accepting criticism

A novel is not a fable: moral messages vs moral questions

I’m one of those authors who reads *all* their reviews, feedback and comments. For me, being a professional writer means doing everything I can to keep developing, and the key to that is to get as much feedback as possible. How else can you judge if, on balance, your subtext is too obvious or too obscure? How can you determine if something speaks to as many readers as can be hoped or not? Feedback patterns are particularly important.

A few readers have expressed their anger and upset about the ‘moral message’ they believe I’m trying to convey in The Bone Dragon. The thing is The Bone Dragon doesn’t have a moral message. I’m not trying to tell anyone anything: I’m trying to ask questions and leave it up to readers to answer them – if they can: the questions I’m interested in asking don’t necessarily have good answers, but that’s precisely why they need to be thought about.

So why are a handful of readers upset about a message that, as far as I’m concerned, isn’t there? The fact that they assume the ending of the book is a moral message seems to be the heart of the problem. Fables and parables end with moral messages, but that has never been a requirement with novels. So why do some people believe that every novel’s end must be read as a moral? This seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding about how gloriously varied novels can be. Many do have a moral message to impart, implicitly or explicitly, but many others don’t. What happens in a book, especially at the end, does not necessarily represent the author’s idea of right and wrong.

I think these assumptions about endings have bled out of the expectation that, at the end of a story, the ‘good’ should triumph and be rewarded, and the ‘bad’ should fail and be punished – because that’s what a story is: according to this view, all sorts of bad things can happen to ‘good’ people during stories, but at the end we all need to be very clear about what’s right and wrong, and who deserves what. This expectation seems to govern many popular forms of storytelling, and therein lies the problem: we’re so constantly bombarded by this message (about messages) that it’s easy to forget that stories can have a wide range of functions. One of those is to ask questions about moral issues instead of answering them.

A more interesting take on fiction is summed up by the much-quoted Miss Prism in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest: ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.’ Wilde’s definition keeps things purposeful nebulous. The fact that he uses the terms ‘happily’ and ‘unhappily’ points to an ambiguous understanding of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ too. Who is ‘good’? What does ‘happily’ mean? To be ‘happy’ does a person have to be in the ‘right’? Isn’t it all, ultimately, an issue of perspective?

The Bone Dragon plays with the subtleties that Wilde leaves room for here. From the protagonist’s point of view, the ending is a happy one, but from readers’ everything is rather more complicated (I hope). When readers close the book, I want them to have had a vicarious emotional experience that allows them to understand what answer each character would give to the implicit questions the story asks. Above all, I want readers to engage emotionally with Evie’s happy ending but then ask themselves ‘Now I’m not seeing through Evie’s eyes, what do I feel about the things that happen at the end of the book? Is it a happy ending from my point of view?’ I don’t have a message, moral or otherwise, to impart to readers because I don’t know the answers to the questions the book offers. I just know that we need to ask them and that fiction has a very particular and important role to play in that process.

Of course none of this is to say that readers aren’t entitled to dislike books that don’t have a moral message at the end or those where the ending is not intended to be read as such: different people find different sorts of endings satisfying and that’s as it should be. But I do want to respond to the idea that it isn’t permissible in fiction to abstain from ending on an implicit or explicit moral message. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and I’m interested no matter whether that opinion pleases me or not. I choose to leave a lot of things open for interpretation in the book because one of my principles as a writer is to leave space for the reader’s creativity and imagination. The downside is that sometimes people don’t see what you want them to. But, at the same time, that’s what’s wonderful about books and reading: a book in one reader’s hands can turn into something completely different in another’s. The more a writer tries to ensure that everyone’s reading the same book, the less scope there is for the reader to be an active collaborator. And some readers prefer that, feeling that it’s the writer’s job to do that work for them. But some readers (and I’m one of them) don’t like to be told all the time: they want to be allowed to discover things for themselves.

So don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind about the book. My view isn’t any more ‘correct’ because ‘I’m the author – I outrank you’ alla The Producers, but I am the authority on what I was trying to accomplish with the book and it’s nice to be able to put that out there in the world. This is why late last year I approached a wonderful book blogger who I knew had mixed views on The Bone Dragon to see if she would be willing to have an online discussion. First and foremost, I wanted to know more about her thoughts on the book, but I also wanted to do something positive in response to a series of recent angry exchanges between authors and readers/bloggers: I wanted demonstrate that people can disagree passionately but positively, enjoying their differences and what these say about how fiction works. You can read the wonderful post Kelley from Another Novel Read put together from our discussions here. Discussions about books don’t have to be a competition to see who is right and who is wrong: it’s much more fun if we recognise that people won’t always agree and explore all the fascinating reasons why that is so.

Diversity is what makes literature exciting. And part of this is how different writers approach the issue of morality, especially in terms of whether they have a moral message to share or whether they choose to ask moral questions and leave it to the reader to answer them.


Next post (hopefully tomorrow!) I’ll be talking about why moral ambiguity is important in YA fiction.



dragon symbols

Beyond the proofs

Somehow, we’ve ended up here, in October and my work on The Bone Dragon is nearly done.

The second proofs are being prepared. The big new thing is the addition of a special scene-divider symbol in place of the basic *. My wonderful project editor, Lucie, said she’d come up with several to discuss and I asked if – pretty, pretty, please – a dragon could be one of the options. The Wonderful Lucie sent me these.

dragon symbols

dragon symbol

I can’t wait to see the new proofs with all the dragons in them!

At this stage, it should just be a matter of checking through to be absolutely sure that no weird computer glitches have introduced errors since the last proof… and to double-check-squared that there aren’t any little mistakes. No other corrections are permitted. Which is a relief. I am ready to move on. I’ve done all I want creatively with The Bone Dragon. It’s time for a new project.

… Actually, it’s proven time for several. I’m re-writing several ‘old’ manuscripts and I’ve also started something completely fresh. But more about that in a separate post.

For now, I need to sit tight until the second proofs arrive and then check them as quickly as possible because after that… copies for early review will be printed. I was equal parts excited and terrified about this but all of a sudden I can’t wait for people to read my wicked little book. Whatever anyone else thinks or says, I’m happy with it. It’s even better than the book in my head – the first time I’ve ever felt that with a manuscript. It’s exactly what I wanted to write.

And of course I want people to love it, but I’ll be OK if they don’t so long as they’re not nasty about it. If someone points out legitimate flaws, then I’ll learn from that. If they just don’t like something, then fair enough. But if someone doesn’t judge the book on its own terms, I’ll find that really hard – mostly because reviews aren’t a conversation. They’re rhetorical statements: authors aren’t expected to reply.

So what do I mean by ‘judge the book on its own terms’… It’s easier to explain with reference to non-fiction. When you submit an article to a peer-reviewed journal, all identifying info is removed from the article and then it’s sent out to three or more specialists in the area to see what they think. They write a review to say whether the journal should publish the article. As a journal editor, I know all too well how often reviewers disagree – and disagree dramatically. But the thing I found hardest as an author wasn’t rejections based on flaws in my work, but the one review where the ‘specialist’ basically said ‘You like orange and I think green is better’. I was writing about dyslexia. It’s a tricky field as no one agrees on what dyslexia is. I was using one of the ‘industry standard’ definitions… But it wasn’t the one the reviewer preferred. The reviewer believed that dyslexia is a reading disability – I don’t agree. I believe dyslexia results in reading disabilities, but I see those as a consequence of more basic, cognitive processing differences.  Uta Frith has done some fantastic work about rhythm, sequencing and insensitivity to the frequency of vowel sounds as the root of phonological deficits.

Anyway, my research supported my views about what dyslexia is. Unfortunately, the reviewer wasn’t interested in the substance of my work. Instead of pulling apart my methods, results and conclusions to show how I was wrong and he was right, he used the review to criticise my approach to studying dyslexia – even though my approach was more inline with the bulk of the literature than his. I am still furious about the review because I didn’t feel like the reviewer judged the article on its own merits.

And that’s the one thing I’m really worried about review-wise with The Bone Dragon. But there’s one big difference between that experience and this. The article was rejected on the balance of that review. All the other reviews had suggested the article be accepted with corrections or revised and resubmitted (for further review). All the other reviewers made legitimate criticisms about the article, which I then corrected when I submitted elsewhere. Unfortunately, by the time that happened the research was in danger of getting out of date so I chose to submit it (now in the form of two linked articles) to my university’s online journal (read article 1 here and article 2 here). A lot of participants had given up their time to the research: I had to get the findings published, even if it wasn’t in my ideal choice of journal. The big plus side was that my work supported the launch of a new open access journal. I’m a big believer in open access publishing for academic work, though I do concede that finding sufficient funding is a real challenge: the EHRR, the journal I edited, was also open access, so it was nice to support that movement as an author.

The point here is that, even if I do get what I feel is an unfair review, I’ll be able to hold on to the fact that it’s a review of a published book. My published book.

And maybe they’ll be good. I love my wicked little book… And I now have an agent and publisher who love it too, so maybe – just maybe – other people will love it too.

But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Fingers crossed! Wish me luck.

butterfly and lavender

Everyone should have a project editor

When is it? Ah… I see. It’s the very last day of July. And the universe (via Faber) has brought me a present for the new month: my very own project editor.  (Well, not brought in an I-now-own-this sort of way, but I have a project editor none the less.)

Everyone should have one. They’re wonderful. They organise things. Many, many things.

I have been especially lucky with my project editor, Lucie, who – [fast forwards a few weeks] – has arranged for the amazing Eleanor to copy-edit my book brilliantly and very, very quickly.

So, we’re… er… mid August? Yes, something like that. Somewhere in the second half of August and not only do I have a project editor and copy editor, I have a copy-edited manuscript.

Eleanor has cowed Microsoft Word into submission and made the formatting behave throughout the entire document. I am suitably impressed by this feat alone. But there’s more.

She’s also sorted out my hyphens. I didn’t realise how bad I was at hyphens. I swear it wasn’t quite this bad not so long ago. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps this is one of the things I ‘lost’ when I had the latest rib taken out. Every anaesthetic I lose a few very precise things from my memory (the time before it was Latin flower names and things to do with architecture). It’s not that I forget these things, they’re just gone: no memory trace whatsoever. Anyway, I don’t know quite whether to hope I ‘lost’ my hyphens or whether I was just rubbish at them all along. Perhaps I’ll compromise with myself and just say ‘it’s one of those things that’s hard to spot in your own work’. That seems like a happier way of putting it.

Eleanor has also found a horrid number of sentences with repeated words. I’m generally so good at spotting these when I edit for other people… how can I have missed quite so many in my own work? On the bright side, Eleanor has spotted them so I can now sort them out before quite so many people see.

Hm… typo… typo… Wow, how did I miss that one?

Interesting: a three page allergy to the definite article. (What was going on there? Perhaps I don’t want to know… moving along, moving along…)

Ah… I see how that might sound a little odd to other people. But I hear it like that. Maybe it’s some dyslexic-ness in terms of the weird way I perceive language rhythms, but that’s how that sentence sounds to me. Even if it is a little dyslexic-weird, maybe non-dyslexic people will find it interesting anyway. After all, that’s how I hear it: that’s part of my voice. And I am careful not to go overboard with my weird way of hearing things. The majority of sentences need to appeal to a wide array of readers: a writer should only keep the odd one that exactly represents the stranger bits of her inner voice. But this sentence is *me*. This represents exactly how I hear things. This one I get to keep.

An awkward sentence. Yes, it most definitely is. All change, please!

In or into… Should theoretically be in, but into is acceptable and I like how it conveys motion, whereas ‘in’ is static.

Tenses, tenses… Some tricky ones here. A recounted story that includes a note about a general personality characteristic of someone still alive. Should that be in the same tense as the rest of the story-within-the-book, or does it go in the tense of the main narrative because the character is still alive and still likes flowers? As for some of the others… the book deals a lot with the fact that the past and present aren’t always that separate… For me, that needs to bleed into the grammar. But making sure that the grammar serves the story and doesn’t confuse when there’s a slip in time, and so in tense, is not easy.

This bit of reported speech doesn’t repeat the original bit of dialogue… Nope. But it *is* intentionally different. The change in the reported version is quite telling. At least I hope it is.

With my Uncle Ben or with my uncle Ben? I’m a traditionalist. The former it is because the latter, for me, would require a comma before ‘Ben’ and I don’t like it like that.

What else? Oh… a flaw in the time line. A great big one.  I *knew* something wasn’t quite right there. Fixed. With surprisingly few changes.

A nice little bit of logical inconsistency. Possibly it’s not good for the soul. Let’s see if we can’t make that make sense.

Oh, and a nice dash of ambiguity…

And a nice little lack of clarity… Where are we in this scene? Oh, yes. There we are…

Hm… is this bit of dialogue forced? I think it won’t be if I just push a little harder here, make it clear to the reader that there’s meant to be some awkwardness by making it even more awkward. Yes, I think that works. And I love the characterisation of the bit-character now that I’ve brought all that awkwardness into the light.

Oh dear. People are spilling things left, right and centre. Or rather I’ve spilled lots of spillings into a single page. I’d better start cleaning up.

And now the manuscript is looking so clean and tidy! Hyphens all neatly in place. Repetitions scrubbed away… But there’s one change I just can’t even consider. It’s to one of my favourite lines in the whole book. And I *do* see how other people might find the phrasing a bit odd, but I love it. It  says exactly what I mean about something quite hard to describe. Sometimes it’s good to be able to say  ‘I am the author. I outrank you!’ Actually, I don’t say anything at all beyond ‘Please could I keep it!’ because I don’t have to… (and because I don’t know if Eleanor is familiar with The Producers, so don’t want to risk offending her if she doesn’t recognise this as a quotation.)

Every author is bound to find there are one or two changes that they just don’t want to make. The key is to know when something that might not work for all readers is important enough to you to assert your rights over. Think about it as having a handful of ‘free passes’ – a handful of times you can just say ‘no’, even when you acknowledge the merit of your editor/publisher’s comment. Often the comment is right in the broader sense of what will work best for the largest number of readers… But it’s still your book. If there are a few little things you love, and you haven’t been difficult about taking editorial advice, then no one will have a problem with it.

So what was my much-loved lined?

As soon as she says it, we both realise how unexpected the words are: oddly tender, wistful, as if she is lonely for kindness.

What do you think? Do you like it or are you with Eleanor, who would have preferred ‘hungry for kindness’?

butterfly on lavender

Are we there yet?

Where were we? I’m having real trouble keeping track of when now is and when it should be. I seem to keep ending up somewhere in the middle. But I suppose that’s better than believing we’re in September (and late September at that), as everyone else seems to think (and I thought I was having bad when-am-I? issues).

Anyway, today is a day in July. Um… Early July. Say the 4th of July, because that’s meant to be a good day for Americans (and part Americans presumably get a pretty good day too). Anyway, it’s the 4th or the 5th or the early-something-th of July and I’ve got a lovely email waiting in my in-box…

Rebecca has reviewed the revised manuscript and… she likes it! She’s happy with the changes!

I scan frantically through her notes to see how much there is still to do…

Change a few words here and there, mainly where words are repeated within the same sentence or in neighbouring ones. I never have any trouble spotting these when I’m editing for other people, but I can NEVER see my own work clearly in this regard.

Hm… here’s a line of dialogue to change. Oh, and one other. This I can cope with! If only it’s just this level of stuff that’s left now…

What’s this? Something to clarify. This I can do! (In about 10 minutes, what’s more.)

Ooooops. Typo!

Ah… The answer to one of my questions… To footnote or not to footnote: that was, indeed, the question…. And now it is answered. (Not to footnote – use your Author’s Note at the end.)

A word that doesn’t work in this line of dialogue.  Another in that. Fair enough.

This new line in the revised manuscript needs some further work: not clear enough. Hm… How can I say it better?

Ah, a nice little slip of logic there: people are seeing things with their  eyes closed. Which would be fine if this were a fantasy novel, but not quite so great in a psychological thriller… Probably they need their eyes open for this.

Oh, and here is a nice little bit of unattributed dialogue. Now who does it belong to? Probably worth specifying since I hate it when other writers aren’t clear (one of my little quibbles with Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall – curious minds want to know, so authors should beware of withholding).

To italicise or not to italicise this one word? Who cares? Whatever way Rebecca likes it is fine with me: she’s the one who has enough distance from the book to see these little things clearly. It’s not like dropping the italics on this single word is going to make a blind bit of difference to anyone’s enjoyment of the book.

Excellent! My character has just skipped out in the middle of the school day for no apparent reason. Or at least that’s the unintended implication. Better make it clear that the chat with the headmistress happens right at the end of the day so she can poddle off afterwards without it being strange that no storm ensues.

Lands instead of alights? I really like alights. Please, please can I keep it?

The American in me is fighting to get out. Run for cover! Garbage invasion! Where’s some good British rubbish when you need it?

Look out! The Inner American is taking charge. Beware the frightful parking lot! Save our car parks!

Ah… This is interesting. A three word phrase that might just give the game away two pages too early. It gets so hard to tell after a while from the ‘inside’ of the book. This is exactly why brilliant editors are needed to tell you (as the writer) how to strike the right balance in terms of giving readers enough information… but not too much.

And there we have it… A few hours worth of work and the book will be done… I hope. Cross fingers!

(BTW, I know the photo has nothing to do with the post but I just really like it… It’s a happy post. It’s a happy sort of a photo. Will that do as a connection?)

So that was my experience of second-stage revisions with my publisher… Is it about par for the course, beyond Rebecca being especially lovely and brilliant? Any horror stories out there?

Peacock butterfly

A critical year: market factors and manuscripts

So, picking right up where I left off, the biggest change my publisher wanted to see in the manuscript concerned my protagonist’s age. The suggestion: to make Evie 14 instead of 13 pushing 14. My reaction: no problem.

Rebecca’s reasoning was that, given the themes of the book and the way it’s written, it’s most likely to appeal to the YA and adult markets. Making Evie 14 as opposed to 13 pushes the book more firmly into the YA market rather than the Children’s market – where it wouldn’t belong at all – as, at 14 going on 15, Evie herself falls broadly into the YA category. Rebecca felt that this little change – an age increase of somewhere between 6 and 12 months for my protagonist – would make a big impact on how easy to the book would be to market. I completely agree with her rationale.

But sometimes market factors push a book in a direction that the author doesn’t want to go. Deciding what to do then is a real conundrum. Thankfully, I didn’t have any such reservations about changing Evie’s age. For me, it was a purely technical issue and didn’t alter anything important about the story. My reasoning went like this…

At age 14, Evie is starting her two-year GCSE courses, but she isn’t facing any major life events like doing her GCSE exams or A-Levels… She is still well over a year away from 16, the age of sexual consent in the UK. She’s three years from 17, the age at which one can learn to drive. She’s four years away form 18, the age of majority: the age at which she will legally become an adult. It’s important to the story that Evie isn’t about to face any of these major changes. She’s still firmly a ‘child’ in the legal sense and she isn’t facing any of the usual big issues and decisions of the mid to late teenage years. All the decisions and problems Evie has to deal with are unique to her: none of her peers are coping with the same things.

In terms of Evie’s individual situation, she starts the book in hospital after thorasic surgery and so misses the start of the new school year. If this were her GCSE exam year, that would have major implications… but ones I’m not interested in dealing with in The Bone Dragon. So making her 15 would have put a stumbling block in her path that would have changed the plot and shifted the nature of the conflict in ways I didn’t want, so I would have been very leery of making her two years older. But missing a few weeks at the start of Year 10 doesn’t represent a major issue. While catching up is a bit of a challenge, it isn’t one that takes over the whole book. And that’s important because I want the challenges Evie deals with to fall outside the realm of any of the things her peers are facing.

The change of age did necessitate a few other changes, but they were ones I was perfectly comfortable with. As Rebecca quite rightly pointed out, 14 and 15 year olds are generally fairly interested in dating and kissing (at the very least): more so than the 13 year olds in the original manuscript. They are also more prone (at least according to stereotypes) to rebellion against authority figures and moodiness.

I’m actually a big fan of stereotypes and cliches. I think they’re very powerful things that writers are foolish not to use. The key here is to actively use them, not just to use them by accident – which amounts to being used by them.

Anyway, bringing in those ‘teenage years’ cliches actually opened up opportunities to develop Evie’s character and show how she is unusual, even when she is, for instance, having a fit of the sullens.

So, changes made, the manuscript went back to Faber and I crossed my fingers that they’d like it – not only because I wanted them to be happy with it (as I was, and so didn’t really want to make many further changes), but also because I wanted them to feel I was a good person to work with: someone who appreciated quality feedback and had the craft to know how to revise a manuscript effectively.

old terracotta curved tiles

Revisions, Revisions…

My wonderful publishing editor, Rebecca Lee, started working with me on revising the manuscript before we’d even signed the contract. This isn’t unusual in the publishing world, apparently: a deal is a deal, but contracts take a while to negotiate and no one wants to wait around dotting Ts on the legal stuff rather than the book itself.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at this stage and awaited the return of my manuscript in terror of what The Red Pen of Doom might have in store for me…

Actually, as with Claire’s comments, I was delighted with my feedback. And, again, the key factor was that no one was trying to change the book, only to improve it: to help me achieve what I was driving towards anyway.

For instance, I already had a sneaking suspicion that one of the smaller elements wasn’t coming across clearly but I wasn’t entirely sure what readers might find most perplexing. Rebecca knew exactly what I needed to do: clarify the geography of Evie’s home. That wasn’t a problem – I haven’t drawn a floor-plan of the house, but I could if someone asked me to. So bringing that knowledge out – the odd phrase here and there – was a simple fix to a thorny problem.

Another key issue related to language… I come from a family that’s part British, part Italian and part American. Critically, for the book, although Evie is English some of the phrases she used in the draft manuscript turned out to be American. Who knew? Well, I didn’t, but Rebecca did… and I was very happy to be able to ditch my accidental Americanisms in favour of phrases that were in character for Evie.

I’d already done my best to avoid mentioning brands and also current ‘big hit’ movies etc. as these things can date a book very quickly, so Rebecca was pleased on that front.

A trickier issue was one of vocabulary. Given that the book is going to be marketed as YA/cross-over, Rebecca wanted me to consider whether some of the words I used (she picked out the key examples) were too complex. I considered very carefully in each case and spent time poring over my thesaurus to see if there were other words that worked as well in the relevant contexts. Sometimes there were, in which case I changed the original word: why use a long word when a short one will do just as well? Well, lots of academics (and some writers) spend their whole careers doing just that (and not an awful lot else), but I don’t see the point. Complexity should be saved for the things that really are complex, rather than wasted on those that can, in skilled hands, be simple.

However, in some cases I’d chosen a word because of its nuances and associations… When that was the case, I didn’t change the manuscript. I may not believe in making things complicated when they don’t have to be, but that doesn’t mean I’m in favour of ‘dumbing down’. If someone doesn’t know a word, they can look it up – and that’s no bad thing to be encouraging for YA readers or, indeed, adult readers who might like an opportunity to expand their vocabulary. I wrote The Bone Dragon for all people over a certain age – not specifically for the YA category – so I didn’t want to make changes to the book that I felt would render it less appealing to adult readers… or, indeed, YA readers looking for something a little more challenging.

As it turned out, there were about 10 words that Rebecca felt would be challenging for the YA market: that seemed to be a really good number of ‘difficult’ words to leave in. So I did.

… More on market factors and their influence on the manuscript in my next post.

If you’re reading and have experience of editors or agents giving you market advice about how to change your manuscript, I’d be really interested to hear about it. Did you feel the advice was helpful? Did you feel it conflicted with your creative aims?