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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Write where you know

Part of writing ‘what you know’ is writing ‘where you know’.

You can accomplish a huge amount via distance research, but there is no substitute for visiting the place you want to write about. If a place is too far (out of your wallet), then try to visit somewhere similar. You might miss small local nuances but there are quite a lot of similarities between one beech wood and another, or between one heathland marsh and another. Research may be enough to fill in the gaps, provided you have a sense of what facts you need to check.

On fieldtrips, I don’t make many notes about the places I go. Sometimes I draw little (bad) maps. But mostly I take photos. For me, photos are the best form of notes about places, not just in terms of what I saw when I was there but also in terms of what I felt and smelt and heard. With a little thought and practice, it’s quite easy to figure out how to take photos that will trigger your other senses. Just don’t get caught up in taking pretty holiday snaps. Fieldtrip photos are there as a record. Their purpose is to jog your memory. Pretty pictures are great but they’re a separate thing. Make sure you take both when you’re on a fieldtrip. Also, remember to take both close-up detail and long-shots so you have a sense of the lay out and where things are in relation to each other.

The Bone Dragon is set on the Cambridgeshire fens. Roughly. Give or take. Thereabouts. It’s not set in a particular village or town: the place isn’t even given a name. But it is somewhere that could exist. And it’s clearly roughly where it would be if it did.

I lived in Cambridge for more than four years, studying and working, so I know the town very well. Of course Cambridge isn’t the fens, but it’s geographically very close and it has the Backs and a canal stretch and lots of things I have very vivid memories of that are just the same as out in the fens.

Now, I have never spent much time in the fens themselves, but I have visited various parts of them so I know which aspects of Cambridge are the same as out in the wilds. Also, spent a lot of my teens imposing upon my lovely long-suffering auntie and uncle who live in the bit of Essex right by Cambridge (so on the edge of fen country). The areas are relatively similar, especially when you get out into the wetter, wilder places – which I did, since I’ve always loved walking… and exploring every possible path. (What a lovely sewage works I discovered on one such foray!)

When I was writing The Bone Dragon and needed some fresh inspiration, but didn’t have a lot of time, there were two forests nearby with marshy heathland that I could squelch about in. So between my memories of Cambridge, my memories of the Essex wilds near the fens, trips to the fens themselves, and heathland squelchings, I felt I could conjure the ‘where’ of The Bone Dragon into being in my study any time I needed. To what extent I succeeded, I invite you to see for yourself by reading my book (subliminal message: buy my book! buy my book!).

So when I say ‘write where you know’, I don’t mean you can only write about the place you live (or places you’ve lived), but think carefully about whether you would write better if you set your story somewhere you know or somewhere like a place you know. If you’ve no real life experience of a similar place, it will be very hard to build a realistic sense just from research. You probably won’t be able to say very much about the place or you’ll risk straining the reader’s credulity if it’s somewhere they know or like somewhere they know. The tricky thing is cities: many are far more different than first thought would suggest.

If the ‘where’ of your story doesn’t matter very much, it’s easy to write believably so long as you don’t go into much detail. But it’s a pity to lose the depth that setting can bring to a story. If you’ve got believable characters walking around in a grey, blurry world, readers aren’t going to engage as much. And it entirely rules out the possibility of establishing a setting that is almost a character in its own right – something that’s important to me as a writer.

So when you’re starting out with a new idea have a think. Where do you know? Chances are there are a lot of wheres you could write about. Why not pick one of them, or somewhere similar, rather a place/type of place you have no lived experience of at all?

There’s always the temptation to just invent your where, as I did with The Bone Dragon. And that’s fine, but your where has to be plausible for its rough, give-or-take, hereabouts setting. The where of The Bone Dragon may exist only in my head, but if I put a lot of cacti in it I’d have a problem even so. As it is, I couldn’t take you to the specific places Evie and the Dragon visit at night, but I could take you to lots of places that would do just as well. And knowing that gives me a different sense, when I’m in the World of the Book, of actually being in a real place: a place I can step into (if only in my head) and look around for inspiration. It’s a place I can explore whenever I want to because in my head there is a full three-dimensional fenland village that supplies all the sensory input I could possibly need without my having to build it in afresh every time I sit down at my computer.

My new book is set in Cambridge, but down the line there will be books set in a beech wood and books set in a version of rural Italy and books set in London… I have a lot of wheres to draw on. If you think about it, you’ll probably find that you do too.

 

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My writing process meme

Big, big thanks to Jade Ngengi for tagging me for the MEME: you can read her post from last week here.

 

What am I working on?

New Book (aka HoW) is a YA literary contemporary novel as opposed to a psychological thriller, though I will be returning to that territory in future books… along with historical fiction and fantasy.

New Book goes into partial-manuscript submission today, so I’m really hoping it finds a happy home to provide some security as I finish it. In any case, potential disasters aside, I’m hoping to have a full manuscript in May or June. Which means I need to get my skates on!

To be fair, I’m feeling fairly calm about the rest of the draft. The start of the book was slow and dreadful, as it so often is for me – and I was fully expecting this to be more so than normal for various Reasons, not least how long this book has been in the works. I started working on the first incarnation of this story when I was 13. You’ll be relieved to hear that it’s changed substantially since then. I’ve written several novel-length versions over the years, but I decided to set these aside and start from scratch. I know so much more now as writer. I think I can finally tell this story as it should be told.

It’ll be weird to have a definitive version, but I’m looking forward to having it out of my head after all this time. I wonder what will creep into the void it will leave?

As for the book itself, it’s set in Cambridge and focuses on the University. Cambridge is one of my favourite places on earth. I did my first two degrees there and also worked as a researcher in a super-exciting, though short-lived, cutting-edge multi-disciplinary department.

Cambridge is beautiful in the way that all the best fairytales are: full of wonder, magic, and cruelty. It’s for everyone to visit, but as a place to live – and especially to study – it really is not for everyone. Even if you had the chance, you might not be willing to give up what you have to in order to obtain what Cambridge can give you. Most of us don’t know we’re making a trade until it’s done – and afterwards it isn’t possible to imagine going back and choosing otherwise. But ultimately Cambridge is the place where I first fell in love and where I finally had the scope to be who I was.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is such a hard question. I guess part of the answer is that I almost always write across genre boundaries. This is becoming progressively more common – and is something that YA is brilliant at accommodating, so a great category for me to publish in – but it’s still far from the norm.

I don’t do this on purpose. For a start, it makes books harder to market and what author wants that? It just seems to be how my brain works. I’m interested in how things intersect and interact at all levels, from the characters to the themes, and that spills over into the way my work tends to blur genre boundaries.

As an academic, one of my areas of interest in Literature is the intersection of fact and fiction. But I also have degrees in Psychology and Education, plus years of professional experience working as a consultant in the theatre and human rights fields, so diversity of interests is one of my ‘hallmarks’ as a person. The world is too big and amazing to stick to just one thing, even in a single book. The whole point of imagination is not to be stuck with the mundane limits of the real world: why would I want to bottle myself into just one category of daydreaming for my books?

The other part of the answer is that a lot of my work reflects my interest in human rights and the ethical issues attendant in writing fiction. I believe that difficult subjects can (and often should) be rendered in harrowing terms, but I’m doubtful that they ever need be graphic, especially if the subject matter concerns sexual violence and exploitation.

I also think we need to be very careful, as writers, to do our homework properly when we write about ‘real’ events in real locations that are happening at the present time. This is a great subject for fiction, but if you’re going to tackle it you first need to be prepared to do what it takes to know what you’re talking about. Part of this is ensuring that you don’t inadvertently do harm.

For instance, I think that writers who write about torture should be wary of lending weight to common misconceptions, especially the popular but inaccurate belief that torture produces reliable information that, under some circumstances, can mean that torture is ‘the lesser of two evils’. The research shows that information obtained under torture is often inaccurate and unreliable to the point where it may do more harm than good in a crisis. If we tell our readers (implicitly or otherwise) that we’re reflecting reality, then we should do it accurately, especially when this gives us opportunities to do good as opposed to harm: if we choose to write about torture happening in a real life context at the present time, we should also take an ethical stance in showing that not only should we not torture because it’s a terrible evil but because it is often purposeless and counter-productive. I’ve written about this at length over on Oh, The Books! in relation to Wein’s Code Name Verity, which I think does a really good job in this regard.

There are lots of other related ways that I think writers should take care. After all, taking care doesn’t mean being limited. But if you’re going to write about real events in real places happening in the here and now, there’s no excuse for not knowing the facts before you decide if you want to follow them or go where your imagination takes you.

 

Why do I write what I do?

See above! I suppose the extended answer is that I try to write about the worries and dreams that fill my head but that I don’t see reflected in the pages of existing books. I don’t try to be unique – this is almost always disastrous: the source of unmitigatedly awful and arrogant work. Instead, I try to recognise how I am already unique. For instance, the unusual combination of my areas interest and professional expertise mean certain common narratives jump out at me as suspect.

In The Bone Dragon, I challenge the idea that it is always a psychologically-healthy thing for victims of violent crimes to speak in detail about their experiences. Evie does give a report to the police, but she chooses never to discuss her past in the same level of detail with her friends, parents, teachers or even counsellors. For many people, ‘speaking out’ is extremely helpful and I’m not trying to dissuade people from doing it when they think they will benefit. But some people, like Evie, recognise that they don’t need or want to do this: it’s not helpful to them to ‘talk it out’ by rehashing all the horrid details. Making a report to the police is harrowing but Evie chooses to do it because she recognises that she has a responsibility to try to protect others. But, this responsibility fulfilled, she makes the choices that best protects her and her recovery. And, for Evie, that is to remain silent about the things she will never be able to face if they’re put into words.

Some things should never be said. Not out loud in clear, simple words. You talk around them. You leave gaps and blanks. You use other words and talk in curves and arcs for the worst things because you need to keep them like mist. Words are dangerous. Like a spell, if you name the mist, call out all of the words that describe it sharp and clear, you turn it solid, into something that no one should ever hold in their hands. Better that it stays like water, slipping between yours fingers.

At the moment we’re surrounded by calls for victims to ‘speak out’, not just to the police but in general. While it is very important that victims do speak the police, we should be honest about how traumatic this is for the vast majority of people. We should be saying ‘Do it even though it’s going to be hard and awful: you’ll feel wretched afterwards, but you’ll also feel like you were strong enough to do the right thing.’ We should also tell people to  ‘Speak out if you want to: but take a moment to think about it first. There should be no pressure to share anything with anyone but the police unless you think it’s going to help you.’

That’s the truth of the situation, or at least my understanding of it. But that is NOT the current popular narrative. The Bone Dragon isn’t about ‘correcting’ the current view. But it is about putting a more nuanced, complex version of the truth out there. When I see lies or part-truths in popular narratives (and by narratives I’m not just talking about fiction), I want to do my part in challenging them – but not by jumping up and down and saying ‘Wrong! You’re wrong, wrong, wrong!’ (well, sometimes I feel like this but I try not to do it as it never gets anyone anywhere). Instead I try to say ‘Here’s the complex question behind this thing you’re currently being told is a simple statement of fact: now go away and figure out your own answer.’


How does my writing process work?

I’m a planner. If I don’t have almost every detail of a book planned out in advance, I don’t know it well enough to write it properly. I like being able to focus on language, not just at the sentence-level but at a structural level: it’s hard to do that when you’re also figuring out the plot as you go. Planning means I can focus on making the plot more interesting at a micro-level during writing, ‘opening the gap’ as Robert McKee calls it, by trying to weave little surprises into each scene: the thing that drives to the heart of a character or a relationship by being a ‘truer’ version of what the reader is expecting.

As I mentioned above, the start of a book is often grinding and slow. Well, the first page is usually lovely fun then I go back the next day and tear my hair out over it. Then follows about 15,000 words that are pure grind. I write and rewrite, and edit and re-edit my first few pages at least once a day. And then suddenly the language-structure of the book starts to take shape: I have enough material to know how to tell the story on the page. After that, if I can’t write more than 2500-3000 words per day, even on a not-so-good one, then something is wrong with the plan I’ve made. Assuming everything’s going OK, after the halfway mark, things speed up even further and I can expect to write at least 3000-4500 words a day. During the last quarter of the book I usually write over 4500 words per day, sometimes as many as 8-9000.

Of course, like most writers, I can’t write all day every day: not only does other work intrude (aka ‘paying the bills on time’) but so does life. I have yet to discover a magical creature willing to do my laundry or shopping or general household stuff and junk. And then there’s the little matter of all the people I love who I want to talk to and email and visit. Otherwise I would hole up in my attic study and not emerge for about a month. I did that as a teenager when I was learning how to write full-length novels: after about 25 days I’d emerge even more crazy than normal but with a book. Maybe not a publishable book, but a book all the same. And that was a great place to start. It gave me the practice needed to build up my stamina for the effort of trying to write 300 pages that aren’t just halfway decent but, hopefully, worth publishing.

 

Tag Lauren James, fellow member of Claire’s Coven (i.e. represented by the brilliant Claire Wilson of the RCW Literary Agency).

Lauren James is a Physics and Chemistry student and YA writer. She writes about romance and time travel and reads everything she can get her hands on. Her novel The Red Earth Rolls is being published by Walker in 2015. She blogs at http://southfarthing.tumblr.com.

 

black and white tulip

Why is moral ambiguity important in YA fiction?

As I discussed in my last post (‘A novel is not a fable’), novels don’t have to have an explicit moral message or an ending that contains an implicit one. Instead, they can ask moral questions or pose moral dilemmas, both for characters and for readers.

But how about in YA fiction? Do writers and publishers have an ethical responsibility to make sure that stories marketed to under 18s can’t be read as containing negative moral messages? For instance, is it OK for a YA book to tell a story in which wickedness is apparently rewarded, or does this risk leading teens ‘morally astray’? Irrespective of whether an ending is happy or sad, is it a requirement that the ‘good’ triumph or at least don’t lose out? Often arguments in favour of narrowing what’s permissible in YA fiction focus on the need to ‘protect’ young people. But does ‘protecting’ YA readers mean that we have to dictate to them on moral issues?

I believe books offer important opportunities to experiment with moral issues: safe within the confines of a fictional world we can watch moral dilemmas play out without having to face any real-life consequences. Books allow teenagers to try out different versions of themselves, gaining a vicarious emotional experience of how it feels to make different types of choices. Books that leave the interpretation of the moral questions at stake up to the reader allow teenagers the chance to decide what is right and wrong for themselves.

All people – children and adults – spend a lot of time trying to make sense of issues of right and wrong. We receive moral messages all the time, and many of them are in direct conflict. Even tiny children make judgements about right and wrong. These may be based on a minimal understanding of the world, let alone the facts, but we all have to work with what’s available to us.

In pedagogic terms I’m a big believer in Piaget’s idea that when you tell children something you prevent them from discovering their own truth. Similarly, if you tell people didactically what’s wrong and right, you prevent them from figuring it out for themselves. Of course we need input from our friends, family, colleagues and wider society to figure things out – to decide which views we agree with and which we don’t – but there’s a big difference between saying ‘I think this’ and ‘You must think this’. And isn’t that what’s happening when people insist that YA and children’s fiction must show a vision of the world that is ‘right’, at least as far as the ending goes?

This seems very dangerous to me because it assumes that there are moral absolutes even about complex issues and surely any thinking person recognises that sometimes the best we can do is pursue the ‘least bad’ option. That’s precisely where fiction comes in. Where better to play with your morals than in your imagination, through other lives, where there’s no danger to you or to the world around you? Where better to examine the consequences of making the ‘wrong’ choices? Isn’t it better to face what we don’t want in fiction so we’re not tempted to put it into practice? Because that, to me, seems the true danger of well-meaning attempts to ‘protect’ young adults from getting the wrong end of the stick when it comes to moral issues.

Young adults experiment. They experiment with their hair, and their clothes, and their music, and their behaviour with different people, and their sense of self, and their career options, and the things they might want to do/be later in life… And part of that is experimenting with right and wrong. What young person has never said ‘Well, is it really that bad? I’m pretty good: maybe I should see what the other side of the coin is like?’ and then gone done something silly and irresponsible – and maybe fun but maybe dangerous.

I’m not saying YA should, in effect, be a series of warnings to teens: a sort of ‘don’t do this or look what might happen!’ approach. That’s just as dangerous as only giving YA readers ‘good’ examples to follow. Young adults – indeed, people – need both. They need to see people making the ‘wrong’ choices and people living up to their better selves: people taking the obvious path, right or wrong, and people forging a path of their own. People need variety in fiction to make life more interesting. And part of that variety should revolve around moral issues.

I’m not suggesting that books should try to send immoral messages: all I’m saying is that books shouldn’t always been seen as having to have a moral message at all. It’s OK for the ‘wrong’ thing to happen, even at the end of a book. In fact, sometimes this is an incredibly powerful way to demonstrate to readers that something is wrong without telling them so.

I love books that make me do a lot of the work: books that make me talk to them, defending my favourite characters, yelling at those who’re making bad decisions, ranting at the kettle in reading-breaks about all the things in the book that ring true as regards real life… If instead of telling the reader what to feel, you create the circumstances where the reader will simply react emotionally, then the emotion will come from inside the reader and will be the truer and stronger for it. Similarly, if you encourage a reader to feel injustice, rather than telling them something isn’t right, then they’ll also summon their own outrage: they’ll believe from the heart that the thing in question is unjust because they’ve reached that conclusion themselves. When a writer puts moral questions and dilemmas before readers and then refuses to dictate the answers, readers can discover their own truth as regards the rights and wrongs of the issues at stake. The process of doing this makes for a far deeper engagement with those issues and a much greater chance that the reader will keep thinking not just about the book but about what the book says about the world around us.

I often think it’s easier to learn from bad writing than from good. With bad writing, it’s a pretty simple matter to pick out what’s wrong, what mistakes you don’t want to make in your own work, how you think things could be done better. With great writing it’s hard to separate all the things that make it great: it’s hard to see how you can use a fantastic book to improve your own writing without just mimicking it. The same is true, in a way, for moral issues. When the ‘right’ thing happens at the end of a book, it’s very satisfying, but easily forgotten. When the ‘wrong’ thing happens, it can be a real blow for a reader. How many times have I agonised over what should have happened in a book? But that’s the point. Those stories stick with us because they push us to decide for ourselves not just how a book should have ended but why. And those are the lessons – ones we teach ourselves – that follow us into our real life choices about good and bad, right and wrong.

This is why teenagers, in particular, need books that don’t necessarily have a moral message: ones that are morally ambiguous, others that ask questions rather than answering them, and still others where the ‘wrong’ thing happens, leaving readers to right those wrongs in their own imaginations and, in so doing, clarify their own moral principles. If we dictate what is right and wrong to YA readers, we take away their opportunities for exploring and experimenting with these issues for themselves. Fiction is a safe place to do that. Of course, if you leave people to make up their own minds, they might see a morally ambiguous ending as containing a dubious moral message… but that doesn’t mean these readers will decide that message is right, let alone act on it. Do we really think young adults can’t – and, indeed, don’t – make their own decisions anyway?

I think we should worry less about ‘protecting’ young readers from potentially making moral ‘mistakes’ as regards how they interpret different stories and more about how these concerns might be preventing writers and publishers from publishing books that afford readers important opportunities to explore their understanding of right and wrong.

tapestry rose

A fitting title?

So, having talked about names, I thought I’d talk a little bit about titles.

It should go without saying that titles are important, but I guess I’m saying it anyway. These things happen to the best of us.

Coming up with a great title is easy for some people and not for others. I’m one of the others. On the plus side, agents and editors should be perfectly happy to work with you on your title… You just have to get a agent and editor first, and a good title helps so there’s a bit of chicken-and-egg-ness to the whole thing.

So, how do I go about writing titles? Usually, I read quotation books. I potter through, reading all the entries about key words I think I might put in the title. Most of these are themes in the book. Often I’ll find something that, with a little tweaking, will work. That’s how I arrived at MoB (hopefully Book 2) and also HoW (hopefully Book 3). (Go on, suggestions for what they stand for. I dare you. We had some good ones already for MoB but I’m always up for more.)

Anyway, I refer to my books, in my own head, by their initials. It works for me. And until something has been bought by a publisher, that’s how I’m going to refer to them here.

The Bone Dragon was trickier. It just *is* what the book had to be called, at least from my perspective. But I fully expected first my agent and then my publisher to change it.

My lovely agent Claire said that a title that makes the novel sound like fantasy rather than a psychological thriller. I agreed (well, don’t you?) and spent a few weeks gathering title suggestions. I sent her a list of about 40. We pondered them together, but ended up submitting under The Bone Dragon because it just *is* what the book had to be called, at least from our perspective.

And then the book got bought by Faber, and I was over the moon.

The first day I went to Faber is a little blurry in my memory. First I talked to much (would you believe it?), then we went off to steal mini-blue cupcakes at Peter Carey’s latest book launch (my first book launch event ever!). Rebecca (my wonderful editor) asked me if I had any last questions and I said, ‘Well… er… have you decided what the title should be?’

Only she blinked at me, nonplussed. ‘Oh, did you want to change the title?’ she asked.

‘No, you do,’ I told her.

‘No, I don’t,’ she retorted.

(Well, I paraphrase, but you get the gist.)

Rebecca said it would be fun marketing the book to make sure everyone knew what genre it was, despite the tricky title… So The Bone Dragon it has stayed, because we all agree it’s just what the book has to be called.

However, my advice is to pick a title that fits you’re genre, despite the fact that EA (hopefully Book 4) does exactly what The Bone Dragon does, only it frames the book as sci-fi instead of WWII historical fiction. This is a case of ‘Do as I say and not as I do’… though we may find that EA becomes something else eventually, even though it’s just what the book has to be called, at least from my perspective. As for everyone else’s, we’ll just have to wait and see…

Church dome w/ circle skylight

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

 Over on www.alexiacasale.com I’m starting a new project to create a collection of free online resources, involving a range of authors, about the links between writing and teaching. The initial focus will be on author visits to schools, but I’d like to expand eventually to include creative writing and teaching at university level, and also in more informal circumstances, like workshop series in libraries and so forth. I’ve decided to publish the introduction to the series here as well in case anyone’s interested, but the rest will be over on the sister blog, so do check it out if you’re curious!

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of either blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post (more info below).

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

So there did this all come from and why is it A Good Thing?

Last week I did my first ever school visit as an author. Huge thanks to Uxbridge College (my old school) for having me back to do an AS English Lang. & Lit. lecture!

When I frantically set about researching how author visits work, I quickly realised how little free material is available. There’s not very much for newbies trying to learn the basics: what do I do? What do authors usually do? How do I avoid the PANIC?! There’s also very little for authors who have done school visits but then think, ‘You know, a bit of professional development would be good: I’d like to learn about how other people do it to see if I can get some new ideas to refine my practice.’

There are seminars (NAWE recently had one that sounded brilliant). And there are resources (again, NAWE have a long list) BUT most you have to pay for, with no opportunity to ‘see inside’ to check whether the advice is going to be worth it. And most are written by a single author, so at best you know you’ll be buying one point of view. There are also some good individual posts on individual author websites.  

BTW, do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

What I have yet to find is a collection of free resources that explores different perspectives. I think this is a pity.

I find this lack particularly surprising as, having spent three years working part-time to qualify as a teacher (PGCHEP – the university-teaching equivalent of a PGCE) and Higher Education Academy Fellow, I was hugely impressed by the central role professional development is accorded in teaching programmes. These programmes aren’t just about qualifying but understanding that you can always improve – and should strive to do so. That’s very attractive to me as a writer as the same principles apply: there is no end point where a writer has perfect mastery of the craft, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Just because authors don’t have to be qualified to do school visits – or, indeed, to teach at university or in libraries or other circumstances – doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to doing a good job… and that they don’t need or want opportunities for professional development. And, at the very least, a decent selection of free resources to start with.

(BTW, I am not suggesting here that authors should have to get a qualification to do the sorts of teaching I’m referring to: it wouldn’t be feasible, though I’m sure many would love there to be more courses to go on both to meet others in the same boat and to learn teaching basics. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that most authors feel a responsibility to do their level best at events and it’s important for them to find some help and support without having to pay – at least for the basics.)

Anyway, the plan here is to try to create what I think is missing.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. I am particularly interested to hear from authors who are also school teachers or university tutors/lecturers. As I said above, I’d also love to explore the other side of the coin with some guest posts from the perspective of teachers who regularly work with authors.

Most of the post will fall broadly into the following four broad categories

  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: what authors should know about how books are taught
  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: good practice examples and pratical advice
  • authors who also teach: how your own writing inspires/advances your teaching skills and how your teaching inspires/advances your writing skills
  • authors who also teach: innovative approaches to using professional creative practice in teaching and learning

So that’s the plan and the reasoning behind it!

First post coming soon. The lovely Emma Carroll, author of forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), offers a brilliant workshop outline for teaching an English Literature creative writing class on how to write like a Victorian. Fantastic fodder for discussing classics from the Victorian age versus modern historical fiction, as well as getting your students to start dabbling in their own creative historical projects.

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour

The Bone Dragon goes on tour! A whole range of posts, interviews and even the first 15 pages, hosted by amazing bookbloggers, magazines and book organisations. Thank you so much for giving me these wonderful opportunities to connect with people to talk about books and witing!

 On May 13th, Jo Stapley interviewed me on Once Upon a Bookcase

On May 14, I discussed whether characters should be consistent with BookBabblers. BookBabblers also reviewed the book here

On May 15, Laura at Sisterspooky hosted me talking about how photography helps me to write. She also reviewed the book here

On May 16, INIS interviewed me about The Bone Dragon, how many script-consultant work influences my writing, and about what I’m working on now. Betty Maguire also reviewed the book here

On May 17, Jenny from Wondrous Reads made the first 15 pages available to read for free: a nice alternative to Amazon’s ‘Look inside feature’, especially for talking to independent bookshops about the novel! Read it here

On Monday 20, Meg from The Book Addicted Girl hosted me discussing whether themes such as abuse and violence are ‘too mature’ for the YA audience. Look out for Meg’s review too, coming soon. 

On Tuesday 21, Julie and Lanna from Bloggers [Heart] Books hosted a writing-advice post on when to get feedback: ‘I don’t want your opinion yet!’ 

On Wednesday 22, Vivienne from Serendipity Reviews let me join in the fun of discussing books I loved as a teenager as part of her ‘YA from my Youth’ series. Do check out the other fab posts in the series too! 

On Thursday 23, BookTrust hosted me discussing how I think difficult themes like abuse and violence are best handled when dealing with a YA audience. There’s also a review here

Thank you so much to all the wonderful book people who hosted the stops along the tour. Thanks also for all the lovely reviews! It’s been so much fun working with you all. Hope to do it again soon!

The Bone Dragon Blog Tour

tapestry rose close up

The name of the Dragon?

Over on http://www.alexiacasale.com, I’ve been warbling about the importance of names, so I thought I might do a post here about the names I picked for The Bone Dragon… and use this as an opportunity to introduce some of the characters (well, a little bit anyway).

One thing I am bad about, as a writer, is that I tend to have too many named characters. It’s hard for people to keep track of them and it detracts from the reader’s focus on the characters who are important. I’m trying to remedy my natural inclination in this regard by naming some people by their role only (e.g. the policeman, Jenny’s mum, the lifeguard, etc.). This has worked fairly well in The Bone Dragon.

The main character has a rib in a pot that gets carved into a dragon. Given the parallels with Old Testament stories about Eve being made from Adam’s rib, I didn’t even have to think about my name character’s name. She was just Evie. Right from the start. There is also an Adam in the book.

Given how quirky the book is, it was really important to me not to strain the reader’s credulity more than necessary, so it made sense for the majority of the characters to have very ordinary names. As ordinary as possible while still being appealing: Amy, Paul, Ben, Fiona, Fred, Jenny, Mrs Poole, Ms Winters, Mrs Henderson…

Phee and Lynne are Evie’s two best friends. For them, I wanted names that weren’t particularly unusual, but weren’t too common. And I knew I wanted one to be a nickname. Phee is probably from Phoebe, but I’m not sure. Just as I’m not sure if Evie is from Evelyn or not. It doesn’t really matter. They think of themselves as Phee and Evie so that’s who they are in the book: it’s all anyone really needs to know for sure.

Who else? Well, there’s Sonny Rawlins. He just turned up, complete with name, so if there was a thought process behind his naming, then it’s not one I was conscious of.

There are a handful of other named characters, most of whom are named in a throwaway manner, so readers know they don’t have to remember these names.

And that’s about it for names. How abou the Dragon, you might ask? Well, things with the Dragon aren’t entirely straightforward. Things with dragons rarely are. You’ll just have to read and see…

frosted leaves

Photography and Creative Writing

Hopefully I’ll be able to share my super-exciting (at least to me) news about The Bone Dragon soon, but in the meantime I thought I’d do a post on a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: whenever I plan a writing workshop, I often start thinking about how to use images… This may seem completely counter-intuitive but, for me, makes perfect sense.

I think it’s because I’m a very visual writer. I write books as if I’m creating a film, which is probably why I’m finding the transition into writing screenplay treatments far easier than I thought it would be (though, to be fair, it’s early days!).

Writing, for me, is about immersing myself in the world so that I actually *see* the place where the characters are around me. I can touch what is around them. The weather is their weather, the season their season. I write dialogue by being inside the character who is speaking and seeing what comes out (or what doesn’t when the writing is going badly). That’s just how it is for me. The ‘words’ bit comes in as I try to put down the most important parts of experiencing the world and life of the story.

You could write a whole book about what people think, feel, see, smell, etc. in one minute of one day. It might well be an enormously boring book, but you probably wouldn’t run short of content. Experience is so enormous… Which means that writing is very much a filtering and selecting process. I write as if I’m in a movie but, just like when filming, what I’m really capturing is a series of still images running one after the other. Individually, each is like a photograph.

So how do I decide what to put into words? It’s probably easiest to talk about description in this regard as this is where the process simplest. When writing description, I try to put down an image-in-words that captures my aesthetic: what I think is beautiful and interesting. I don’t try to be unique, though I do try to focus on what is different from my aesthetic and other people’s.

I also think about both what could be captured better in a photo and what can’t be captured in a still image at all. If a picture would say it better, should you really try to write 1000 words that won’t be as compelling? Why not look for the thing within the story that couldn’t be captured effectively as an image? Let the reader imagine the photograph stills that work as pure images: let them see their own version. Instead, write the images that don’t work as photographic still: those are the ones readers can’t come to for themselves. Those are the ones that you, as the writer, must give them.

Ultimately, the reason I start thinking of images when planning a writing workshop is that they give people an insight into their own aesthetic that is simpler to break down than 1000 words of their own prose or poetry. This, in turn, gives a window into thinking about voice and all the things that make writers unique.

Voice isn’t just a matter of narrative style or vocabularly… It should imbue every aspect of a book. But that’s a pretty tall order for any writing workshop. Starting from images lets people focus on the still photographs that make up the ‘movie’ of the book that runs in the reader’s imagination. It let’s you take things step by step and part by part. And that’s always a good place to start when learning.