novel

crocuses in sunlight

Is Book 2 easier or harder than Book 1?

In 2013, with The Bone Dragon finally written and edited and proofed and polished and re-polished and re-proofed and then polished some more, I embarked on Book 2.

Everything started beautifully. Next post is all about What Happened Next, but this one is about What Went Right.

So there I was, facing Book 2. Unlike a lot of my debut-writer friends, who were struggling with the pressure of being published, of having a contract and expectations levelled at them from all around, I found I had a newfound sense of confidence and freedom.

For me, having a truly amazing agent and a published first book was a liberation. I knew that from then on if there were problems with one of my books my brilliant agent would help me fix them. She’s a fantastic editor in her own right so if it’s possible to get there with a troublesome book, she’ll help me make it happen.

Also I have a publisher: I have amazing publishing industry people waiting and wanting to read what I am writing.

So all I have to do it write well… which is no small task, but I am a writer after all. It’s kinda the minimum requirement.

How different from Before, when I wasn’t sure that anyone would ever like what I was writing, would ever in a million years agree to publish it, would ever even consider giving me a helping hand to get from Really Quite Good to the magical Publishable level that for so long seemed like it belonged to a different world I’d never find a way to reach. But I did reach it.

That’s what I have now that I didn’t have Before. I know where Alice’s rabbit-hole is. I know where the Narnia wardrobe is. I have my Hogwarts letter.

And, yes, I want my agent to love Book 2. I want my publisher to love it. I want readers to love it. I want everyone to think it’s even better than (or at least as good as) Book 1. Yes, it’s a big ask – writing a good book always is – but is it a bigger ask than Book 1 was? It depends whether you think people having expectations of you as a writer is a bad thing or not.

Yes, there’s a degree of pressure… but either I can write or I can’t. And there’s not point worrying about it: that won’t get me anywhere. The answer is to get on with making it ‘can’, by hook, crook and lots of hard work. I’m a grafter. It’s one of the things I like most about myself. I don’t fuss about whether I’m inherently talented or not – there’s nothing I can do about that. Instead, I try to focus on making the most of whatever talent I have and bridging the gap between that and ‘as good as possible for me’ with the determination to get there: to produce another good book. Somehow. In whatever messy, gruelling way necessary. Maybe some people can just sail through and it comes naturally and beautifully, but I’m not one of them and there’s no point crying about it. My first book proved I could get there. And so I will again if I just keep slogging and dreaming and working…

Eventually I will get there because now I have all the backing a person could ask for. That’s the magic of moving beyond Book 1. You’ve got people’s attention already. That’s so much of the battle. If there’s a problem, at least it’s at a higher level: now problems come in the form of amazing publishing industry people telling me ‘this isn’t going to work’ or ‘let’s think again’. Of course I’d rather have no problems, but when does life work like that? So this type of problem I’ll take – Yes, please and thank you.

At least the problem is no longer a wall of backs turned my way where no one will let me through. Anyone who’s struggled to find their way to publication knows what I mean. That endless bit where you have no idea if anyone will ever turn around to you and say ‘Oh, hello. Would you like to go through to the other side now?’

Claire Wilson, my extraordinary agent, was the person who turned around for me. Who made a gap so I could step through from the world of Writer Hopefuls to the world of Published Writers. And it really has made all the difference.

So bring on Book 2, and Book 3 and all the books after, with however many problems they come with. I’ll still just be so very grateful to be here, working and grafting and, eventually, getting there again.

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YALC Developing Your Writing Voice

So, better late than never, right? Here, finally is the hand-out from my YALC ‘Develop Your Writing Voice’ workshop. Thank you so much to everyone who was there on the day and made the chaos so much fun! (Disclaimer: ‘cover’ image of the YALC authors by Rowan Spray.)

Developing a unique writing voice is not about trying to be different. It’s about recognising how you’re already different and unique, then harnessing that.

That was the core message of the workshop: it’s at the heart of discovering and developing your voice as a writer.

But what is voice? There’s no accepted definition, partly because it’s a somewhat woolly concept, but also because it’s so hard to pin down in theory – it’s much easier to identify aspects of a specific writer’s voice in practice. But that’s not how to discover your own.

Voice is partly about the things that make a piece of writing something only you could produce. But it’s also about the things that stay the same from one piece (or book) to another.

Cris Freese, in Writer’s Digest, says that voice is “not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre.”

When planning the workshop, I asked what people on Twitter thought I should cover. KM Lockwood suggested I should also discuss what voice *isn’t*, which is a really good way to go about firming up the whole concept.

Voice isn’t about book-specific stuff, current trends, or aping another writer. It’s the writer behind the text.

At the start of creative writing courses, some students think that being ‘unique’ means doing the opposite of what everyone else seems to be doing. But that’s not unique: that’s just contradictory.

Doing the opposite means you’re thinking inside a box someone else has built. Build your own box – and remember that it doesn’t have to be square.

And remember that just because developing your voice is about tapping into your own uniqueness, that doesn’t mean you can’t work on it. It isn’t something you’ve either ‘got’ or ‘lack’. Some people are naturals at tapping into their voice. Other people need to make more of a conscious effort. But training yourself to tap in more efficiently is always going to be good.

You can’t control your level of innate talent, only the amount of work you put into developing it.

So where do you start? With technique. When everything else in your creative toolbox lets you down, technique will help you get back on track. It’s like spells and runes: the method rather than the magic, but no less vital for it.

PD James says “Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice through practicing constantly. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and learn to express that experience in words.”

I start with aesthetics. It’s a fancy but useful word that can be used to mean a person’s ‘understanding of beauty’. But beauty in the sense of Art, which can be hideous at one level but so powerful it is fascinating to the point of beauty.

So forget ‘prettiness’, what do you find beautiful? What is lovely to you in an emotional sense? Figuring this out will help you figure out what to put into your work… and what to leave out.

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EXCERISE: Find things that are beautiful and try to capture them in photos. Critique your work. Have you really captured what you intended in the picture? Can you capture it in a picture? How could you capture it in words? If you can’t, why not? What are you trying to say and why?

In the workshop I talked a bit about how my aesthetics play out in The Bone Dragon. I focused on the importance of subtext. What do I put in? Just enough for people to see what questions I’m trying to ask. Just enough to follow the story. What do I leave out? Anything that dictates the reader’s response at a moral or emotional level.

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Voice is not just about the sentence-level stuff or the type of words you use. It’s about all the choices you make as a writer. Most of all, it’s about drawing those choices together so that the small choices and the big choices all work together.

EXCERISE: Re-take a photo from the exercise above that didn’t come out right, thinking about why it wasn’t right – why it didn’t capture your aesthetic properly. Keep going until you’re happy. Why are you happy? Now try to take a photo of something else and see if you can get the perfect shot in fewer tries.

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever read was ‘write the book only you can write’. This applies at multiple levels.

  1. Concept-level: What is the most original story I have only I could have thought of? What makes it too much like other peoples’ stories? What would make it even more ‘me’ than it already is?
  2. Plot-level: How do I tell this story so it’s as ‘me-as-can-be’?
  3. Sentence-level: What would I notice if I were there, in the story? What am I seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching? What are the characters doing? How do they treat each other? How can I capture all this in a ‘me’ sort of way?

EXCERISE: Which picture would you choose to write from? Why? What does that say about your aesthetic?

 

magnolia tree and gate                gate and magnolia petals

Neil Gaiman says, “Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Any starting writer starts out with other people’s voices. But as quickly as you can start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you, but you are the only you.”

In other words, read and write as much as possible, but do it thinking about your reading and writing aesthetics. The goal is to refine not just your understanding of your aesthetic, but your ability to capture it in words or images.

But it’s much easier to capture once you know what you’re chasing … and what you’re chasing is you. The truest, purest form of what is already unique and different in you and how you see the world.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

WaterstonesChildren'sBookPrize banner

The Bone Dragon shortlisted for the 2014 Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize

Read it all about it!

http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/pages/childrens-book-prize/1185/

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookprizes/10633552/Waterstones-Childrens-Book-Prize-2014-shortlists.html

http://www.thebookseller.com/news/faber-leads-waterstones-childrens-book-prize-shortlist.html

http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/feb/13/waterstones-childrens-book-prize-shortlist-2014

 

So thrilled and honoured to be on this amazing shortlist. Happy paperback publication day to me indeed! 🙂

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?

I’m on Amazon! The Bone Dragon now available to pre-order

The Bone Dragon is now available to pre-order on AmazonUK and WHSmith, though it should soon be available via a wide variety of retailers. Release date: 2 May 2013.

Do note that the cover design won’t be added for another month, give or take, as we’re currently consulting on the draft design. If you’re interested in commenting, the draft cover is available at https://thebonedragon.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/draft-cover-design-comments-welcome/ .

draft cover for The Bone Dragon

Draft cover design: comments welcome!

The draft cover design for The Bone Dragon is now in!

The final version will be a bit different, but I’d love to hear what you think and hopefully pass some comments along to Faber to help us decide on the official cover.

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Choosing a publisher

So, with one offer already on the table, the week crept by… I edited like a fury (human rights-related stuff, which did help to put my fretting in context) and tried not to think about it. I’m not really a superstitious person, but it felt like daydreaming too much would jinx things… or just drive me nuts. I didn’t want to end up daydreaming too many wonderful scenarios over and over again in case I started feeling like those ‘pie in the sky’ type outcomes were actually inevitable: no amount of modesty (not one of my vices anyway) can temper a surfeit of hope into realistic expectations… So I just try not to expect anything, but still hope for the best.

And, besides, it wasn’t hard – I already had an offer. A really wonderful offer. Of course more than one is always nice, but it’s just the icing on the cake. One good offer is all it takes to get into print and, really, that’s the important thing for your debut novel.

And then came Monday. A little after 3.30pm, the phone rang. It was Claire. With news.

There had been a bidding war for my book! My book! Two further, fantastic publishers I had only dreamed might one day be interested in me both wanted my book… And both had put the same top offer on the table. So it fell to me to choose which one to go with.

I suddenly realised how completely agonising the reality of multiple offers actually is. How do you say ‘no’ to people you’d love to work with? Who you would practically have killed to work with a fortnight ago? As a not-yet-published writer it a  dreadful thing (though a huge privilege at the same time) to turn down a fantastic offer from a wonderful publisher. My first thought was to ask Claire if I could just write another book for the other publisher so I wouldn’t have to say ‘no’ to anyone. It felt horribly ungrateful to be turning them down when it really was a dream come true to have them want me…

But Claire, wonderful, patient agent that she is, explained (in very small words, which was all I was capable of processing at the time) that when a publisher launches an author, they have to invest a lot of money… So they want to get a good return on their money by (all things being equal) keeping the author as ‘their’ author, rather than sharing. In other words, my wish to show my gratitude really wasn’t going to be appreciated… Woe! Ah well, at least the thought was there.

So… there I was with two five-figure offers on the table and a third, though lower offer, all from absolutely fantastic publishers…

As you know, I ended up going with Faber & Faber. I am still surprised and amazed that they like my book and that I get to work with such wonderful people. It’s been absolutely amazing… and the book isn’t even in print yet!

Let the bidding war start!

So, you probably already know by know how this story ends… but the journey was fun too.

My wonderful agent submitted the book on 5th March. She seemed upbeat all week. I worked like mad on editing for other people and tried not to think about the book at all.

Then, on the following Monday, my agent emailed with the news I’d been waiting my whole life for: a wonderful publisher had made an offer on the book. Finally, someone wanted my work! Finally, the light at the end of the tunnel… the whole stupid business of writing that I’d had my heart set on since before I could remember was actually going to pan out.

I read the email properly… Claire was confident that there would be more offers: that this was just the first.

Of course I’d hoped for that, who wouldn’t? But I hadn’t really expected it to happen. I hadn’t ‘expected’ someone – anyone – to say yes at all…

I didn’t quite know what to do with myself at that point, but decided that it didn’t really matter. One way or another, I was  going to get published. Finally, the life I’d always wanted was about to start: my life as a professioanal writer. I was numb with happiness, and relief that I wasn’t going to have to go through my whole life hoping and never quite achieving.

I am still just as happy as on that day: it hasn’t paled. Whenever I’m miserable, I remind myself I’m going to be published soon and I can’t help but smile. And I don’t think that’s going to change.

 

Anyone else out there with a similar story? Or a similar dream? I’d love to hear how it all came together for you.

PS: In case you’re wondering why I have two blogs when the last batch of posts have basically been the same… I will only cross-post on both this site and The Bone Dragon (or TBD as I think of it) for posts about TBD. Down the line, the blogs will diverge again. Thanks for bearing with me in the meantime!