publisher

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…

Reviews, reviews: thank you to all the lovely reviewers!

All traditionally published writers will be more or less familiar with getting ‘feedback’ by the time their book comes out, but reviews are different thing altogether.

Feedback from family, friends, colleagues, friends of friends who are in the book industry, agents, editors, and other people at your publishing house comes in so many different forms that you start to ask yourself ‘how different can a review be?’ The answer is very different, especially in terms of what reviews feel like.

The big difference between a review and feedback is that reviews are generally formal: they look and sound official. Usually, they’re carefully crafted and well-edited. They’re pieces of writing in and of themselves.

Feedback, on the other hand, is often spoken, jotted down or written purely as information. Moreover, feedback is generally geared to unfinished/published work: there’s a sense that the purpose is to inform the writer about your thoughts while there’s still time for this to have an impact. For this reason, feedback given after a book is published usually looks forward to the author’s next book.

The critical thing is that the purpose of written feedback is to communicate with the writer. The purpose of a review is to communicate with the reviewers’ readers. So reviews have a life apart from, though closely connected to, the work they critique. Feedback doesn’t seek to led a separate existence or appeal beyond its usefulness to the book and/or the writer’s other work.

It’s only when I read my first review that I realised how different receiving reviews feels to receiving feedback: how different it is to hear what people think of a book that is done, printed, bound, published and ‘out there’ for strangers to see. It’s certainly more daunting, but with good views there’s enormous confidence to be gained from the fact that they feel permanent because they’re about the finished product. Feedback often feels transient because it relates to a particular incarnation of a work in progress, so it’s harder to decide whether you should store it inside your head to bring out on days when Nothing Works and Everything You Write is Cr*p.

Also, feedback is usually provided by someone with a vested interest in you and/or your work: even freelance editors are not entirely dispassionate, and certainly your agent and editor won’t be. In all three cases, their investment is professional and their feedback is grounded in how they think you book will do: something which will affect their own careers to a degree – at least in as far as their judgement proves correct or incorrect. But reviews are often written by complete strangers. And of course these strangers have their own vested interests in books and literature and all sorts of things – but usually those interests don’t relate directly to the writer. So they feel independent, though they aren’t really any more objective because reviewing is, ultimately, a highly subjective business.

Feedback is invaluable. It’s what makes a writer a better writer. It’s what helps you improve and learn and develop. It’s how you write the best book you can. It’s how you fix problems with a flawed draft that could be a great book. It’s what keeps you going.

But reviews are what you measure your work against. Have I suceeded in writing the book I wanted to write? Did I really communicate the things I wanted to? Have the key issues and questions come across? Has the book worked? Do people like it? Feedback gets you to the point where reviews can give you the answers.

So here, with huge, enormous thanks to the wonderful people who took the time to read my work and write down their thoughts, are the initial reviews for The Bone Dragon. Thank you all ever so much.

Suzi Feay, Financial Times (5th May 2013): “In a beautifully crafted narrative that constantly confounds expectation – her friends are kind, her foster parents are saintly – the final act is anything but comforting. Sometimes anger and vengeance aren’t just understandable but essential tools for survival.”

Michael Codron: “A work of startling imagination, that holds you to the last page.”

Wendy Cooling: “Loved The Bone Dragon, gentle and wonderful and hard to put down.”

Lindsay Foley, Weekend Editor Sugarscape: “Absolutely hypnotic”

Mary Byrne, Hay Festival’s Children’s Programmer: “[Alexia Casale] writes beautifully – a complete pleasure to read”

BookTrust: “There are numerous young adult novels dealing with dark subjects such as bereavement, illness and abuse, but The Bone Dragon stands apart from the crowd. Bold, brave and often unsettling, this tale of a teenage girl profoundly affected by a past that she cannot talk about – even to herself – is also both understated and beautifully-written. As well as dealing with challenging issues, with its positive and thoughtful depiction of adoption and adoptive parents, it is a tribute to unconventional families and friendships of all different kinds. An intriguing blend of psychological thriller and fantasy, this is an impressive and unusual debut.”

Luna at Luna’s Little Library: “The Bone Dragon is wonderful, magical, touching, mysterious, fantastic, unique and so many other words I could use. I love this book. It will be a story that will forever have a special place in my heart. … there is so much about Alexia Casale’s book that is truly outstanding. I feel I should be filling pages of how effective and beautiful her writing is. … Evie is a rare gem in narrator, both lovable and true. … The Bone Dragon is special. Read it.”

The Bone Dragon was also Luna’s Book of the Month #12. And it has lovely mentions on Stacking the Shelves #40 and is on the VIP Bookcase. Luna also talked about The Bone Dragon in her Around the World post at Falling for YA. Luna was the first person to read and comment on The Bone Dragon and has been so amazingly generous in telling people about the book and giving it space on her blog and in guest-posts for other blogs. Thank you *so* much.

Sugarscape: “If you like a book that’ll make you think then The Bone Dragon is definitely one for you. Unsettling and at points uncomfortable, this clever novel gives insight into the bruised mind and makes you ask the question; where does reality end and fantasy begin? … Chilling and utterly hypnotic, this will leave your mouth wide open and every bone in your body tingling as it reaches its chilling conclusion.”

Jake Hope, Lancashire Libraries: “I read it in one sitting and found it utterly captivating and beguiling. The manner in which juxtaposed issues of abuse, neglect against those of family, friendship and belonging were deeply impressive and highly affecting. The dragon which Evie carves with the help of Uncle Ben feels an excellent analogy for the level of meticulous detail and craftsmanship within the story, with its careful interplay between gritty realism and magic.  It feels like a fable for our time, highlighting the way in which our pasts continue to exert influence over our present. I’m going to recommend it to our Virtual Schools team who look after the education of children who are looked after in residential care, a lot of the experiences and feelings that Evie undergoes will resonate particularly with these young people and I think it could definitely help to contextualise their own lives and pasts.”

Katie at Storytellers, Inc.: ” won’t explain how a rib becomes a dragon, or how it opens up the nightscape to Evie, who is so often crippled by pain in the daytime but comforted by the sharp feelings of being alive and awake in a world that should be confined to dreams. The dragon is more important to Evie than it is to her story. And that’s sort of what makes The Bone Dragon that much more interesting that other books that deal with this subject – ‘this subject‘ being domestic abuse – because really we learn very little about what Evie has been through. Casale doesn’t even think about dwelling on the details in that uncomfortable way that those ‘tragic life stories’ so proudly advertise (surely more sick lit than any John Green!). Yes Evie has had a traumatic time but she doesn’t want to talk about it, to her friends or to us, the reader. It’s a brave move that might leave some readers feeling a little (wrongly) mystified; but for me it’s the stand-out feature. Evie is a sweet narrator, honest and endearing and she doesn’t ever really sound like a victim because she’s constantly reminding herself how loved she is now, firmly putting the past behind her and trying not to let it ruin the life in front of her. She’s also wonderfully youthful, which sounds a strange thing to say about a 14 year old and of course may well be a side effect of the abuse she has suffered but she’s in no hurry to grow up and that is so refreshing. … Phee and Lynne have their own serious problems too so it’s unfair to write them off as sideline airheads and Evie wants (needs) their friendship more than she initially realises. Again this is a smart underplaying of a serious topic; Casale’s simple subtlety speaks volumes. Overall, it’s an impress debut and I’m already looking forward to seeing what comes next. For a book so full of ‘issues’ it comes less like a punch in the face and more like a slow creeping presence. The Bone Dragon enters quietly in a dignified puff of dream-like smoke and the gentle pull of his unusual tale might curl around your consciousness for days after you’ve finished reading.”

We Love This Book, review by Tracy Eynon: “This powerful opening scene is the beginning of Evie’s acceptance and understanding of her past. … This book is the debut of an exciting and mature young writer who shows real skill in writing about the little details of life, bringing a realness to her characters and making the situations she writes about so very believable. The Bone Dragon is a story that combines escapism with the acceptance of reality; of coming to terms with the past by embracing the future. Intriguing, compulsive and wholly absorbing, Evie’s tale is beautifully told and is ultimately warm and uplifting. Written by a young writer who has struggled with dyslexia it is also extremely inspiring, and a rewarding read for both young and older adults.”

Laura at Sisterspooky: “I utterly adored this book because it gave me a way of understanding what it’s like to struggle with issues as big as these without ever having experienced them personally.  That’s a real credit to the writing ability of Alexia Cassale.  She’s a hidden gem of writing and I’d be surprised if this book doesn’t get continual praise upon its release date.  It really did break my heart at times seeing Evie struggle so much even after all she’s been through.    The fantasy element really is such a clever way of discuss issues that are so difficult to approach because they are just that awful to even think about.  A truly wonderful book that has the power to make you wish for a bit of magic to exist in the world for those that need it.”

Chrissi Reads: “I was really impressed with The Bone Dragon. It’s such a great debut novel, it felt like Alexia had been an established writer for years. Her story-telling skills are so impressive. I didn’t expect to be moved as much as I was by this story and particularly Evie. The Bone Dragon is a raw and powerful story which for me, could’ve easily been longer and I would’ve still loved it. It’s got a wonderfully magical element which really works. … Alexia Casale has created such a wonderful, interesting character with Evie. She makes the reader really take Evie into their hearts. I’m so surprised at how much I loved Evie. I felt like I knew her. She had that much depth and credit has to be given to Alexia’s talented writing skills because of this! The Bone Dragon is a perfect mix of mystery, magic, pain, loss and truly lovable, relatable, real characters. I wholeheartedly recommend it.”

Betty Maguire at INIS: “The story’s opening, with Evie awakening in hospital after having a section of her ribcage removed, immediately grips the reader and draws them into the plot. Throughout the novel the author makes excellent use of the narrator’s voice, while the other characters are distinctive and realistic. … One of this book’s strong points is that not all of these questions are resolved at the end and the reader is left to ponder and to try and resolve some of those issues … Difficult themes are tackled in this story such as abandonment, abuse, betrayal, bullying and  vengeance, which is skilfully reflected  through occasional references to Hamlet. This is not an easy read, but it is a very worthwhile one.”

Annabelle Hammond at Read, Write and Read Some More: “The Bone Dragon is such a powerful debut novel. …I wasn’t expecting such a raw and powerful story with such a strong main character. Alexia Casale has shown that she is a talented writer who can pack such an emotional punch in her prose. The Bone Dragon left me wanting more, I couldn’t believe when it ended, I wanted the novel to continue so I could learn so much more about Evie. It’s an emotional ride that’s mixed with mystic and magic, set against the vivid backdrop of the fens.  … I am still surprised at the sheer depth to the character and how real she felt. It really feels like I know Evie after reading this book. She is an unforgettable character and one that will stay with me for a while yet. … The Bone Dragon is… There are so many ways I can start this sentence but none of them seem to fully fit the emotion and power this novel has hidden in its pages. You have some incredible characters that are all so realistic, each with their own little flaw.  I particularly liked how Evie could tell by certain things that her adoptive parents were lying. It’s these small details that add to the depth of the storytelling and make it even better. If you’re looking for a promising new writer, then Alexia Casale is the one you want. The Bone Dragon has the correct mix of mystery, pain, adventure, happiness and of course an enchanted dragon. It’s a book that, not only will you enjoy, but it will also stay with you for a long while. So there you have it, I don’t even want to say goodbye but this review is already long. The Bone Dragon is simply a book that you should all read.”

BookBabblers: “The Bone Dragon is an outstanding debut novel by Alexia Casale. It is a dark, magical story about fourteen year old Evie who has to undergo major surgery and have a rib removed. … It is an absorbing plot that blurs reality and fantasy, I was completely hooked. Friendship is also an important aspect of the novel and the relationship between Evie and her two close friends Phee and Lynne is prominent throughout the book. This is a beautifully written book that is full of mystery, suspense, friendship and hope. It is a powerful read that is like a modern day coming of age story. I did not want to put it down and can’t stop thinking about it now that I have finished. I loved the cover of this book, it’s one of my favourite covers of the year so far.”

Children’s book of the week, Dudley News & Worcester News (25th May), review by Lynley Myers: “The Bone Dragon is an enchanting young adult novel steeped in mystery, and will keep young readers guessing until the very end.”

Emily Gale at Readings (Australia): “Evie’s voice convincingly navigates us through both her wisdom and her anguish. At 14, she’s suffered more pain than many of us will in a lifetime, but this is no misery memoir. Through her dream-like visions and the difficult conversations she has with those trying to help her adjust, we learn just enough of her past to understand what she’s up against. However, the focus is on dealing with the present. … While the dragon is a regular fixture, overall the story is fairly light on the magic realism elements, leaving just enough room for the reader to interpret what is happening.”

Editor’s Choice: Trinity Hall College (Cambridge)

Lauren Smith at Violin in a Void [SPOILER ALERT!]: “At first glance, The Bone Dragon looks like a fantasy novel, but in truth it’s more a psychological drama that walks a fine line between fantasy and realism. … It does however, make The Bone Dragon one of the most sophisticated and psychologically compelling YA novels I’ve encountered. As I read, and then as I went through my review notes and re-considered the story, I was increasingly impressed by the psychology of Evie’s character. … I was struck by how dark this novel. It’s not something you notice at first glance. After all, it’s not bleak. Evie is strong, she’s recovering, she’s got a wonderful family. The plot isn’t depressing: there are many happy moments with Evie’s friends and family, we see her work through her problems, and of course she has her magical dragon. And as I mentioned, you don’t relive the abuse with Evie. But there are grim, brutal things that very quietly crawl in under your skin. … Then there’s the ending, which I think would could spark and interesting discussion because that’s where the issue of the dragon’s reality becomes the most important. I think these things creep up on you because it’s not a dramatic book. It just calmly gets on with its very serious, painful and even shocking subject matter, while making room for the positive, heartwarming stuff too. And then it stays with you for a while after you’ve finished. I like Evie more than a lot of YA characters I’ve read, even though she scares me a little. The Bone Dragon is also a more mature and emotionally complex kind of YA than the kind I normally find myself reading, and I appreciate that. Not that I necessarily prefer all my books to be grim, but it’s good to see the genre handling something with such gravity too.”

Catriona Morrison, Waterstones: “An outstanding and heartwrenching adventure What a wonderful, magical and touching book. Evie is a character worth remembering forever.”

Waterstones Picadilly Circus, in-store review: “A magical story about love, friendship and survival. Absolutely Spellbinding..”

Another Waterstones Bookseller review: “How dark is The Bone Dragon?! I was completely taken aback by how well written this is; the descriptions of Evie’s midnight walks with the dragon are stunning. A really unique blend of fairytale and brutal real life. I love that teen fiction is getting a bit more serious”

George Hanratty, Tales on Moon Lane Bookshop: “Alexia Casale’s debut novel is powerful, compelling and moving. I couldn’t put it down.”

Victoria Park Books: “very unpredictable and v edgy. U don’t which way she’ll jump.”

The Bone Dragon selected as one of the top YA reads in May for Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books Blog

Emma Carroll (author Frost Hollow Hall): “I couldn’t wait to read this book, and it didn’t disappoint. Right from the first page, I knew I was reading something special. The first person narrative powers along, making you feel Evie’s every twinge. Yet don’t be fooled- this is not a straightforward redemption narrative. Evie’s viewpoint is dangerous, often warped by the trauma she’s experienced. At times it’s difficult to trust her; there were moments in this book where I felt genuinely scared for the other characters. The language is poetic, yet for me the most moving parts were where Evie battled to articulate the complexity of what she felt. Oh, and I LOVED the final pages. A very memorable book.”

GoodReads (various), including Karina: “Strange and beautiful and fierce and dark, this is a wonderful twist on the coming of age narrative. Just brilliant – go read it!”

Amazon (various), including Lysistrata [mini SPOILER ALERT]: “This is an astonishing book, life-enhancing and beautifully written, ostensibly for Young Adults but with the power to enchant and move older adults as well. … The nature of the horrors Evie has been through are never spelled out but their consequences are. … It is totally original and does not follow the trend for vampires or dystopias. It is much more frightening. It shows the raw emotional power of a very angry young woman who is right to be angry with a world which has colluded in mistreating her. There is a spectacular and satisfying ending … The psychological depth of the book will intrigue adults; younger readers can revel in the fantasy of owning a Dragon.”

and bookmoviefantatic: “Never judge a book by its cover or title. This is good book but a sad story of a teenager thats suffers horrific abuse.”

The Bone Dragon front cover

A thing of beauty…

… my first copy of my book!

Faber have done the most amazing job on turning my manuscript into a stunning physical book.

Thank you so much, everyone!

And thank you to my wonderful agent for persuading Faber to publish it!

 

front cover

back of the book

front inside boards

back inside boards

 

The Bone Dragon book cover

Cover Reveal: The Bone Dragon

Turns out there’s been a change of plans (either that or I slightly mixed up 1 March and 1 April – it happens) and the cover reveal is going to be… today. (YAY! [does happy dance] April seemed SOOOOOOO far away.)

So here it is. What do you think? [bounces in anticipation]

The Bone Dragon book cover

 

 

We’re also up on the Faber & Faber site! [Teehee!]

Pre-order at Waterstones, WHSmith, Amazon and most local bookstores… Now with our beautiful cover to enjoy!

Watch out for the new blurb coming soon…

raindrops on plant fronds

Publicity Questionnaires for Authors

I have just had the most amazingly exciting book-related news… but I can’t share it quite yet. Soon, though… 🙂

In the meantime, I thought I’d do a quick post about publicity questionnaires as I whinged about how difficult they were last time but didn’t give any details.

Basically, a publicity questionnaire is what it says on the box – a questionnaire your publisher sends you to gather all the basic info they need for publicity purposes. Most of the questions revolve around whether you have any ideas, especially for local publicity, and whether you have any relevant experience. But what they really want to know is what you’re willing to do.

If you’re active on social media sites, they’ll want to know all your addresses. If you’re willing to tweet and Facebook and so forth, but don’t have accounts, then get them set up before you send in your questionnaire. But only do this if you’re willing to follow through. It’s best to be honest up front if you despise the very idea of being on Facebook.

The questionnaire will almost certainly require you to write a super-short summary of the book, a short bio and perhaps a paragraph about why you wrote the book.

Your publisher may also ask you to outline some of the key themes of the book and/or what aspects you think are likely to engage readers. It’s this last thing that I found really tricky. It’s hard to answer this question in relation to a thriller without giving too much away! In the end, Claire (my wonderful, wonderful agent) suggested that some single words would probably be the best approach for The Bone Dragon, so we sat down and brainstormed. In the end, I chose the words/phrases ‘wishfulfilment’, ‘resilience’, ‘pain’, ‘finding love’ and ‘friendship’. There were some other words on the list that are even more important, but I didn’t want to reveal too much… Laura, my fantastic publisist at Faber, will tell me if I’ve ended up not revealing enough.

The other thing to think about is how much you’re willing to share about your personal life. It is enormously important to be very clear about this in your own mind before you start engaging with the media. Make the decision in advance, and then be polite but extremely firm about it. Be aware that most reporters will try to push – that’s their job after all. But don’t feel you’re being disobliging or ungracious if you politely but firmly steer the conversation away from anything you have decided should remain private. That’s OK. And it’ll be totally par for the course from the reporter’s point of view. Just be nice about it and offer the reporter something else that is story-worthy instead. You do owe them that for their time, but you don’t owe them an insight into every aspect of your life.

On the other hand, be aware that if you engage with the media you need to be willing to share some insight into your personal life. At the very least you’ll need to talk about your hobbies and interests, so think about some good stories in those areas. It’s also good to have a few stories about family and friends in reserve. Just be wary of identifying exactly who the other people in the story are (either by name or other key details), unless the story is completely positive. Try to avoid stories that other people would find embarrassing, but feel free to humilate yourself… up to a point, of course!

So, those are my thoughts… but if anyone has any tips they’d be most welcome!

cat

Onto the proofs

Just for the record, you might like to know it’s now late August.

By now, there have actually been two ultra-fast stages of copy-editing (see Everyone should have a project editor). The first set of copy-edits came in on August 9th. I returned my comments in batches August 15th-17th. Further comments arrived from Eleanor on the 20th, returned same day.

At this stage, it works for me to have (self-set) tight deadlines. For me, there’s a real danger of agonising over tiny things to the point where I just can’t see the pros and cons effectively. Which is not to say that I don’t take a lot of care over the tiniest of tiny details… but there’s a point at which I’ve taken care through 10 drafts and now am sailing into obsession territory. And a tight deadline means there’s a point at which I’ve got to just make a decision. And that can be a Very Good Thing.

So, August 21st off the manuscript goes to be page-set and turned into a manuscript that actually looks like a book (why do I keep typing ‘good’ for ‘book’?).

… 13th of August the electronic copy of the proofs comes into my in-box. Hardcopy picked up on the Monday when I go into Faber to have a strategy session on how to promote the book.

As always, I am fed chocolate and everyone is lovely to me. If you’re looking for a publisher, I can gush over Faber for you. 🙂

This time we’re in a lovely airy room at the top of Bloomsbury House and there are glass cases with different editions of TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I still call my cat a possum, though I’m not entirely sure that this was what Eliot intended with the title.

Anyway, the meeting is also a chance to meet Leah, the new Children’s Publisher at Faber, who is lovely (a running theme at Faber)… and also very kind about the fact that I’m in a frenzy of excitement. I suppose it’s good not to be getting in the least bit complacent, but it would be nice if some of the nervous energy of I’M GETTING PUBLISHED! would wear off soon.

It’s a productive meeting, with Rebecca, Leah and Laura, Faber’s publicity wiz, who organised my first ever book-related press clipping, all helping me to get my head around the next stages which will include…

(1) proofing the proofs

(2) printing a proof version to go out for early reviews (terror alert!)

(3) publicity things…

We also talk about the back cover blurb, online branding… and Twitter. We talk a lot about Twitter.

Twitter is a problem for me. First, because I’m a novelist I think in 300 pages about most things. Second, while I hope I’m not boring, I find it hard to believe that anyone but me cares whether I’m having tea. I don’t think my closest friends care… Well, unless they’re actually in the room with me (in which case the tea is important because (a) I am fueled by tea, (b) when I’m about to spontaneously combust with excitement (a fairly common occurrance actually), tea stops me from doing so because I know I’m clumsy so I stay still to drink the tea on the basis that then I will only spill some of it, and (c) when you might as well label me Beware the Beastie, tea restores me to being semi-human, which is as good as it gets).

Anyway, I find it hard to say anything short enough to fit into a tweet that I think will be interesting to other people. I suppose this will get easier as publication approaches and there are more snippets of ‘news’. But a friend (thank you Fiona!) has had a brilliant idea, that I think was mentioned in the Faber meeting too, so I think I may have a way forwards…

Does anyone else have the same problem with Twitter? How do you get around it?

Photoshoot: a short guide on how to look evil

So, somewhere in among the edits, Rebecca emails me to ask for a photo.

I am one of those people who are just not photogenic. Or at least I hope that’s what the problem is: if I really look like I do in most photos I have MUCH bigger problems than not being photogenic.

Anyway, suffice it to say I don’t like being photographed much. Oh, I don’t mind a photo with a group of friends or at a family party or a big event – I don’t make a big deal out of it – but generally I don’t let people take photos of just me, by myself. So when Rebecca asked for something, even a photo taken by a friend on a reasonable camera, I didn’t have many options.

My favourite photos of myself are (a) the one with a cherry blossom branch in front of my face and my eyes peeking over the top (thank you, Lizzie!), (b) the one of me barely visible behind my exceptionally long (and beautiful) cat, (c) the one taken from a long, long way away of me in a meadow in the hills above Prague, and (d) a very low res one taken at a ball hosted by a big Cambridge tech company where I’m wearing a lovely strapless ballgown, only the photo is from the shoulders up so it looks like I might be wearing… less. And… well, that’s about it for photos of me that I like. I have one taken with a group of friends (so not perfect anyway) at the Clare Hall (Cambridge college) Summer Ball, and in this one you can see dress straps… but my eyes are mostly shut.

Mostly I look recently dead in photos. So it didn’t help that, when Rebecca asked for a publicity photo, I was recently out of the hospital (after having had the latest rib out) and completely morphinated… Just the look I wanted to go for.

Anyway, after much trawling around for local photographers, I finally found the fabulous Louisa Walsh at ArtbyLAW. Louisa was absolutely brilliant (and extremely kind) and, thanks to tea and music from Tom,  and a fantastic job on the make-up from Jade, I made it through the shoot… and even had a few pictures where the morphination didn’t show too much.

For the most part, I focused on looking like I was thinking evil thoughts. This, I suspected, would stop me from looking vacant… and it would also fit the book. And just me in general.

For instance, when asked what objects I’d brought to give a sense of my personality in the photos, I produced my gorgeous carved slate notebook with the celtic knot on one cover and the dragon on the other…

‘Would you like a flower, too?’ Louisa asked.

‘No, thanks,’ I replied, smiling sunnily. ‘I brought a knife instead.’

So in several of the longshots there I am with my notebook… and my knife (it’s a very pretty knife, as you can see: one of my favourites).

I did think about bringing a rib in a pot, but I suspected that might be too morbid… especially given the evil glint in the eyes that decided my favourite headshot.

headshot

So how did I work on looking evil? Well, mostly I just thought about the book. There, there be sneakiness… and a Dragon (sort of)… And a little bit of evil for good measure.