also written for adults, correct?
SIMON: Yes, the Hal Spacejock series. The first was released in 2005, and there have been three more since then. They don't feature zany comedy like Hitchhiker's Guide, they're just about a regular guy who starts off with a small problem and turns it into something huge and overwhelming. E.g. in one book he places an order for 100 coffee makers instead of one, and the consequences bring three planets to the brink of war.
GREG: Like Arthur Dent?
SIMON: One reviewer described Hal Spacejock as Dent, Zaphod and Ford Prefect all rolled into one.
GREG: Sounds like a lot of fun.
SIMON: I loved writing them, but they're a huge amount of work. Writing MG was a breath of fresh air, and I'm really enjoying the new challenge.
GREG: What's the biggest difference between writing for adults and writing for kids?
SIMON: For me, not too much. I already write in a fairly plain style, and I believe description is something you write when you run out of plot ideas. With the junior books I stuck to one point of view and one plot, and of course they feature a younger character. As for content and style, I spent part of my childhood in rural Spain which was casual and very free. I hope I've brought some of that to Hal Junior.
GREG: Is there a Spanish feel to the book?
SIMON: No, not at all. That was a red herring ;-)
GREG: Is it particularly Australian?
SIMON: Not Australian either. I grew up across three countries, travelled to more than 80, attended about 12 different schools and learned three different languages so I've seen my share of cultures. My family is like the United Nations.
GREG: Where were you when I was putting together my international team of child athletes? :D
SIMON: Hah ;-)
SIMON: When I mentioned growing up in Spain, I meant the freedom I had as a kid: going off camping for 2-3 days when I was 9 or 10, having an air rifle, riding a motorbike.
SIMON: Life is very restricted for many kids these days, due to dangers real or imagined. They're kept in cotton wool a bit (I'm guilty of this myself with our daughters). Hal actually gets into serious danger a few times in the book.
GREG: It's a dangerous galaxy.
SIMON: Yes, space is dangerous in a way that our everyday lives aren't. Open the wrong door, pull the wrong lever and you could die. Obviously I'm not suggesting kids go live in space, but it's a great setting for a novel. That's why there should be more junior SF.
GREG: The world is full of new and strange experiences. The galaxy, even moreso.
SIMON: So tell me about Galaxy Games. Why would I recommend your book to the local primary school? (Primary = years 1-8 in Australia)
GREG: Galaxy Games combines science fiction with sports in a fun and exciting way. I wanted to put a team of kids into the biggest game I could imagine, and there was no way to make that happen by staying on Earth. The events of the first book involve first contact with aliens and all the repercussions for the entire human race. There's a lot in there for a kid to like and to think about.
SIMON: Sports are always popular in books, and it's one of the first areas where kids learn about competing, trying your best, and the thrill of winning. And, of course, the crushing sense of defeat. Gotta keep things real! Plus everyone loves the underdog who pulls through against the odds.
GREG: Very true. And there's always a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
SIMON: You just described Hal Spacejock. (Originally Hal Junior was supposed to be Hal Spacejock as a 10-year-old, but that idea went out the window when a beta reader said Junior was way smarter than the adult he was supposed to grow into! I toyed with the idea of a dumb-down ray, but in the end I made Hal Jnr a new character.
GREG: Kids like reading about smart kids, or at least kids who can outsmart adults.
SIMON: I saw that in a boy's review for Hal Junior. He loved the fact Hal Jnr was smart but didn't have any interest in doing his homework, and he could get around Teacher & his parents when he tried. Not the best role model, but it's fiction! Of course, teachers haven't seen my insulting pic of them in the book yet ... there's a gruesome face with Teacher crossed out and Space Monster written underneath ;-) The sort of thing we all used to draw in our exercise books.
GREG: Kids love reading about kids who can bend the rules, or have the rules not apply to them. And when I say, "Kids love this or that," what I really mean is that I loved that stuff when I was a young reader. I assume kids today still do.
SIMON: That gets back to my childhood in Spain in the 70's. We had rules, but we also had a ton of freedom. E.g.I nearly got run down by a police car when I was riding a moped (no license or helmet), and when he pulled me over I pretended I didn't understand a word of Spanish. He shrugged and let me off.
GREG: Sounds like a wild way to grow up. I'm jealous.
GREG: Do you do your own artwork?
SIMON: Not important stuff like the cover! Internal art ... there's a story behind that. There are three very good artists in my immediate family, but I didn't want to ask them to draw a bunch of art when I was still shopping the novel around.
So, I did rough pencil sketches to keep myself busy. Then, when I made the decision to self-publish, I had a very short timeframe to get all the art done. I wanted one illustration per chapter (about 25 all up), and every one of my family members was already flat out.
I took the sketches, loaded them into Corel Draw and traced them manually with vectors. Then I smoothed them out, added detail, and figured they'd actually come out okay.
Ended up with 42 illustrations - a nice sfnal number!
GREG: Very cool. I did something similar with my first book, THE PENGUINS OF DOOM. I had included some doodles with my manuscript to give the publisher an idea of what she might get a real artist to do--but instead, she liked my style of art for the book. I'm very happy that someone else did the art for Galaxy Games, though.
SIMON: Yes, pro art is always a good idea. The cover artist for Hal Junior also did the covers for Hal Spacejock (commissioned by my publisher.) Cover art is one area where authors should definitely leave it to the pros!
GREG: Now I was very interested that you're self-publishing the Hal Jr. series, spinning it off from what had been a traditionally-published series. It seems like more and more authors are going that route.
SIMON: Yes, I've been running a series of blog posts about the process. I did self-publish way back in 2001, but that was too soon and I was more than pleased to get picked up by a traditional publisher. It was a great learning experience and I made a lot of industry contacts which are now proving vital. E.g. bookstore owners, librarians, distributors, reviewers ... many would think twice before taking on a self-pubbed book, if they showed any interest at all, but in my case they already know I've been fairly successful with the Hal Spacejock books.
SIMON: The same thing is being repeated all over the planet. Authors are seeing their existing series cancelled because bookstores won't order in the earlier books, and they're asking themselves if this is the best way to bring their work to the public.
GREG: Was it hard to act as publisher and author for the same work? It would seem like two very different hats to wear.
SIMON: Sure, but my background is small business, wholesale, marketing ... Once the artistic side is done I put on my three piece suit and grow a ponytail and start running things up the flagpole to see who salutes.
SIMON: One of the reasons I decided to self-publish is because I get over 120,000 visitors per month to my various websites, mostly to grab copies of all my free software (e.g. yWriter) or read my articles on publishing and writing a novel. (A lot of my articles are the #1 search result on Google these days.) The traffic keeps growing and I can easily include a cover in the sidebar ...
GREG: Very impressive! It certainly helps to have a platform.
SIMON: On the other hand they're mostly interested in writing and/or software, perhaps not MG science fiction. It can't hurt to get the name out there though.
GREG: I think a lot of adults who enjoy science fiction are looking for gateway books to get their children into the genre, so they can share their common interest. I think these books are something that can be cross-generational.
SIMON: Yes, that's how I approached the Spacejock publisher with Hal Junior. I told them it was a way to revitalise the adult series ... get kids interested with Hal Junior, and when they're a couple of years older they're shoe-ins for the Hal Spacejock books.
SIMON: Unfortunately the Spacejock publisher didn't bite. Scratch that - I was actually quite pleased they didn't because I was already wondering why I was approaching publishers with my new series when I could go it alone.
Two months after sending out my queries, I wrote back to each publisher asking them to delete my submissions.
GREG: Did you use a professional editor or did you self-edit?
SIMON: Definitely used a professional, but only after months of self-editing. I'm a perfectionist, and I fret over every word of every sentence, often going through 20+ printed drafts. (I have stacks of hand-edited manuscripts to prove it.) When I start changing sentences back I know it's time to get professional help. (And hire an editor.)
GREG: I knew we had a lot in common!
SIMON: You too huh?
GREG: If it were up to me, I'd never finish. I enjoy revision almost too much.
SIMON: When I read a sentence it's not just words, meaning and humo(u)r. It also has to have the right rhythm. (That sentence doesn't. Let me try again.) It must also have the right cadence. (Bit Better).
I have a sing-song version of the text going through my mind while I'm writing, and I reinforce it when I edit.
GREG: There are a lot of elements that have to be right. Characters, language, humor, style--and in science fiction, the science has to be right as well.
SIMON: Yes, although I'm not a scientist which makes writing adult SF a bit harder. (Computer scientist, yes. That's not relevant!) I use a fair bit of hand-waving, and my characters aren't scientists either so why would they discuss how a hyperdrive works? I avoid writing about noises in space, and I've researched how an explosion in space evolves from the initial bang. No shockwave, but particles fly forever. Fascinating! Very intense, very quick flash.
GREG: Lots of cool stuff when you look into it. I find it helps to have an interest in science and the ability to do at least some cursory research on a lay person level.
SIMON: (As a kid I played with fireworks all the time.)
SIMON: BTW what's your own background?
GREG: I read science fiction and fantasy as a kid, wrote it in college, kept writing it in law school. It's what I've always wanted to do, really, but I knew it wouldn't be much of a day job.
SIMON: That's for sure. During school visits I sometimes talk about the life of an author, and by the time I've finished there's usually one holdout who still wants to be a writer while the rest want to be police officers, stock brokers, teachers, you - name - it.
GREG: I've heard a theory once that we have about one storyteller for about every thirty people because that's how we evolved--thirty people in a tribe, sitting around a fire, listening to one voice.
SIMON: Interesting - I hadn't heard that one before! Coincidentally it works out one per classroom, which is about right.
GREG: We should probably wrap up the chat. Any other topics you want to hit on our way out?
SIMON: I think we've covered most things. Maybe people can ask questions in the comments and one or the other of us can answer there?
GREG: Sounds good. This was fun.
SIMON: Yes, thanks for the chat!
And here's your all-important puzzle piece for the Galaxy Games blog tour competition:
Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)